A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri's newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
Over the course of my career in production and development, I’ve been exposed to countless loglines, and now that I have a website that offers writers a free “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” on their loglines, a steady stream passes through my inbox.
Sad to say, but many are not in good enough shape for even a “yea” or “nay” response.
Quite simply, they are bland.
In these cases, I offer feedback on how to make the logline more effective and give the writer a chance to take another pass. Sometimes there’s solid improvement, but often they still fail to tempt a reader to want more.
In the real world, there are no second chances. You’ve got to get it right the first time.
A logline is a single sentence – relatively few words – that must accomplish a big job. I’m looking for something that draws me in, tantalizes me, and makes me hungry to read the script.
The Essential Ingredients
While I don’t believe in foolproof formulas, there are some essential ingredients no logline should be without – if you’re hoping to create something scrumptious.
This one sentence tool should have what I call “The Seven Essential Elements” that comprise great stories:
1) The Hero – He takes the reader by the hand and draws us into the story. Make us root for him.
2) Their Flaw – This internal conflict adds dimension to your hero, makes him compelling, and informs his arc.
3) Their Goal – Something tangible that the hero must achieve over the course of the story. This provides the essential conflict – the obstacles that stand in the way of the hero achieving the goal – which drives the plot.
4) The Stakes – What happens if the hero doesn’t achieve the goal? If there’s nothing at stake, the audience won’t care.
The first four Essential Elements should imply that the story will also include:
5) Escalation – Essential to increasing pace and conflict.
6) Twists – Human brains get turned on by the reveal of what we didn’t see coming.
7) Suspense – Keep us on the edge of our seats.
These Essential Elements make a story appealing to a potential reader and will make it tantalizing to an audience.
Picture a spring, from big shock absorbers to the little one that makes your pen point pop in and out with a satisfying click. Imagine the coiled metal circles squeezed tightly together so that at any moment it’s going to burst open and expand into its complete, and much bigger size.
That’s a great metaphor for what loglines are at their best. A few words that do an important job – they clearly convey the idea and they show the potential for more.
The coiled spring is the power of your logline to promise more:
It’s packed with story and character, in a way that signals more character development, escalating conflict, increased stakes, plus the elements that we find delicious in stories – twists and suspense. These elements must convince us that your story has an audience.
A strong logline with these Essential Elements proves that you may very likely have a good idea for a movie. It’s a selling tool. It should make us ravenous to read your script. That’s its job!
I Want To Taste Your Logline
Although this piece of advice sounds a bit vampire-ish, especially if you read it with a Transylvanian accent, it’s actually important to keep in mind as you craft and hone your logline.
A logline is a taste of your screenplay. It must tantalize, tempt and intrigue us. “I Vant” your logline to be tasty and rich with flavor – it should be redolent with the feeling of your screenplay.
I want loglines packed with flavor and juice.
The flavor is derived from expressive adjectives and adverbs that communicate character and tone.
The juice comes from intense, active verbs that convey plot and prove that there’s conflict aplenty.
Together, flavor and juice convey your story in a way that expresses what the movie feels like – it gives us a taste. And that whets our appetite. You’re making us want more.
NOTE: Wanting more doesn’t mean leaving us with a vague cliffhanger. If you have an awesome ending, or an incredible twist – give it to us. If this is what makes your piece unique, you can’t afford to hide it.
Avoid what I call “Doot-doot-doot-doo Syndrome” after the hackneyed mystery music cue from old movies. Would you have asked to read The Sixth Sense based on a logline that didn’t reveal the twist that made the movie great? I doubt it.
Some writers get caught up in word count, which I’ve debunked in The Logline Dilemma –Does Word Count Count? Trust me – working professionals have better things to do than count words. Make your words count!
A logline could be the single most important sentence you will ever write.
Choose great words. That’s why Roget gave us the Thesaurus. And now that it lives on your computer (It does, right?) why in the world wouldn’t you let your fingers do the walking and come up with the perfect, richest, most vivid adjectives and verbs? Frankly, I since I got my first copy as a Bat Mitzvah present, I’ve found the Thesaurus to be fascinating. I couldn’t write an article without searching dozens of times for the perfect word to best express my meaning. And the search is an adventure unto itself.
As a writer, I assume, (and sincerely hope) that you are a lover of language, and scholar of its infinite possibilities, as that is your truly all you've got.
Putting the Ingredients Together
I’m known for the phrase “Hooky Ideas.” I spend a lot of time dissecting them and then developing them with my students in seminars. While there are many important qualities to a Hooky Idea, there’s one key element that makes an idea stand out, intrigues our minds and engages audiences. It is the deft combination of the familiar and well-loved, with something utterly unique. It’s a recipe for success.
Your logline needs to convince us that your idea is one of a kind. If you feel that you are seeing the same thing over and over in movie theatres, imagine how many ideas we read time and again in scripts!
The unique element can’t come out of left field; it has to directly relate to your story and character. This imposes a limitation – and limitations are good. They force us to be creative and make the end result distinctive and uniquely representative of the story. This is where you show off your own special blend of seasoning and spice.
If you’re working in a specific genre, you must to deliver on the expectations inherent in the genre to satisfy your audience, but the key is finding a way to do so that is both satisfying and distinctive. It shows that you know what we want, but that you are imaginative enough to spin it around and turn it on its head to create something feels fresh, making it even more appetizing.
Let’s look at an example from a real world spec sale. This one launched a three-day bidding war, culminating in Universal nabbing the project.
According to The Scoggins Report, which tracks spec and pitch sales, in September 2012 – a very challenging month to sell in, because it includes Labor Day, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Jewish High Holidays – an astonishing six spec scripts sold. Three specs sold in a three-day period for “a reported” seven figures. What did they have in common? All concept-driven pieces in commercial genres by writers with chops. But what made them sell so fast – and for such a high price? They each had familiar elements combined with something new, fresh, and exciting. A twist is always a turn-on.
Here’s the logline that made me crave more:
Genre: Action thriller
Logline: When Air Force One crashes into the Atlantic, killing the President and everyone aboard, its block box recording reveals the tragedy to be an accident. But years later, a journalist who lost his wife in the crash receives an anonymous recording of the real black box...which reveals what really happened.
So, did the logline enable you to know whether or not you want to see the movie? Can you tell instantly who the audience is? Yup, which is why we know it’s a commercial movie concept.
There are familiar elements aplenty here – but put together in a new and exciting way – with a unique spin.
NOTE: Don’t take this lengthy, two-sentence logline as a reflection of the talented Mr. Guggenheim. This was provided in the tracking report. And remember, the project was sold based on the script, not a pitch. Although I’m sure there was pitching going on by his reps when they took it out to the industry.
Let’s break it down:
When Air Force One (Something familiar, we know Air Force One, we’ve seen it in movies and TV, we can instantly picture it, we understand its significance.)
crashes into the Atlantic(Solid action verb, big, cool inciting incident that sets the story in motion.)
killing the President and everyone aboard (Monumental problem = conflict.)
its block box recording (Black box, we know all about them from both fictional and real life crashes, and they always carry an element of intrigue.)
reveals the tragedy to be an accident. (Now we see that this first sentence is an exciting prologue; get ready for more…)
Butyears later, (Primes us for a big reveal.)
a journalist who lost his wife in the crash(At last, the hero – our guy with a goal, and personal as well as external stakes – we are rooting for him to get the to the truth on both counts.)
receives an anonymous recording of the real black box (Whoa – here’s the actual inciting incident and a surprising twist – it powerfully conveys that everything we – and the hero – thought we knew was wrong, turning the world upside down.)
which reveals what really happened. (Suspense galore – we definitely want to know what really happened and will stick around to find out. Here’s where the coiled spring kicks in – there’s the promise of so much more, because of the highly effective setup fills our minds with ideas of how the story might play out. Of course a journalist, who lost his wife in the crash, is going to doggedly go after the truth with everything he’s got, no matter what obstacles stand in his way. Of course, this lie perpetrated on millions, will involve huge, national and possibly global stakes. Of course, there will be powerful villain(s) who want to hide the truth and stand in his way. Of course, that means the hero will be in jeopardy. Of course, there will be escalation of the conflict, along with twists and suspense. POP!)
This logline, in two sentences out of necessity based on the story’s prologue structure, works on all counts. It delivers hero, the conflict, and the stakes. It clearly implies that the story will have escalation, twists, and suspense. We don’t quite glimpse the flaw without an adjective describing the journalist, but with his wife on the plane, I bet there’s something else going on with him on an internal level. You can read a short synopsis of the script here, which confirms my guesses about how this spring-loaded idea will explode.
Icing On The Cake
A logline that has the Essential Elements, the juice and flavor, and the kinetic energy that convinces us your story will offer even more, accomplishes something vital to moving your project forward. It helps the reader identify the audience. If we can’t identify an audience for your project, it’s not gonna move forward.
A logline that succeeds on all of those levels should be poised to take it a step further.
As chef Emeril Lagasse is famous for saying as he throws more spice into a dish, “Bam! Kick it up a notch!”
When it comes to loglines, there is one quality that provides the icing on the cake; that kicks it up a notch: theme.
A great logline conveys the theme. The universal truth; the message that speaks to your audience and gives your story broad appeal. It makes your story rich and resonant. Like a glass of wine with dinner, it’s intoxicating.
The arc of the hero illustrates the theme – how they grow and change over the course of the story – how the events of the story change them. So if you’ve honed your logline to perfection, you’ve conveyed the hero’s flaw. And that’s where we find the theme – the heart of the story.
These loglines are rich in theme:
Genre: A sci-fi family film. A lonely ten-year-old boy befriends a kindly alien stranded on Earth, takes him home and struggles to keep his new friend from being discovered by his mother or captured by government agents, ultimately realizing that he must help his friend go home in order to save him.
At its heart, E.T. is about friendship. The adjective “lonely” to describe the hero sets it up, and it plays through the story as Elliot gains a friend and learns the true meaning of friendship in the end.
Genre: Horror-thriller. When a Great White shark terrorizes a quiet beach community, the town’s police chief must overcome his crippling fear of the water and join forces with a grizzled shark hunter and a daredevil oceanographer to hunt it down and kill it to save the town.
Jaws is an exploration of fear, and uses the hero to reflect it, as well as all the other supporting characters to illustrate different points of view on fear.
Genre: Dark thriller. A seasoned homicide detective about to retire and the hotshot young detective hired to replace him, are forced to team in a gruesome hunt for a serial killer whose crimes are based on the Seven Deadly Sins, only to discover that they too, are part of his diabolical plan.
Se7en is about sin and speaks to the idea that the potential for evil exists within us all.
Three completely different films, different genres, and audiences. Distinctive, flavorful and bolstered by a clear, resonant theme that is reflected in the logline, comes through in every aspect of the screenplay, and results in a rich, resonant and successful film.
When your logline reaches that level of promising a mouth-watering story...
it becomes so appealing, that people are going to want to read it.
When your script lives up to what it promises...
delivering a full, sumptuous meal to sink our teeth into, now you’re cooking!
This is the opulent feast the entire industry hungers for.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Logline Progression: Rewriting Tips for Screenplay Loglines
- Submissions Insanity: 6 Reasons Loglines Go Bad
Get help with your logline in Heather Hale's webinar
Writing Intriguing Loglines That Will Get Your Scripts Read - and Sold!