Over the last few years I’ve had to learn a number of new skills to get people interested in my work. That includes the art of creating the perfect query paragraph, the “one pager” that describes the central themes of a comic, and the one sentence hook of the logline. I’ve started doing it all well enough that I get responses from the people I send them to, so I’m assuming they’re working, and I want to talk about them here.
In the course of learning these pitching skills I’ve come to believe that fundamental to all of them is perfecting the art of the logline: If you can craft a single sentence designed to capture the fundamental elements of the story in a way that’s going to hook the audience into wanting to find out more, you can probably write the longer stuff much more easily.
The first time I encountered a request for logline the response inside my head was “that’s impossible!” After writing thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of words about my characters and their world it seemed ridiculous to think it could be boiled down into 30 or so words that could clearly communicate what the story was all about.
But the truth is, once you understand how loglines work, if you can’t create one, you may have a much bigger problem on your hands: It’s possible you don’t understand the core of your own story. Or worse, what you’ve written may not really be a real story yet.
A good logline don’t just summarize the plot, it helps you to uncover the compelling character based conflict that is responsible for motivating an audience to push through hundreds of pages or hours of film to discover how things turn out.
Technically speaking, my favorite description of the fundamental mechanics of logline writing can be found here. The article describes the process of creating a logline as writing a single sentence (or two) that answers the following three questions:
1. Who is the main character and what does he or she want?
2. Who, or what, is in the way of the main character achieving that goal?
3. What about this story makes it unique and compelling?
Answering these questions pushes you to wrap the story of your logline around a single character. Your actual manuscript may have a dozen people fighting to take over the narrative spotlight, but with a little effort you can usually figure out whose desire or need it is that really drives the story forward.
Just like I did, the natural reaction of any writer is to think that the work he has created is “impossible” to define in a logline, because it’s too deep, complex, or abstract. But in the end, what’s truly impossible is to create a character that doesn’t want something, even if he or she doesn’t consciously know what that something is. In every moment of life people are motivated to action by their desires, whether it’s an existential need to understand the nature of death, or just wanting to make it to the bathroom before he pops a seal.
Once you have that in mind even the most surreal works can be broken down into a logline with a little thought:
After accidentally killing his wife, an exterminator travels to the surreal Interzone, hoping to lose himself completely in his addiction to Bug Powder, but he soon discovers that his hallucinations have other plans for him.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
On his quest to rip open the dark underbelly of the American dream, a journalist discovers that in the United States the truth destroys anyone who wants to set it free.
Is that the only way to pitch those stories? No, but these loglines do (at least a little bit) what I think is most important:
they will get anyone who reads them imagining the possibilities of how the story might be told.
Reading a great logline should be an inspiration. It’s purpose is to get anyone and everyone who encounters it to start turning the idea over and over in her mind, as she begins to realize the different ways story could go. The reader’s only option is to turn to the author in the hope that they will provide one that’s better than anything she could have thought of.
A great logline engages the imagination of the reader so powerfully that it makes him turn to your manuscript for answers. It’s a doorway to the power of your fiction, challenging you to provide something far more interesting, complex, and gripping than anything he could imagine.
People often complain that loglines reduce complex stories to simple, commercial ideas. But so what? If you weren’t trying to convince someone to enter into a financial transaction with you, then you wouldn’t need to write a logline in the first place. And if it can lure a jaded executive, agent, or editor into actually reading your work, then it has done its job.