October 23rd, 2019

Creating a Multi-Use Logline

by Eldred Bird

Loglines...the heart and summary of your story.

When I first started writing, I remember someone asking me what my book was about. I stammered and stalled, trying to think about how to best describe it.

“Um…it’s about this guy, see? He um…well…he’s kind of a…”

“Just give me your elevator pitch.”

I stood there like a deer caught in the headlights.

“You know, your logline.”

“Logline? What’s a logline?”

Thus began my real education as an author. That was the day I learned it wasn’t just about writing books, but also being able to talk to people about what I’d written. I needed to be ready at any moment to clearly and coherently communicate the bones of my story. And that, my friends, is the logline.

What is a Logline?

Some people use the terms Logline and Tagline interchangeably. Those people are wrong. For more on that, you can read Laura Drake’s explanation here.

In the simplest terms, the log line is a brief summary of your story—we’re talking very brief—like one or two sentences brief. Sounds difficult, right? How do you condense a whole book into something you can get out in one breath? Let’s take a look.

What is a Logline Good For?

The logline is kind of the Swiss Army Knife of writing tools. If you talk to anyone in Hollywood about your story, the first thing they will ask you for is your logline. It’s the fuel that runs the engine of the entertainment industry.

Your logline is the key that cracks the door open just enough to make your pitch, but it can be a lot more.

As Marcy Kennedy pointed out in her post, creating a logline can help you focus on the important elements of your story. If you can, do it before you sit down to your keyboard. Printing it out and keeping it in front of you as you write can help you stay on track if, like me, you tend to wander off a lot.

I’m not saying you have to be one hundred percent be locked in once you create your logline. Feel free to modify and evolve it as you write, but think hard about those changes before making them.

Some Examples from Hollywood

A doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife escapes custody and struggles to prove his innocence while being pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.  – The Fugitive

An epic tale of a 1940s New York Mafia family and their struggle to protect their empire, as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son. – The Godfather

A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. - Titanic

What goes into a Logline?

There are three basic elements you need to include in your logline:

  • your main character
  • your plot
  • what’s at stake

The Main Character (MC) – Who is your main character? Not their name, but a defining characteristic. Names don’t matter at this point because we have nothing to attach them to. We need adjectives, strong descriptive adjectives. Is your MC a reclusive writer? A disgraced ex-cop? A teenage mutant ninja turtle? Get out your thesaurus and paint me a picture with a couple of well chosen words.

The Plot – What’s happening in your story? Think of your inciting incident—the hammer that hits your MC on the head and puts them on the path of no return. What is your MC’s objective? What’s standing in their way? In many cases, the character is their own roadblock. Success may hinge on overcoming internal struggles and their own fears.

The Stakes – What’s at risk should your MC fail to reach their objective? Is it death, world destruction, or the loss of their sanity? Including a ticking time-bomb can up the tension. If your MC doesn’t do A before B happens, then the consequences are C.

Putting the Elements Together

Okay, I’m not really a fan of formulas when it comes to writing, but this is one of the rare exceptions. Not that plugging your story elements into a formula will magically give you an amazing logline, but it will give you a good head start—a first draft you can shape and polish. Once you’ve identified the elements listed above, try plugging them into this formula:

When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].

Pretty simple, right? Let’s plug something in and see what we get.

When his agent forces his hand, a reclusive writer must become more like the adventurous character he has created, or risk losing his livelihood.

It’s a little rough around the edges, but now we have a logline for my first book, Killing Karma. No more panic when someone asks…well, maybe a little panic, but it’s a start.

This first draft forced me to think about the story elements. Was the inciting incident really the agent forcing his hand? Was becoming like his MC driving the plot? The answer was no. Coming up with a log line forced this pantser to take a hard look at his story and dive into the true meat of it. In the end, this is how the finished logline came out.

The death of his over-protective mother forces a reclusive writer to find a way to survive in a world with which he is ill-equipped to deal.

The Main Character – A reclusive writer.

The inciting incident - The death of his mother.

The Stakes – The MC’s very survival.

This is much more focused and highlights the true roots of the story. And this brings me to my next point.

Other Uses for Your Logline

Having the main elements of your story identified and in front of you can give you a leg up on some of the steps that happen after you complete your manuscript. Your logline is the foundation of your sales toolbox. It can be crafted into many other tools.

Expand your single sentence story into a four or five sentence pitch. Keep it on a note card until you know it by heart. You never know when someone will ask.

Your logline and tagline are a great starting point for your book blurb. Make sure to add in that ticking time-bomb, but no spoilers!

Use the logline in your query letters to get the point across quickly and catch an agent’s attention.

Loglines are a great launching point for your advertising. Building your ads with the logline in mind will help to keep your branding consistent.

Some Final Words

Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, a logline is a great tool to have at your disposal, both during and after you write you book. It’s a motivator, a sales pitch and a guidebook for your writing journey. Put as much care into your log line as you do your manuscript and it will serve you well.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma and Catching Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room and Treble in Paradise: A tale of Sax and Violins.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21 inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website: http://www.eldredbird.com/.

23 responses to “Creating a Multi-Use Logline”

  1. Hannah McKinnon says:

    Great piece!

  2. Winona Cross says:

    I needed this. Thank you so much. Your bio about the Grand Canyon stirred a memory back to life.

    Let me share a brief story about my last trip to the Grand Canyon. My mother passed away in 1997. She and her gentleman friend had planned to visit the Canyon that summer. She was excited to see it, but cancer halted that dream.

    I had to drive her car from Bakersfield to Oklahoma for her funeral. Knowing about her dream I sat in a hotel room and wrote her a long letter. I put that letter and a photo I took of her sitting in a wheelchair on her tiny patio. Her gentleman friend was leaning over and kissing her on the cheek. She died a few days later.

    I put that Polaroid and the letter in a Zip-Lock bag. I drove to the Grand Canyon entrance and was in tears as I reached the gate. I told the Ranger my story. He let me through without paying the fee. I found a perfect overlook, a perfect rock and put the bag under the rock.

    I had fulfilled her dream. I wonder if that bag is still under the rock.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Love that story, Winona.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Wow...what an amazing story, Winona! That's something you could write book about. I'll give you a head start on the logline.

      After cancer takes her mother, a grieving daughter sets off on journey to fulfill her mother's final dream.

      Okay it need some work, but it's a start.

  3. Terry Odell says:

    This reminds me that I'm about 26K into the WIP and there are still no major stakes for the MC. I need to get to work on that. Now. I normally wait until I'm done writing to get taglines and loglines, but this shows how doing it sooner can help a planster like me.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I'm a major pantser as well, so having a solid logline in front of me helps a lot. I do review and revise it from time to time, but having one before hand makes me really think hard about the changes before I mess with it.

  4. Laura Drake says:

    Great blog, Eldred. And great to see a photo of you! You look like a guy who juggles 21" knives.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Ha! Oh Laura, that picture is pretty tame compared to what I looked like in my juggling prime. I'll have to show you a picture or two some time. Speaking of pictures, I think it's about time for a new head shot. That one's looking a little tired.

  5. Micky Wolf says:

    Most helpful! Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm pretty good at writing loglines, and I write one pagers for myself.

    denise

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Good idea on the one pager. Sometimes I wish the pantser in me was better at that kind of planning. For each story, I do have a story idea document that I dump things into when I'm inspired, but the final product never turns out the way it started. At least the logline keeps me in the general neighborhood.

  7. Jenny Hansen says:

    Laura can tell you, I have "Logline Block." My brain just doesn't work that way for my own stories so simple formulas like this help. Oh, and you'll want to take one browse from the top of the comments section - I approved some that were waiting in the queue.

  8. ecellenb says:

    Great blog, Eldred! I like that you included a template. It's a nice, easy way to plug in the bits and pieces for what will make a solid logline.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Ellen.
      Like I said, I'm not usually a fan of formulas, but sometimes they and get you pointed in the right direction.

  9. drjohnnd says:

    This is brilliant. This is a skill I need to work on much more. Thank you for this information and reminder! Since I am a talker my log lines tend to become long lines.

  10. Wowsa! This is awesome - I had never heard of loglines before. Do you know if they're used in memoir? If they're not, I'm going to write mine anyways. Thanks so much for a great piece, Eldred!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Absolutely they can be used in memoir. Even if the story you're telling is your own, you still need a focal point to make that story interesting and engaging. The logline will help you identify the important elements and keep you focused on them.

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