People struggle to craft a logline for some of the same reasons that they struggle to make a script work. 98% of all scripts submitted in film, TV, and stage do not work, so the mechanics of how scripts work are not well understood. Not only is dramatic writing considerably harder than most people think it is, but writing a script is radically different from writing a novel. The underlying storytelling is much the same, of course, but that story must be translated into actions that can be performed by actors and which will grip an audience.
A script is a raw blueprint for a theatrical performance, whether a movie, TV show, or stage play. Even though the actors only interact with each other on stage and not the audience, this indirect form of storytelling, done properly, keeps the audience on the edge of their seats wondering what happens next. This dramatic tension is the necessary ingredient, an indication that a story is working dramatically.
And with that, let’s dive into nine ways to writer a killer logline.
Table of Contents
- The More Craft You Have as a Writer, the Better Your Loglines Will Be
- Focus on Your Story’s Core Conflict
- Conflict in Training Day
- Make Sure the Stakes Are High
- Keep It Simple
- Most Communication is Miscommunication
- Tell Me the Story You Just Read
- Is Your Story Any Good?
- Study the Best Loglines
The More Craft You Have as a Writer, the Better Your Loglines Will Be
So, the fact is that the more you understand the deep mechanics of how to make a script work, the better you’ll be at crafting good loglines. It’s the same tools and techniques. If, for instance, you’re a master homebuilder, then you’ll also be great at building a front door. Loglines focus on a story’s central conflict, as does a powerful tool for plot construction that utilizes logic to pull all a story’s diverse elements together into one coherent whole by focusing on its core conflict.
Focus on Your Story’s Core Conflict
Conflict is central to drama, or more specifically, unresolved conflict, because the audience is rooting for the protagonist to overcome the antagonist, and cares how it turns out. It’s essentially two boxers in a ring in a fight to the finish. The oldest Greek theater was just two actors onstage, and your plot needs to work at that level—two dogs fighting over a bone. And this is true for any genre. There’s just as much conflict in Liar Liar as in Silence of the Lambs, even though they’re quite different.
A simple technique for isolating the central conflict in a developing story is to look at the three-quarters point in the story where the final showdown occurs. What action by the protagonist touches off the fight to the finish? If this doesn’t exist, then you should create it because we want our protagonist to be proactive. Then look near the end of Act I where there should be some kind of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, but not a fight to the finish. This sets up a potential fight, which will build to a fight to the finish before the end of the story. You’d want to know what action by the protagonist sets up this potential fight.
Conflict in Training Day
In Training Day, it’s when Jake (Ethan Hawke) challenges Alonzo (Denzel Washington) on the side of the highway about robbing the money from the Sandman’s wife with the fake search warrant. They do fight, but it doesn’t erupt into a knockdown-dragout fight, and you can see that these two will go at it before the story is over. By isolating these two central actions (and creating them if they don’t exist), you identify the story’s central conflict, which is crucial to making the plot work and to writing a good logline.
Make Sure the Stakes Are High
Now make sure the stakes are high enough because if they’re not, then the audience doesn’t care who wins. It must pass the "So What" test, and if it doesn’t, then you can turn up the amperage. Try different variables to make us care more, to make it more of a challenge, to make the consequences of failure more intense. And remember, we can get just as caught up in the fate of a goofy loner trying to woo a cheerleader in a romantic comedy as we can a retired hitman trying to save his daughter from a psycho kidnapper.
Keep It Simple
Another crucial aspect of crafting a compelling logline is focusing on just one aspect of the script, rather than presenting a confusing array of story elements. One definition of Dramatic Unity is "a single action, a single hero, and a single result.' Keep it simple. Humans are often overwhelmed with information, and people regularly misconstrue communications and interpret them according to their biases, assumptions, beliefs, habits, and mental models, so keep the focus on the absolute core of the story.
Most Communication is Miscommunication
Clarity of communication is crucial, and it is widely acknowledged that 60% of all communication is miscommunication. You see it all around you daily. To counter this tendency, be explicit and uncluttered so that your vision for your movie can be conjured in the mind of a producer or agent. If they don’t see the movie you’re describing, then you’re off to a bad start.
Tell Me the Story You Just Read
I know of an A-list screenwriter who only wants one thing when you read his latest script -- he wants you to recount to him the story that you just read. He does not want notes and he doesn’t care if you like it or not. All he wants to know is if you’re seeing the exact same story that he worked so hard to get down on paper, because if those are misaligned then he’s not communicating it clearly enough.
Is Your Story Any Good?
And of course one of the biggest factors is whether your story is good or not. Many writers try to sell substandard scripts and spend so much energy trying to turn bad grapes into good wine. As a professional writer, you must be able to evaluate the quality of your writing. You have to know the difference between quality and crap. Mere technique won’t fix that because well-structured crap is still crap.
Has your story been done a thousand times? Are the stakes low? Does it fail the "So What" test? Are you making safe choices because you don’t have the writing chops to pull off a more complex story?
Learn to recognize weak material and constantly challenge yourself as a writer. Master your craft as a dramatist and master your pure storytelling skills. Read one great script per week to build your ability to recognize quality when you see it.
Study the Best Loglines
You should also study loglines from great movies and TV shows. Steep yourself in them. Each movie listed on IMDb features its logline front and center beneath its poster and preview. Read them by the hundreds. Soak your head in them and internalize their simplicity and elegance -- their ability to present a simple yet compelling explanation of the story. Let’s look at the loglines from some top films.
A depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis decides to turn his hectic life around after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s attractive friend.
A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process.
An eight-year-old troublemaker must protect his house from a pair of burglars when he is accidentally left home alone by his family during Christmas vacation.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Allied prisoners of war plan for several hundred of their number to escape from a German camp during World War II.
A seemingly indestructible android is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all costs.
After awakening from a four-year coma, a former assassin wreaks vengeance on the team of assassins who betrayed her.
After a young man is murdered, his spirit stays behind to warn his lover of impending danger, with the help of a reluctant psychic.
A cowboy doll is profoundly threatened and jealous when a new spaceman figure supplants him as top toy in a boy’s room.
THE LION KING
A Lion cub crown prince is tricked by a treacherous uncle into thinking he caused his father’s death and flees into exile in despair, only to learn in adulthood his identity and his responsibilities.
A paraplegic marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.
About the Author
Jeff Kitchen has taught playwriting on Broadway and screenwriting in Hollywood, with former students nominated for multiple Oscars and Emmys. A top-rated teacher, he taught for thirty years and wrote the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. Jeff adapted his training program into a comprehensive online apprenticeship available on his website, script.kitchen.