What is a Logline and How Do You Write One

July 19, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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If you're a movie-lover, you've probably told hundreds of loglines in your lifetime. When trying to explain the movie you just saw to a friend, you're given that small window of time to sum it up in one just short but catchy pitch without giving away the ending. Not that easy right? I agree. As filmmakers, however, perfecting your next film's logline could make or break things for you and your film. Whether you get your project casted, funded and distributed all depends on a number of things, one of which is how you pitch your beloved story in that short finite moment. Rest assured, here is a fail proof guide on how to formulate your next logline.

What’s it About?

“What’s it about?” That’s what everyone wants to know, right? You suggest a movie, they ask that question. Same thing if you tell someone you’ve written a screenplay. And what do you say?

“Well, it’s kind of a dramedy about self discovery with hints of magical realism. There is a condor, but it’s more of a representation of a condor that saved the main character’s life when she was a girl. She’s a truck driver, but not in a traditional sense. Her father was an oyster farmer. There’s a scene near the opening when they’re skydiving...”

Okay. Stop. Actually, you should have stopped at “dramedy.” But you know what? I’ve heard pitches that were extremely similar to that, and they were not successful pitches. Look at that pitch. What’s the movie about? No idea. Why? Because there’s no logline, no condensed statement that tells me about the story. It’s bits of the story.

So how do you condense the complex story you created over several months down to a compelling 10-second sound bite? By writing a great logline.

Tell me More

Here’s a pretty simple formula for a good logline: A logline is one or two sentences that states a genre, introduces a character or two, and answers the questions “What” and “So what?” That’s all. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s really not.

A successful pitch starts with a logline. An unsuccessful pitch starts and ends with a logline. What does that mean? It means that if you’ve nailed the logline, the person you’re talking to will say, “Wow. Tell me more.” If your logline sucks, that person will say, “That sounds nice. Cool that you wrote something. Can you believe the Mariners are 12 games back? Unbelievable.”

Let’s see one in action. Here’s a logline for an adaptation of a YA drama:

“DEADLINE is an adaptation of Chris Crutcher’s drama about a terminally ill 18 year old who doesn’t tell anyone he’s dying. As he rushes to get all he can out of his last year in a small Idaho town, he discovers that those he grows closest to have secrets even darker than his own.”

That’s about 10 seconds, and it gives a clear answer to “What’s it about?” How well does that fit the formula?

·         Two sentences

·         States the genre (drama)

·         Introduces a character (terminally ill 18-y-o)

·         What? (tells no one he’s dying)

·         So what? (discovers dark secrets)

Looks pretty good.

It’s (not) so Easy

Some writers think that a sentence or two is no big deal, and they think they can just pull a good logline out of their whatevers. I was once in a class with a few people like this. The instructor gave them a week to come up with good loglines. He told them not to turn them in early. To put thought into them. To rewrite them. And rewrite them. And have other writers critique them. And for god’s sake, don’t turn them in early. Several people brought theirs in the next day. The instructor very politely, thoroughly, and publicly tore the loglines to shreds. This is not easy work.

If you have a high-concept screenplay, you can get away with a shorter logline. High-concept screenplays can generally be described in one short sentence, and creating a logline for them usually doesn’t entail a “so what.” Let’s try that with a film I saw not too long ago:

“HIDDEN FIGURES is a drama about three Black female mathematicians who solve NASA’s unsolvable re-entry problems.”

That logline is pretty weak. There’s something intriguing there (the stereotype of a mathematician is not generally a Black female), but there’s not much that compels me to see it. That tells us two things. Either the logline is weak or it’s not a high-concept film. In this case, it’s both.

Let’s try a classic:

“GHOST is a drama about a man who dies and becomes his wife’s guardian angel.”

There you go. High concept. Fifteen words, and you can see the potential conflict, tension, and emotion. It’s also a good example of why you need to include the genre in your logline. Look at how genre can change a logline:

“GHOST is a comedy about a man who dies and becomes his wife’s guardian angel.”

That is quite a different movie. I’d watch it, but it’s a very different movie.

You Never Get a Second Chance...

So you can see how a bad logline can kill a pitch. If you’re trying to get people to read your script, you must have a solid logline. It’s the first impression you get to make. So how do we fix the HIDDEN FIGURES logline above? Add the “so what:”

“HIDDEN FIGURES is a drama about three Black female mathematicians who solve NASA’s unsolvable re-entry problems while battling the racism of the American South in the 1960s.”

The “what” is solving the rocket problems, which is cool. The “so what” is doing it in a place and time that is actively oppressing them. Both of those together make a compelling story.

A logline has another purpose, too. It’s not just a selling tool. If you write your logline before you start outlining (and you should), it will act as a guidepost. After you get a draft of the outline done, see if your logline still accurately tells your story. If not, one of those elements needs some attention. And if you say your logline to someone and they ask about the Mariners, you might need to rework parts of it, too.

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Kevin Rexroat

Screenwriter, blogger and editor.

I have been hired to write or rewrite four feature screenplays. My spec screenplays and teleplays have finished as high as the finals in multiple international competitions including the Austin Film Festival, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft's Big Break, BlueCat, Page International, Slamdance, Emerging Screenwriters, and others. 

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