Michael Lee Simpson
Imagine standing in an elevator with a Warner Bros. executive who possesses the power to greenlight any project. He just left a meeting about a movie he’s producing starring Ryan Gosling, directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan. As the elevator descends, time is ticking before the bell rings and the door opens to the lobby. With nothing in your possession, no screenplay or treatment, not even a short synopsis, all you have is a few words to describe your story. Hopefully, those words will spark enough interest for him to ask for the screenplay. In this article, some of our contributors will explore the art of crafting a quality logline, the concept and how to utilize it to your benefit.
“In theory, a logline is simple,” stated screenwriter and travel writer Lauren Lindsay. “It’s a couple sentences that are supposed to ‘hook’ someone into reading your script/watching your film or TV show. Yet there are so many various opinions. Some develop an entire screenplay without one, which poses the question: how do I sum this all up? Some say they should have a certain formula—an inciting incident, protagonist, antagonist/obstacle or goal that the protagonist must overcome.”
“Once upon a time, a logline for a movie I made called Union got me in the room with several producers and investors,” reflected writer/director Whitney Hamilton, Union, Spontaneous Human Combustion and My Brother’s War. “I was at a Christmas party and a very kind gentleman struck up a conversation with me and asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer/director and that I was working on a specific project in the area. Enamored by the glamour of the movies, he asked what the story was about. I skillfully articulated the logline into a subtle pitch and immediately he invited me to lunch the next day to talk about his potential involvement.”
Like the blurb used to describe a movie or show in TV Guide, that short description might be all you have to capture the attention of those deciding where they want to invest their time.
“Think of it as a trailer or preview for a movie,” said screenwriter/producer/actress Courtney DeCamp. “They are designed to make you want to go out of your way to watch the movie when it hits theaters. Similarly, the logline of your show or film should make the reader want to take the time to dive into your script in its entirety.”
“They are like bait for your project,” said The Backyard screenwriter Jennifer West. “Make sure it represents your character and conflict as clearly as possible and season it with a little irony or twist because that will make people want to know more about the story. The logline’s job is to introduce and captivate, resulting in people wanting to know more and asking to read your script.”
Kathleen Kreiser of Crazy Maple Studio said, “I focus on the character’s motivation for what they are about to do and try to boil it down to a simple sentence or two. Focus on the central conflict and the one most defining attribute of the protagonist. And keep it short.”
Not everyone agrees with using this encapsulation, even if it’s standard for the industry. Summing up your screenplay in a fleeting sentence or two is not only difficult, but it logically doesn’t seem fair to the story or do it justice.
“Honestly, personally, I think loglines are one-dimensional,” said American History X director Tony Kaye. “A movie is made many times, it’s a live being. It changes, does somersaults, and categorizing such a wild journey, a beast, is kind of a requirement designed by movie executives. Making a movie is not painting by numbers. Making a movie is finding out what is going to happen.”
Screenwriter and USC alum Reinhard Denke holds a different stance, believing in the idea of modifying a story. He broke down the basics: “When I get an assignment, or start a spec script, I always adhere to the basic “4 BASIC QUESTIONS OF STORYTELLING: 1.) Who is the hero? 2.) What do they want? 3.) What’s stopping them from getting it? 4.) What’s at stake? Without those questions asked and answered, you don’t have much of a story. Having written screenplays myself (too many to count) that don’t address those four questions, the reader, and if it’s made, the viewer, quickly loses interest. We’ve all seen movies where these questions can be asked but not answered, which leaves everyone unsatisfied and doesn’t make for a good movie, just another waste of two irretrievable hours. Why do people go see movies? I like to think it’s because they’re uplifting, emotionally powerful, and compelling. That’s our challenge as screenwriters—it’s our prime directive.”
“They are the best way to test your premise and work out the kinks before you sit down to write the outline or script,” said Aadip Desai, recent Staff Writer on The Goldbergs, Community Manager for the 15,500+ member LA TV Writers Facebook Group, a Disney TV Writing Program Alum, AFI dropout and former Podcast Producer/Co-Host of the On The Page podcast with Pilar Alessandra. “If you get this right, you’ll save a lot of time and anguish down the road by avoiding critical mistakes during the script phase. Your loglines won’t include the protagonist’s name, just a description. Try to keep your loglines from 20–50 words (less is always better), using one sentence for features, and one-to-two for a TV series.”
“Loglines must possess irony,” said Reem Kadem, an acclaimed screenwriter and international award-winning actress and producer. “This is so important when constructing your logline, because it goes back to that element of surprise and twist and allure. It must also consist of clear conflict that we can see the hero is up against. It should clearly express the goal of the hero or heroes in the story, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they will face. Should you tell someone the theme of your story, the logline should embody its theme with complete clarity. The logline cannot thrive without its theme being evident, just as a script cannot thrive without its theme being evident.”
A solid logline is no substitute for a solid story and screenplay. Key elements—whether it be love, courage, conflict or suspense—must make the reader entertained and want more from beginning to end.
“Good storytelling is good storytelling,” explained Sleepless in Seattle and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jeff Arch. “No matter what kind of story it is, from intimate to epic, from horror to romance—I have to care about the people, I have to care about the outcome, and in the best of cases, the story has to stay with me long after the lights come up, and even become part of who I am. It has to be authentic and no cheap shots. I can tell when a writer is being lazy and it bothers the shit out of me. ‘Dig deeper’ is the only advice I have. If you’re not willing to dig deeper, you shouldn’t have the shovel at all.”
“A great story has a strong story arc, levity, humor and heart,” said Kobe Wong, an executive producer at Union Valley Media, keynote speaker at Stanford University and Manager of U.S. Culture & Communications at SmartNews. “The story needs to be universal and be able to pull heartstrings. Loglines should make me want to know more about the screenplay. If it’s too specific or vague, you can lose the networks and make a poor first impression. Always know your engine and why your project matters. I look for global appeal and total addressable market. If the project lacks a built-in audience, it’s hard to pitch and get behind.”
“I want to see another viewpoint,” said Yasmine Campbell, screenwriter and former director of development at Lighthouse Productions. “If I could learn something that is absolutely removed from what I know to be true but then get on a ride where it’s still emotionally impactful that’s what a good story is. I think that learning about the scope of human emotion is always important.”
Jon Alston, a writer/director and former linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is currently adapting the Oscar-nominated short-doc, St. Louis Superman, directed by Smriti Mundrah and Sami Khan, about Bruce Franks, Jr., for the big screen. “I look for compelling characters and worlds that speak to me. I can’t say that I’m all too specific on the criteria, but my heart has to connect with the material. Once that happens, I’m hooked, because I know that to see it through to its best, I’ve got to love it. If I can’t love it, I can’t do it.”
“It’s all based on clarity of concept,” stated screenwriter Sara Norcott. “When I’m certain of who my central character is, what they want, and what they’re willing to confront in order to achieve their goal, I can write the logline. It also behaves as an anchor, keeping me grounded in the story, especially when I’m halfway through a script and getting lost in dialogue or scenes. My writing mentor, Jen Grisanti of Jen Grisanti Consultancy, has the best breakdown of a logline I’ve seen. When the writer creates a logline with a sense of empathy for their central character (who they are and what makes them unique), gives their dilemma (what’s in their way) and what they’re willing to do to take action and move towards their goal, the basic elements of a concise logline are in place.”
Gary Goldman, EVP @Ficto and a producer/director on shows like Shameless, Entourage, Valley of the Boom and House of Lies, ends with a closing thought: “A logline is not what you see just after the title of your TV show movie on DirectTV. A logline may just cause the writer of their script as much, if not more, frustration than writing the script itself. It’s the window into the script—perhaps the first impression a reader may have about what they are going to read. Or not. A reader may just put down that 52-page TV one-hour drama or the 162-page feature film script because the LOGLINE didn’t impress or connect. This is from NoamKroll.com: ‘Loglines were used in the early days of Hollywood so producers could read a short explanation of a script (most often printed on the spine of the screenplay), allowing them to skip over uninteresting screenplays without even pulling them out from the shelf.’ I know writers who obsess over each word. The added intensity or clarity can entice the reader; just a bit more is powerful. It’s not easy to explain your entire script in two sentences. As a voracious reader of scripts and a person who respects writers and their craft immensely, I admit (and apologize) I am attracted to and influenced by a good logline. Okay, let’s dig into this script…here we go!”
-Nostos Screenwriting Retreats