On the first page of a reader’s report (you can download one of my sample reports here), there’s a section called the “logline” where the reader sums up the story in one or two sentences (preferably one). This is an essential part of the report, and indeed, a screenplay’s development. It’s the first thing the exec will look at, along with the report grid where an X marks the strengths of your script (Poor/Fair/Good/Excellent), and then the all-important ‘Brief’ or ‘Recommendation’ section where yours truly gets to elaborate on the Xs in a one or two sentence fashion.
But it’s the logline that’s the kicker. Sometimes writing the logline can take longer than writing the synopsis itself. When this happens, I know the story is in trouble because it’s not conveying its characters or plot in a clear or succinct manner. And, over the years, I’ve noticed that a good logline can really entice someone into the story (like a good 25 words or less pitch) and will usually indicate some basic plotting and structure that you would expect to see in the script. With this mind, it’s a really good idea for a writer to think of his logline before he starts writing his screenplay. It helps crystallise the concept and story so that the writer can remain focused on what needs to be told throughout the writing process.
The accepted template for a good logline goes something like this: “It’s about (a character/characterisation) who (action/desire, goal) but (conflict, the thing that’s getting in their way)”.
Some examples: “The civilian son of a mafia boss tries to protect his family after his father is critically wounded in a mob hit but finds himself dragged into the family business’ corruption and power.”
“A young farmhand on a distant planet joins the battle against the universe’s evil forces but doesn’t realise that his family’s dark secret will have serious repercussions for him and his friends”.
“A highly strung mother won’t allow her children to leave the house but when three disconcerting housekeepers turn up to help her, strange events occur that suggest the house is haunted.”
“A mild mannered Englishman begins to wonder if he’ll ever meet the woman of his dreams when he always attends weddings as a guest, never the groom, but when he meets a sexy American woman, he decides to pursue her as she could be the one to lead him up the aisle.”
“An adventurous secret agent is sent on a mission to stop an evil megalomaniac from doing his evil deeds but his passion for women and gadgets help and hinder him in equal measure in his efforts to save the world.”
These are my own loglines for these particular films but you get the gist. What’s important I think is that if I was pursuing these ideas as original screenplays, the loglines would help me develop what absolutely needs to happen in the story. In other words, it would help shape the structure or give me more ideas on how to expand the plot. ** MINOR SPOILERS, GODFATHER ** Looking at The Godfather logline above (you knew that right?), in the script I would know that an attempted assassination would have to take place, and that this would be quite exciting and dramatic, and be a pivotal moment in the whole story. So there’s my inciting incident (off the top of my head; I tried to analyse The Godfather’s structure once and I marked down five acts). ** NO MORE MINOR SPOILERS, PHEW! **
A good logline is crucial. It’s how your story can be summed up in a neat one or two sentence (I know, sounds prescriptive and annoying but that’s the way it is) and will then be used by everyone who has to pitch your script to their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses etc. Loglines are not to be confused with “taglines” which is the marketing strap below your title on the poster to indicate some intrigue or hook about the film. ** MINOR SPOILERS, ALIEN ** “In space no-one can hear you scream” was Alien’s famous tagline but its logline would be something like “A modest space crew going home with their cargo stop to respond to a distress signal but are forced to confront a deadly alien who stows aboard their ship, leaving only one of the female members of the crew to fend for herself.” ** MINOR SPOILERS AVERTED, GOOD JOB! **
Loglines don’t necessarily have to follow the well-worn template of “it’s about a blank who blah blah” but generally it helps to express your story in its simplest and most effective form as this is what cinemagoers are really after. They don’t want to be confused, they don’t want to be misled, they don’t want to be dazzled by your theme of Spanish paella through the 1800s, they just want to know what’s going on, who’s doing it and why. As an aside, I read a script this morning which stated its genre was ‘General’. I could just see it now: “What should we go to see tonight luv? You know what I really fancy? Something ‘general’. A nice broad story with generic characters and an unspecific story line, that would be great!”