Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Story Vault: Logline

August is both a quiet and busy month. A lot of script editors, producers and execs are still on their summer hols but return to the office round about now to gear up for the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. In Edinburgh.

And so, what with it being a bit quiet around here, I thought I'd dip into the blog's story vault and pick a post from the archives. The Logline. Deep Structure recently described his latest film in a brief logline and it came under criticism from Claude McIver who claimed that all loglines weren't very good. He makes an interesting point. The indispensible Inside Pitch has a great post about coming up with a good Hollywood idea and goes on to briefly describe those he thinks have that 'slam dunk' appeal just from their logline.

Here's what I said about the subject back in August last year (blimey):

"On the first page of a reader’s report (I’ll try to upload a sample report at some stage), 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. Looking at The Godfather logline above, 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 but I marked down five acts before I gave up).

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. “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.”

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. Generally.

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!”


Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the general genre. What do you mean Danny, it doesn't exist?? It's one of my faves, along with the "eminently forgettable" and "just plain shit" genres! ; )

Some writers are plain mental. I went through a phase when I was told, time and time again, that my POV as a reader was in question cos I suggested it might be an idea to not use Arial - or and this was my favourite - braggadacio. If you don't know what this font is, take a look in MS Word. I'm not joking, you'd GO mental reading that. I sent it back.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Writer,

I don't usually leave comments on people's blogs, but you might be able to save me some time with your wisdom and experience. I've got a really good idea for a film (yeah, I know, everyone says that) but I don't want to waste time writing a full script if it's just going to be rejected everywhere. Where can someone tell me if my idea is good enough to bother with?

From Mr. Unsure.

Anonymous said...

Some ideas are great, some suck ass. What differs is the execution. You sell your writing ability more than the idea. So it's always worth going to script as it's all subjective.

Danny Stack said...

Dear Mr Unsure

We feel your pain. We share your doubt. We know your uncertainty.

Check out Inside Pitch's latest post (link in my logline post, or in the sidebar) about good ideas, and whether or not your idea is worth a shot.

Or you could just pitch it to us: we'll give you our honest but constructive opinion. Mostly...

Cunningham said...

The fact is if you can write a logline that engages the reader's interest you can probably write a screenplay that does the same.

Working in the DVD Premiere realm, we're often given a title, a poster and a logline and told to go off and write it. Where many writers go off track is when they forget to relate everything in the story back to the title and the logline (concept). Anything else is superfluous and should be excised like a cancer.

A good logline/concept is an idea generator and goes a long way toward filling the movie up with scenes and characters that reinforce it. It is a foundation upon which good scripts are built.

If you look at a weak script you can see that the writer:

a) didn't have a good concept.
b) veered away from the concept.

Tim Clague said...

I think 'General' is actually the most in demand genre at the moment. You know, nothing tooooo great. Just great enough. Hopefully starring thingy from that other thing.

Andy Phillips said...

I am now developing my script with an established screenwriter. When it's ready he's going to show it to a producer friend of his.

He's a friend of a friend. My friend happened to mention the logline to him. He asked to read the script, and liked it well enough to help me with it. Make sure you have a good logline. It might open doors for you.