“What is your story about?” This inevitable question can send authors either into a stammering stupor or a ridiculously long-winded explanation of the intertwined subplots and fantastic twists of your novel. Either way, without a succinct answer, you’ve lost your audience and maybe even a sale.
There’s a simple solution to this situation. The logline.
What is a Logline?
A logline boils your entire story down to a single, easily understood concept. In about 25-50 words, it captures the essence of the story in one sentence and is the first description of a film or book that the audience will encounter.
A good logline not only states the core idea of the story, it also demonstrates the main character, the main conflict or antagonist, and the stakes. It allows the reader, agent, or publisher to form an opinion of whether they want to invest time and money in you and your work.
“An orphaned boy enrolls in a school of wizardry, where he learns the truth about himself, his family and the terrible evil that haunts the magical world.”Dynasti Noble, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) on imbd.com
Why Use a Logline for a Novel?
Film writers have effectively used loglines since the inception of cinema. Writing a logline is a necessary step in selling and promoting screenplays and is often the first thing a script writer will do, even before plotting and writing the script.
The publishing industry is rapidly changing and it is becoming more difficult to grab the attention of both readers and publishers. A succinct logline can propel your pitch or query out of the slush pile and into the hands of a publisher. It can be used in twitter pitches or query letters, as the first sentence on the back cover of your book, or in promotions.
Crafting a logline for your novel helps you, as the author, to understand what your story is about. It forces you to pinpoint your characters’ goals, conflicts, and stakes. It requires you to understand the essence of your story well enough to convey it to others. Writing a logline before your manuscript can help to ensure that the characters’ actions stay true to their goals.
“A young man, falsely imprisoned by his jealous “friend”, escapes and uses a hidden treasure to exact his revenge.”Kenneth Chisholm, The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) on imdb.com
Before writing the logline, you need to narrow down four key elements of your story: Inciting Incident, Character Type, Objective, and Stakes.
Asking yourself these questions may help in that process.
- Who is the main character?
- What is his/her goal that drives the story?
- Why is this goal important to him/her?
- Who or what is standing in the way of achieving that goal?
- What will happen if he/she doesn’t achieve the goal?
- What is the core of the story?
- What makes the story stand out?
Next, begin shaping a logline. Start with this formula from Screencraft:
When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS] … a [CHARACTER TYPE] … must [OBJECTIVE] … before [STAKES].
“When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer must hunt the beast down before it kills again.”Jaws (1975) on Screencraft.org
This basic structure helps to identify the key elements of an effective logline. Don’t try to tell the whole story. A logline is intended to convey the concept only. Like an appetizer before a meal, it is a taste of what is to come.
The formula is a starting point. Write several drafts of your logline, rearrange the order of the elements, and blend different versions until you have found the best combination that conveys the concept of your story.
Be specific in your descriptions. If your main character is a cop, is he an ex-cop, a rookie cop, a jaded cop, a dirty cop? All of these adjectives communicate different personality traits and paint a unique picture of the character. What makes your character stand out?
Your logline should also reveal the genre of the story. This is done through word choice and tone. A hilarious logline for The Wizard of Oz, penned by Rick Polito, is an example of the wrong genre:
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
Keep the logline between 25-50 words in length. Under 25 words, it becomes a tag line – an advertising tool used on movie posters or a book front cover (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s tagline was: Let the magic begin). Over 50 words and we stray into synopsis territory.
The logline is an underutilized tool for authors, but when crafted well it could grab the attention of agents, publishers and readers, and launch your manuscript towards publishing success.