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.
Last month’s column, “I Want To Taste Your Logline,” must have tantalized some readers, given the number of sign-ups for The Big Ideas Newsletter, with many writers taking up the offer of a free Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down on their logline and concept.
While there were some well-expressed, commercially viable ideas, other loglines left me wanting more. Still hungry!
After receiving our personalized feedback and constructive criticism these writers took great strides forward when they revised their loglines. Their progress was very satisfying! It convinced me that there’s much more that needs to be said on this subject. We at Big Ideas what to enable writers to create strong, effective loglines that feed the reader’s hunger for looking at the script and that empower them to move their project forward.
If you haven’t read “I Want To Taste Your Logline Part One,” you can find it here.
Given what we read, and the big progress writers made with constructive feedback, we’ve decided to head back to the basics – crafting a tasty logline; serving it up as an appealing appetizer to entice readers; and promising a full and satisfying meal, so they are hungry to devour your script.
Formulaic Has Its Merits
I avoided logline writing formulas in the first article because there’s already plenty of advice out there. I’m a fan of Bill Boyle’s "The Kinetic Logline". Bill shows you how to bring a tangible sense of dynamic, forward momentum, along with conveying the movie’s message, making for a rich experience. It’s smart and sophisticated.
After reading the many submissions, and taking a look at the numerous articles out there, I think it’s worth getting down to basics.
First – Immediately Put Us IN Your Movie
Establish the world: time, place, and genre including the tone.
Genre and tone – I think I harp on this more than any other topic, when talking about loglines and pitching. Genre alone is not enough. The tone, the tone, the tone. It should suffuse your logline. Reflect the tone of your story in the title and every word choice you make.
We need to know genre/tone, before the logline or in the first phrase of the logline. No exceptions. If the time and place are relevant to the story and our understanding of it, they must also be revealed at the outset. Otherwise, we don’t know how to interpret what follows.
Think it doesn’t matter – or that there’s no need to spell it out? Imagine switching the time, place and genre on Braveheart and Alien and see how it works. After all, they are both stories about rebels defying authority and bad guys in a life and death fight.
Epic, historical, medieval, war-drama, based on a true story. In 14th Century Scotland, WILLIAM WALLACE, a fearless commoner, leads Scottish warriors in a revolt against a tyrannical English rule in a quest to make Scotland free.
Sci-fi horror. In deep space, the small crew of a commercial starship headed home is awakened from cryosleep to investigate a distress call, but discover a deadly alien has stowed away aboard their ship, and only one female crew member remains to prevent the alien from reaching Earth.
Time, place and genre are fundamental to these stories. I even tried switching them and it was simply too silly to bother you with.
I looked at the long version of these loglines and found it fascinating to see how similar these stories, from completely different times, places and genres, actually are. I picked them at random, after glancing at great movie taglines, only to find that both heroes overthrow inhumane rules foist upon them and risk their lives for a greater good.
Second – The Hero or The Inciting Incident
The Hero – Often, the strongest way to begin a logline is with the hero. He draws us in, captures our interest and leads us through the story. Why? Because as people, we are drawn to stories about people, or the humanness of the protagonist, whether he is a robot or a rabbit. Who is your hero? Meaning what is essential for us to know about him to understand the whole story? In Braveheart, the hero, based on a real character, drives the story. His essential characteristics – he wants to lead a peaceful life but when a great injustice occurs, he leads the fight to over throw the government. This logline starts with the hero.
The Inciting Incident– This is also a dynamic start to a logline, showing us what throws the world of the story out of balance and into conflict. These Inciting Incidents give focus to the drive of the story – the plot – and propel the hero forward. They prove your story is hitting the ground running.
In Alien it’s the SOS signal that changes a safe cryosleep journey back home, to a fight for survival. The inciting incident is the big star here and is the beginning of the logline.
Third – Great heroes have a great flaw. This belongs in your logline. It should be his most significant characteristics, desires, or goals that are in conflict with each other and relate directly to what the story is about. It gives the protagonist dimension, makes him rootable, and makes your hero unique to your story. It conveys his arc, which illustrates the theme of the movie. The hero and his flaw should be perfectly matched to the story.
In Jaws, Roy Scheider’s character is the new Chief of Police on an island where people are being gobbled up by a Great White Shark BUT he’s afraid of the water. His need and desire is to protect the people. His flaw – he’s afraid of the water – is in direct opposition to that goal. He’s the perfect hero for this horror-thriller film, which is all about fear.
Use great care when choosing adjective to describe your hero. He or she doesn’t have to be likeable, but they must be rootable. We may not “like” the anti-hero, but we root for him to change; to do better; to become a better person over the course of the story. You only have a few words to convey who your protagonist is. Even if the guy is just a “wimp,” find the most sympathetic and resonant way to express it. Let us know a bit about why he’s a wimp. Be succinct but expressive.
The most dynamic loglines illustrate how the hero’s goals and desires are in direct conflict.
“At the dawn of WWII, a man yearns to be a great leader for his country but, unable to conquer a debilitating stammer, he lacks the confidence, until the crown is thrust upon him as his country is forced to go to war.”
Every word there packs a punch.
This version tells the same tale, but with a decided lack of punch:
“Just before WWII, a young prince tries to play the role expected of him, only his stammer makes him hesitant, but then he inherits the crown.”
The recipe is the same, but the secret sauce in the first version is the choice of juicy, adjectives and adverbs, and dynamic active verbs.
“Corrupt,” so often used to describe a villain that it is over used, is bland compared to tyrannical, nefarious, unscrupulous, iron-fisted.
“Tries,” to describe the hero’s actions, is bland, and barely active, compared to strives, struggles, fights, battles, crusades.
Strive for rich and flavorful words that are evocative and active over bland every time.
Great inciting incidents turn the everyday world upside down.
Every story must have an inciting incident. The best of them change in the world, as the hero knows it, in an instant with an incisive, dramatic event. This event propels the hero and the plot forward. These loglines begin with “when” rather than with “who.”
Here’s the Jaws example, two ways:
When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity…
Genre: Horror-thriller. When a Great White shark terrorizes a quiet beach community…
The second actually uses fewer words while conveying a more dramatic and visceral inciting incident.
So which is better – the “who” or the “what” logline opening? Both can be effective. Starting with “when” can be potent, but when in doubt, here’s how to choose. Is the star of the show what happens (Alien) or who the hero is (Braveheart)?
Fourth – The Conflict – What is the hero’s goal? To find true love, get home, save Earth from alien invasion? What is standing in his way? This is the heart of the plot. Without conflict, chances are you don’t have an idea for a movie. Conflict drives stories forward. Your logline must prove your story has conflict aplenty, and that the conflict will escalate.
Fifth – The Stakes – What’s going to happen if the hero doesn’t achieve his goal? The “or else” if the hero fails. Without stakes, we’re not going to stick around. Will the Scottish ultimately win their freedom? Will the alien kill everyone on board? Can the police chief save the town? And in these examples, the hero ultimately puts their own life on the line, showing us how very much the stakes matter to them. And, in the process, we get invested and they matter to us as well.
Five easy steps.
You can count them on one hand.
But I’m guessing you want your logline to truly stand out, to do its job of luring us to the table. Here’s how to give your reader something more, that encourages us to believe we will be satisfied by the hearty meal of your screenplay.
Sixth – The Theme – As I said in “I Want To Taste Your Logline,” theme is the “icing on the cake.” Your opportunity to elevate your material by showing us the point of the story. Freedom for Scotland. Preventing the alien from becoming a weapon for the Company.
Seventh – Prove Your Idea is One Of A Kind – What’s unique? Where’s the fresh twist on what’s familiar? What makes your idea distinctive and special? It’s the dusting of powdered sugar on top. That perfect sprig of fresh herbs. That flavor combination that we’ve never seen before, but we can tell will be as delicious as say, peanut butter and chocolate.
Since we always love a new spin on a familiar idea... perhaps an updated version like my current addiction, Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Banana Greek Yogurt.
It’s umami. Creamy, sweet, tart, and salty, with two textures – because peanut butter swirl!
(Is this a brilliant example, or just me try to get you to buy the damn ice cream so they don’t stop making it, forcing me into a painful, depressed withdrawal? Mmm, both, definitely both.)
So here’s my formula incorporating all seven steps:
When something dramatic happens that changes everything, a flawed hero must face escalating conflict to achieve their goal and ultimately realize the point of the story.
Take It For A Test Drive!
One writer responded to his logline feedback in only a few hours. Now, it may seem like a couple of hours is plenty of time to rewrite one sentence, but this is a very important sentence. Take time to ponder, try out different words – hit the Thesaurus until you find the perfect adjective, verb or adverb. Look for the ones that convey rich meaning and have an inherent energy to them.
And the great thing about movies, is that absolutely everyone is an expert. Test your logline out on friends, neighbors, kids, and anyone who will give a minute to listen to an idea for a movie.
They’ll tell you if they like it or not; if they’d go see it or not and give you perspective on whether or not your logline is conveying your story.
To avoid diagnose and prevent logline wipeouts, see Dr. Paige Turner’s advice to a screenwriter who can't seem to get that one sentence written right here.
Loglines Are The Key To Your Story
A logline lays out the entire spine of the story and more. In top form, each piece is working together to support the whole. That’s why many writers work on the logline before they jump into their story.
Writers may find themselves in hot water when trying to come up with the logline after the fact. They discover that they just can’t make it work. This often points to a weak concept, muddled story, a hero who fails to engage us, lack of conflict, vague stakes, missing escalation, and no broader appeal of theme.
When I receive a dense, sprawling logline where I can’t grasp the story, it often indicates an overly complex story. The script itself either lacks focus, would be better suited to the complexity possible in a novel, or is a “kitchen sink” version, throwing in some of everything rather than concentrating on elements – from characters to scenes to subplots – which all reflect the central point, the message, the purpose of the story being told. Boom! There's the map for your whole screenplay.
Often, there’s a frantic adding of sprinkles and garnishes, but they don’t make up for solid story underneath.
That’s why I put so much emphasis on defining the hero – their essential characteristics are the key to the hero’s arc, which points to how the plot must play out in order for the hero to change over the course of the story, as well as expresses the theme, which gives your piece added resonance and appeal.
Before you start writing, do some dinner party planning. Take a page from great hostesses, both fictional and real, from Betty Crocker to the Barefoot Contessa. What will your guests taste first? What will pique their palates? What is the main course? What are the side dishes that compliment it? What is the final, rich taste they will walk away with?
Like a master check, plan a tasty, well thought out meal for your reader. It will draw your audience in and, ultimately, they will leave satisfied.
A strong logline leads to a strong screenplay. Work out the recipe in your test kitchen before you start writing. It’s much easier to rework a sentence ten, twenty or even one hundred times than it is to rework a screenplay even as much as once. This is where you examine possibilities, work out the kinks, and refine the story.
Make your logline tasty from the start, and you will not only have an easier time writing your script, you will have greater success enticing the reader to look at your finished screenplay.
After all, that’s the logline’s true purpose.
And now, I'm starved and headed to the kitchen to see what looks yummy!
- More articles by Barri Evins
- 7 Crucial Logline Mistakes and How to Fix Them
- Submissions Insanity: 6 Reasons Loglines Go Bad