In the Beginning There Was… a Sentence or Two

ClapperOkay, you’ve got your wonderful story idea. This is going to knock the socks off Hollywood. It will make Dennis Potter turn his grave with the shame of never having thought of anything so great; Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott are going to fight for you on your doorstep; the BBC will want you to make it into an epic radio series.

Back on planet earth, where do you start?

Snyder (2005) suggests that the very first thing you should write is a log-line. But what is it?

A log line is a one or two sentence description of your script. Although it is used primarily in the film industry, it is a really useful tool when writing any script. Why? Because is sets the tone, tells us what the theme is and what the script is about – well, that’s the theory.

Blake Snyder defines the log line as “a one or two sentence description of your movie that tells us what it is”, while Linda Seger (Seger, 2010) describes it as a “…distillation of a story,” and Christopher Lockhart (Lockhart, 2012) tells us that “A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”

Wherever “screenplay” appears in the description, replace it with “script” because the principle is equally valid whether you are writing for stage, screen or radio. In fact, novelists and short-story writers will also find it useful.

Now we’ve got some academic definitions and descriptions, you will want to know how go about writing your log line.

Before you do, let’s have a look at some examples. A great source of log lines is the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). For those who don’t know what this is, go and have a look now at www.imdb.com. However, do take care as these are often written by fans rather than the writers so are not always examples of good log lines. Taking some random examples of varying quality:

  • When the star-crossed lovers of two enemy families meet, forbidden love ensues.
  • Meet Elle Woods. She’s a lawyer with a heart of gold…and a mane to match!
  • Man Has Made His Match… Now It’s His Problem
  • Over 3000 Islands of Paradise. For Some it’s A Blessing; for Others… it’s A Curse.
  • Some memories are best forgotten
  • The future depends on a past he was paid to forget.
  • The shadow of this woman darkened their love.
  • Check in. Unpack. Relax. Take a shower.
  • Strangers shouldn’t talk to little girls.
  • A ringing phone has to be answered.

Can you identify the films from the log lines? Some of the above will be obvious, some less so. If you are stuck, google them. The Christopher Lockhart pdf gives us three-hundred of them to think about.

Various writers analyse the content of log lines in their own way.

“…who the protagonist is, what challenge or conflict or situation the protagonist will confront, and when the story takes place if it isn’t in the present.” (Seger)

“… a type of hero (that means the type of person plus an adjective that describes him), the antagonist (ditto), and the hero’s primal goal. It must have irony and it must bloom in our brains with potential.” (Snyder)

“…who the story is about (protagonist) what he strives for (goal) what stands in his way (antagonistic force).” (Lockhart)

Leaving some of the dubious grammar and punctuation aside, these descriptions should give a rough idea about what is expected.

Back to your story. Before writing your script (short story or novel), you will have a fair idea of what it’s about. You will have an idea of the message you want to get across (the theme). You will know your hero or protagonist. You will know your antagonist, which doesn’t have to be human – as in 2001, a Space Odyssey (a super computer), Cast Away (the environment), The King’s Speech (a personal affliction). You will know what conflicts or challenges your character faces.

Let’s take an example from Lockhart’s epic list – The Bourne Identity.

Jason Bourne is a highly trained assassin but he has lost his memory. This is the “who” of the story. He is the protagonist and we know he’s an assassin (type of hero).

The government want him dead. The government is the antagonist.

Jason struggles to find out who he is and avoid the assassins who are sent to eliminate him. These are the conflicts and challenges.

The themes within the film are about finding your own identity (something many of us struggle with on a metaphysical level) and those who should be your allies being out to get you. These are my opinions; you may have your own.

Putting all these together in a concise manner may result in the log line from Lockhart’s list –

“A man with amnesia discovers he is a governmental assassin who has been targeted for death by the organization that employs him.”

We can break this up into its constituent parts:

“A man (the protagonist) with amnesia (being used as an adjective) discovers he is a governmental assassin (type of hero) who has been targeted for death (conflict or situation) by the organization that employs him (antagonist).”

It also has the irony that Blake Snyder wants – his employers are trying to kill him.

You may not consider this to be the ideal log line but it serves to illustrate the process. What is missing from Lockhart’s log line is the protagonists overriding objective/s or what Snyder refers to as “primal goal.” I would add something like

“He must keep himself alive long enough to uncover his own identity.”

You may wish to look up the log lines offered on IMDB. You may wish to try writing your own. You may like to revisit the examples given above and decide which are good.

Why do you need a log line?

Imagine yourself on the ground floor of a hotel, awaiting the lift (elevator to… well, most of the rest of the world). The doors open and you enter. Just as the doors start to close you hear “hold the elevator!” You press the button to keep the doors open and in dives the producer or director of your favourite film.

You have this story in your head and you blurt out “I love your films. In fact, I’m working on a script myself.”

“Oh yeah! What’s it about?” she says.

You have, until she gets out at her floor to tell her. A killer log line should give her enough information to know whether or not she would be interested in reading your script. A garbled half-description of the story won’t.

You’ve grabbed her attention and she wants to see a treatment and the first ten pages this time next week. At least you know your protagonist; you know their challenges and conflicts; you know the theme; now you can focus on writing your treatment.

Over to you.

References

Lockhart, Christopher (2012) http://www.twoadverbs.com/logline.pdf

Snyder, Blake (2005), Save the Cat. Michael Wise Productions, California.

Seger, Linda (2010), Making a Good Script Great. Silman-James Press, California.

Other Useful Web-pages

writing-loglines-that-sell

the-log-line-of-your-life

loglinespremises.htm

wiki/Log_line

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3 Comments

Filed under Writing

3 responses to “In the Beginning There Was… a Sentence or Two

  1. First thing a log-line? Even when I do that and get a formal structure before I start a script, once the characters are set free, the stretch from A to Z changes and can sometimes deviate from the initial log-line! Is that good or bad?

  2. Some would say that depends on whether the finished article is better than the original idea. If I were teaching or coaching, I would say that it lacks a certain discipline or focus. In my model of the writing world, the story should be written before you ever type “Fade In.”

  3. Yup, I’ve had issues with discipline and focus, but I do tend to play with my characters and map out where I’m taking them, including the twists and turns, before I start a script. However, sometimes, when I unleash the characters in a script, they take off in a different direction. When that happens, I go with it if its better, or shelve it whilst I look at the options.

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