Day 23: The Dreaded Logline
Ask a screenwriter what the worst part of screenwriting is and you will invariably get the answer ‘loglines.’ There is nothing worse than taking your meticulously plotted, 120-page screenplay with all the intricate details you sweated over and distilling it down to a single sentence. The thought of having to craft a good logline that will captivate a potential reader is enough to make any one of us quit the business. I know; I’ve quit several times now. Eventually, after moping and complaining and doing everything you can not to write the logline, you finally sit down and start the process.
On the surface it sounds relatively easy. All you have to do is identify the protagonist, his goal and who wants to stop him. If you can do it succinctly in 45 words or less you have a high-concept story, the holy grail of producers everywhere. And logline gurus are famous for giving examples that you can identify instantly.
A giant shark terrorizes a beach community.
We all know what that one is: Jaws. But I take exception to examples like that. It’s not a true logline for what the movie is about. It violates most of the rules of what a proper logline should include. And it is very short of specifics. It works only because we already know the movie. Let’s change that up a bit and see if it still works.
A horde of snakes terrorizes a country town.
Not nearly as effective, yet it is basically the same logline. The difference is we don’t know anything about this movie. Sure, we know it’s some kind of horror, people will be bit and there will probably be lots of slithering. Will it be enough to get a producer to read the script? Maybe, but if I were to submit that logline to one of the forums or take it to a logline guru, I would be chastised for not having a fully developed logline. And yet, it is that very structure that is often presented as a good logline in countless books on screenwriting. I prefer to think of those examples as loglets rather than loglines. It’s taking the distillation process another step. A loglet is the very basic premise of the movie, but not the story. For my screenplay Come Ups, a loglet might be:
Two brothers are at odds over some ill-gotten gains.
That’s the basic premise, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the story. So what is a logline? The logline delivers not only the premise, but the essential dramatic narrative. It will include the protagonist, his goal and the antagonist. Each of the characters should have some type of description to provide understanding of the situation or problems they will encounter. A mute detective. A judge with Alzheimer’s. An alcoholic counselor. The protagonist’s goal should be clearly stated so we know the through action of the plot.
In our above Jaws example we do have an antagonist (the shark) and the protagonist (the beach community), but that doesn’t really accurately portray the story. The action described (terrorizes) is the shark’s action (and apparently his only goal), while our protagonist has no goal at all. By the rules of loglines, this isn’t a very good example. It’s a loglet, a premise. So what should a logline for Jaws look like? Here are two examples:
A police chief takes on the city elders when he wants to close the
beaches at the height of the summer tourist season after a series
of shark attacks.
An aquaphobic police chief must take to the high seas to hunt a
killer shark that has been terrorizing his beach community at the
height of the summer tourist season.
Either is technically correct, but the second more accurately reflects the action of the movie. It also has a descriptor for both the protagonist (aquaphobic) and the antagonist (killer). The goal is clearly stated (needs to hunt the shark to save summer). This logline also answers the basic who (police chief, shark), what (hunt), where (beach, high seas) when (height of summer) and why (shark is killing tourists and the tourist trade). And it’s done in just 30 words. What could be simpler? Seemingly anything. But this difficulty may have less to do with your ability to write a simple sentence and more to do with the script you have written.
The main reason screenwriters have difficulties writing loglines for their script is because the story has problems. I can already hear everybody going, “Yeah, but. . .” But there really are no buts. Hollywood films are very straight forward, single-purpose driven stories. Hero has a goal; antagonist wants to stop him. This is the high-concept story. Essentially, high-concept means simple. You’ve got to be able to describe your story in a single sentence, or better yet a loglet.
Sheriff hunts killer shark - Jaws
Space travelers battle alien on their ship - Alien
Teenage boy discovers his voice at prep school – Dead Poets Society
A smarmy lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours – Liar, Liar
If you can’t describe your story in this fashion, you haven’t written a high-concept script. You may have written a genius script, but it will be a lot harder to sell because the market is looking for high-concept. As soon as you start to deviate from that simple premise and add layers, you are drifting away from high-concept. That doesn’t mean you can’t get complex in your script; you just have to stay true to the simple concept. Take Inception, for example. It is a densely constructed, intricate story. But the concept?
A dream thief plants an idea in a business mogul’s mind.
There’s a lot more to the story and the full logline will fill in the extras of how, when and why, but that pretty much sums up the premise. So if you’re having problems condensing your story to fit those parameters, it’s probably you’re story that’s the problem. It’s too complex to be high-concept. And I’ll bet you’re trying to write the logline after you wrote the script. It’s what most of us do, and we end up trying to cram 120 pages into one sentence. What we should have done was write that one sentence, use it as our guidepost, and let the 120 pages flow from there. We should have expanded at the outset instead of trying to condense at the end. It’s part of outlining and we should all get in the habit of doing it before we ever write a single page. It makes writing so much easier in the long run. I wish I had done so with my screenplay Come Ups.
When it came time to write the logline I was struggling to tell the basic premise because there are really two intertwining stories being told. It’s kind of cool, a little bit different than we’ve seen in other Hollywood actioners, it’s very fluid, dynamic and I realized it was drifting away from high-concept. Uh-oh. What to do now? Luckily, I’ve been going through the Save the Cat paradigm and applying it to the script. In order to hit the various plot points, I had to do some refocusing of the story and this helped bring me back to the high-concept end of the spectrum. It’s still not as strong as the above examples, but I can definitely give you a pretty good one-liner on the story. If I had started the process with the logline, I could have avoided this problem. I might also have ended up with a different script, or I could have added the dual story premise as I went along, but I would have sculpted with the premise in mind. As it is, I had an idea and just started writing. Now I have to go back and fix all those things that would have been taken care of if I had just spent a little time with the logline initially.
When I started writing the logline, I did 3 variations. The first two were similar, whereas the third looked at the story from a completely different angle to see what kind of ideas that would spark. Those loglines were:
#1 When three good ol' boys stumble onto a drug deal gone bad, their lives
are turned upside down when one of them tries to capitalize on the situation,
drawing the wrath of a low-level drug lord and a corrupt sheriff.
#2 Three good ol' boys find themselves on the wrong end of a hunt after one of
them makes off with the stash and the cash from a drug deal gone bad, placing
all three men in the crosshairs of a low-level drug lord and a corrupt sheriff.
#3 A low-level drug dealer attempts a quick comeup, but when the deal goes south,
he must track down the three good ol’ boys who made off with the stash and the
cash or face the murderous wrath of a corrupt sheriff.
I posted these 3 loglines on a couple of the forums I am a member of and the responses were mostly positive, but they had questions. They ran me through the who, what, where, when, how and why of loglines. Specifically, they wanted to know who the protagonist is. Is it all three of the good ol’ boys? One in particular? What was their/his goal? Where does it take place? Why a low-level drug dealer? It doesn’t sound very threatening. Clearly I had some work to do.
Someone suggested I try Hammon Scripts High Concept Logline Generator. This is what I got:
In the underworld of drug smuggling an unemployed carpenter struggles to
overcome the police in order to protect his brother.
A simple, unemployed carpenter struggles to overcome the police in order to
protect his brother in the underworld of drug smuggling.
It didn’t exactly tell my story, but it did get me to think about the protagonist. Ultimately, that’s Shep. He has the final confrontation and has the big change at the end. After some careful thought, I decided I could lose Grady from the equation. He’s not important to the story as far as the logline is concerned. Tyler is the cause of Shep’s change, so I needed him. I have to mention the sheriff since he is the ultimate villain, but by mentioning his ‘drug-dealing partner,’ I can include Reydel and hint at the dual storyline. So I came up with this:
After getting caught in the crossfire of a Florida drug deal gone bad, two unemployed brothers find their familial ties tested when one of them makes off with the stash, putting both brother’s lives in the crosshairs of a corrupt sheriff and his drug dealing partner.
This was better, but it still felt long and clunky and maybe a bit too complex. Could I focus it more on Shep instead of a generic couple of brothers. Descriptors came in hand for this:
When his half-brother makes off with the stash from a drug deal gone bad, a down-on-his-luck blue collar worker must choose to stand by his younger sibling or let him face the murderous wrath of a corrupt sheriff and his drug dealing partner alone.
This follows the basic premise of the story pretty closely, but we now know Shep and Tyler are half-brothers, raising the possibility of some tension between them. Tyler is the younger, making Shep the big brother and giving him the responsibility of looking out for Tyler. But Shep's also got some problems; he's down-on-his-luck (some extra cash from Tyler's stash might be helpful to him). And the stakes are pretty big. Does he stand with his brother or let him get murdered? Oh, and there’s a corrupt sheriff and some drug dealing going on. That’s a fair amount of information in just 44 words. I think I'll run with this one for now.
With this logline I can begin to start looking at a marketing plan. I’ll need it for query letters, online postings, submissions. I’m hoping to have the rewrites on the script done by the beginning of October with the marketing starting shortly thereafter. Of course I still need a synopsis, but that’s another blog.