by John Finnegan |
Loglines are hard work. They are, more often than not, the first impression industry insiders will get of your script and it is also the thing that people will judge your work on before they've even read the script. This means your logline needs to be really strong and a cut above the competition.
In this article, we're going to go through five pro tips on how to make sure your loglines are the best they can be.
1. Stop using 'Logline'
Okay, so I know I'm contradicting myself here (the word is in the title after all), but I just find the word 'logline' so unhelpful when trying to write one. Line up 100 screenwriters and most won't be able to tell you what the word even means beyond a one-line summary.
(FYI, the word 'logline' was used in the old movie studios as a way of cataloging their scripts. They used a logbook and each script would be logged and briefly sumarised in the records. Hence, 'logline'.)
The problem with this term is the lack of a meaningful or helpful definition for aspiring screenwriters. This means they don't often know why or what they should be writing in the first place.
Sure it's a pitching tool, but who is it for? How much information should I include? Should I spoil the ending? It's hard to decipher when all you've been asked to give is something as vague as a 'logline'.
Instead, I prefer to use the term 'premise'. Ask someone what the logline for Inception is and they might have to take a minute to compose themselves. Ask them to explain the premise and any fan of the movie will have an answer faster than you can spin a totem.
People instinctively understand what a premise is - whether it's for a film or any other idea. It's something that is easily definable:
Premise: an assertion or proposition which forms the basis for a work or theory.
"the fundamental premise of the film"
Sumarising the 'fundamental premise of a film' as complicated as Inception doesn't sound so difficult now, does it?
In short, 'premise' is a simple change of terminology but if it gives you more clarity about what is expected of you, then it'll be a useful change.
2. Don't forget the promise of the premise
Readers of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat will be familiar with the promise of the premise, essentially referring to the 'fun and games' aspects of the story that attracted audiences to the work in the first place.
Most writers won't think about the promise of the premise in their early development documentation, but you should be thinking about what it is that is attracting audiences to the story right from the very beginning, especially when writing the premise.
The premise will be the most distilled and vague explanation of your story and so the reader or listener will automatically fill in a lot of the blanks with their own imagination. This can be a real help in pitching the story as your reader can do some of the work for you. However, it can also mean that readers' expectations can be raised because of something they feel they are being promised by you in the premise.
While you can't be expected to read the minds of your audience, you are expected to be able to give them a satisfying experience. Make sure your premise isn't promising something you won't be able to deliver. Likewise, make sure that the stuff that makes your story so great is promised upfront.
3. Avoid asking questions in your premise
This is an easy one. Don't try to take shortcuts by asking questions like 'will Jack be able to save his family before it's too late?' or 'can Rust and Marty overcome their differences to find The Yellow King?'.
While there's nothing strictly wrong with having questions like this in your logline or premise, there's always a better alternative to communicating that information in a way that more accurately sells the reader on the execution of the story and better sells your skills as a storyteller as well.
Rather than saying 'will Jack be able to save his family before it's too late?', write something like 'Jack embarks on a perilous quest across country to find his family'.
Rather than asking whether or not our two heroes from True Detective will be able to work together or not, just tell us what you have in mind for them. 'Marty and Rust bury the hatchet and join forces. Without the support of the police, they must trust in each other to solve the mystery of The Yellow King'.
It might not seem like much of a difference, but we get a much clearer sense of what the characters' journey will look like when you do away with the questions.
4. Keep the focus on your protagonist
If you've ever googled 'how to write a logline', you've probably seen The Godfather example that pops up now and again.
The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
While there's nothing inaccurate about this logline, it's light on character and that's a problem given that Michael Corleone, one of the most brilliantly complex characters in cinema history is merely portrayed as a 'reluctant son' in this summary. I think we can do better.
How about this...
Returning war veteran, Michael Corleone, reluctantly accepts control of his father's organised crime empire on the condition that he makes the family legitimate. However, Michael's noble aspirations eventually fall to the wayside, along with his marriage, as he becomes accustomed to the life.
A little rough around the edges for sure, but it's night and day compared to the original which offers little in the way of characterisation, scope, and underpinning themes. This is because I'm only interested in spotlighting the protagonist's journey - which is what the audience will be looking for as well anyway (see promise of the premise).
Keep the premise entirely centered around the perspective of your protagonist. This way, you can easily communicate lots of information about the character and their journey without overloading it either.
Also, it's longer, allowing for far more information. Speaking of which...
5. Don't be afraid to go bigger
There's an unspoken rule in screenwriting that your logline must be 25 words or less. Sometimes this will be a hard rule in a screenwriting competition or a funding body application.
Except it's not really a rule at all...
This is another one of those examples in screenwriting practice where the rule exists because that's just the way it was done in the past. The truth is, I've never known anyone to be rejected because their logline or premise was more than 25 words, and never heard of anyone checking the premise for length, to begin with.
Given that we live in an age where even a tweet can average at about 50 words, give or take, I say let's ditch the 25 words or less rule and aim for something more substantial.
In my experience, 50 words is a good middle ground. Not too long, not too short. Enough to sell your story without restricting yourself either.
There you have it, five pro tips on how to make the most out of your loglines or premises.
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John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Follow John here.
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