A logline is the shortest summary of your script. It’s basically your whole story brought to its very core.
«The Matrix: When a beautiful stranger leads computer hacker Neo to a forbidding underworld, he discovers the shocking truth, the life he knows is the elaborate deception of an evil cyber-intelligence.»
«The Prestige: After a tragic accident, two stage magicians engage in a battle to create the ultimate illusion while sacrificing everything they have to outwit each other.»
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When I was a less experienced screenwriter, I thought a logline is the type of thing you write after you’ve finished your script. This is not a total lie, since you might have to come up with a sales pitch once you have your script. However, the logline you write at the start of the process serves a different function.
Why start with a logline?
As I mentioned in my Introduction Blog Post, I’m following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! method, and in his first chapter «What is it?» he explains what a logline is, why it’s important, and how to write an effective one.
His approach (like almost everything in his book) is quite commercial: if you can’t pitch your movie in one sentence, forget about selling it.
But he also touches on you having clarity for yourself.
Well thought stories are, at their core, simple.Tweet
Robert McKee quotes Blaise Pascal:
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”Blaise Pascal
I’ve always found that convoluted, overly complicated stories with an awkward amount of characters, and scenes that lead nowhere, are the product of lack of work. It’s harder to make something more simple. It takes lots of story-work, a lot of trimming and rounding the edges to be able to make a story coherent, with satisfying payoffs.
Starting the screenwriting process with the logline forces you to do that story-work from the get-go. And the sooner you do that work, the better, because it becomes more complicated to do changes as you move forward in the screenwriting process.
The elements of a logline
What are the basic elements you need in order to write a logline?
- A Protagonist: Who is your main character? Mention the traits that will come to play in this story, or the traits that prevent them from accomplishing their goal.
- A Struggle (maybe mention the antagonist, but it’s not absolutely necessary): What’s in your protagonist’s way to get what they want?
- Stakes: What’s the cost of not accomplishing their goal?
Snyder, McKee, and many others talk about how the stakes are always about death. The consequence of your protagonist not accomplishing their goal don’t always have to be literal death, but it always has to feel as serious as death in the context of the story. That’s what makes for good storytelling.
Once you’ve nailed the basic elements, Snyder has a few extra to really nail your logline:
- Irony: Who’s the perfect character for this story to be the most ironic? or what’s the perfect struggle for this particular protagonist?
- A compelling mental picture: From your logline, we have to be able to imagine a whole movie. Good loglines evoke that much.
- Audience (…and cost, but you shouldn’t worry too much about it at this stage, in my opinion. Especially if this is only your first feature): Make it clear who this movie is for.
- A Killer Title: Your title and logline must be the perfect couple, show what your movie is all about.
He then goes on about more marketing and selling your movie talk. I know this will be important eventually, but the first logline of your first feature is mostly for you. It will be a reminder of your goals and destination throughout the journey you’re about to begin.
This amazing video by RocketJump Film School has great examples:
Loglines are a whole beast of their own, but taking the time and effort to write one before you start your script will prove extremely helpful for your writing further along the way.
Comment your favourite movie loglines that you’ve found in the wild!
Next week on the blog- Step 2: The Protagonist
Check out my whole Let’s Write our First Feature Film! series.
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