by Eldred Bird
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.
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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/.