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How Not to Write a Logline

Angela Bourassa, founder of LA Screenwriter and the Director of the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition, gives tips on how not to write a logline.

Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the Director of the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition. She is an award-winning feature comedy writer, and her favorite films are Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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Writing a screenplay is a challenge. Writing a screenplay worthy of the attention of top agents and producers is a monumental endeavor. It takes years of practice, study of the craft, and faith in oneself. Unfortunately, once you’ve written a script worthy of production, there’s still one obstacle that stands in your way: the logline.

The logline is an art form all its own. It’s a one sentence poem, an ode to your script and the film it could become. It must be concise yet thorough, imaginative yet simple, commercial yet unique. So what’s the trick? What’s the formula for writing a logline that accurately and compellingly conveys the essence of your script?

Sadly, there isn’t one. Consider the following logline examples to understand why.

Great Loglines, No Formulas

Catherine the Great by Kristina Lauren Anderson was the highest rated script on this year’s Black List. The logline reads:

“Sophia Augusta takes control of her life, her marriage, and her kingdom becoming Russia’s most celebrated and beloved monarch: Catherine the Great.”

This logline breaks a few of the standard logline rules. It’s an appropriate length and it’s to the point, but it doesn’t really give us a sense of what’s standing in Sophia’s way. The conflict is only hinted at in the subtext of this logline, which is usually a bad idea. However, because this script is about a historical figure whom we’ve probably all heard of (even if we’re not familiar with the details of her life) Kristina can get away with being a bit vague since anyone who reads this logline should have a basic understanding of the obstacles Sophia might have faced.

The next highest-rated script, Rockingham by Adam Morrison, breaks the rules in the same way:

“A look into the mania of the OJ Simpson trial, through the eyes of Simpson’s sports agent Mike Gilbert and Los Angeles Police Department Detective Mark Fuhrman.”

If you’ve never heard of OJ Simpson, this is a terribly vague logline, but OJ is infamous enough not to require further explanation.

The next screenplay on the list, The Swimsuit Issue by Randall Green, isn’t based on a true story so it requires more explanation:

“A nerdy high schooler, who fancies himself an amateur photographer, attempts to create a ‘Swimsuit Issue’ featuring his high school classmates in hopes of raising enough money to go to summer camp.”

This logline is a bit longer, but it’s still a succinct, easy to follow sentence. It includes the main character, the goal, and the main action. The conflict isn’t included specifically, but the reader can quickly assume that this kid is going to get backlash from a few sources: his parents, fellow students, the administration, maybe even a local family-values group.

As you may have gathered, there isn’t really a single set of rules for how to write a logline. The best logline for your script is going to depend on your genre, your subject matter, and your personal style. That said, there are a few rules for how not to write a logline.

How Not to Write a Logline

  1. Don’t overlook the main character, the conflict, or the stakes.

Ideally you’ll also include the villain (if you have one) and the setting. But these three elements of your script are the most important. We need to know who we’re rooting for, how they’re going to get what they want, and what’s standing in their way. Don’t tell us the name of your main character unless it’s someone real, like OJ. Instead, give us a sense of who they are. “A man” is a bad description. “An egotistical cinephile” paints a much clearer picture.

Now, you may be looking at that logline for Rockingham and wondering what the stakes are in that script. Adam Morrison didn’t lay the stakes out explicitly, but he got the stakes into the subtext. His two main characters are OJ’s sports agent and the investigating detective. One character, we can assume, wants OJ off the hook; the other wants to see him behind bars. These two characters will be in direct conflict throughout this script hoping for opposite outcomes. The stakes are wrapped up in the trial itself.

  1. Don’t use clichés.

A cliché in a logline is a red flag that tells every potential script reader that you’re not ready. Clichés are cheats. They’re a way to get around saying what you really mean. In a logline, clichés are usually a way to keep your logline short and to the point. What they actually end up doing, however, is making your logline vague and meatless.

Say, for example, that your main character has “an ax to grind” with her boss. Is your character going to have a hard talk with her boss, or is she going to try to kill him? When you use a banal cliché, you end up leaving out the pertinent details that make your story unique. Whenever you find yourself using a phrase like “in hot water,” “a sticky situation,” “girl next door,” or “the end of his rope,” figure out what your cliché is standing in for and put some real description in its place.

Keep in mind that loglines have their own set of clichés which should be avoided, if possible. For example, starting a logline with the word “When” is a bit tired. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but look for ways to be original with your word choice and sentence construction whenever possible.

  1. Don’t make grammatical errors or typos.

It doesn’t matter how good your logline is if it has a typo in it. If you can’t write one sentence without making a mistake, no agent is going to give your screenplay a chance.

Of course, if you’re putting the time and effort into your logline that it deserves, you’re probably not going to misspell anything. The much more common problem is poor or flat-out incorrect punctuation. Please, for the love of all that’s good and right, don’t put an ellipses (…) in your logline. You think its building suspense before those last few words, but it’s not. It just looks unprofessional and weird. (Trust me, I’ve tried it before. Anyone who tells you they haven’t is lying.)

Commas. Commas have rules, and those rules need to be followed. Yes, there are certain situations where comma placement is a judgment call, such as the Oxford comma. All too often, however, commas get placed erratically throughout loglines with no apparent logic. If you’re a little iffy on the rules of commas, dashes, colons, and semicolons, refresh your knowledge with a grammar book. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is the gold standard.

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Write, Rewrite, Get Feedback

Once you think you have a logline worthy of sending out, there’s one more rule you need to follow: Don’t send your logline to anyone in the industry without having someone you trust read it. Ideally, have lots of people read it. Even more ideally, have someone who can provide you with professional, confidential feedback read it.

Over at LA Screenwriter we’ve started a monthly logline competition that provides just that. For $9.90, you can send us your loglines and we’ll send you back detailed feedback in five days or less. If yours is one of the three best loglines we receive each month, you’ll also win recognition and prizes from our sponsors. Check out the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition website to learn more and get feedback on your best loglines.

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