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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Writing a Logline Sucks

Yeah, you read that right. Writing a logline sucks. But like organizing your receipts for taxes, cleaning up what the dog harked up and visiting your mother-in-law, it's a necessary evil.

First of all, there really has been a bit of a blur between the definitions of a premise line and a logline. I tend to go with the distinction that a logline is what describes your script within the industry. Meaning, a reader will write a logline of your script. Executives will ask what it is. Loglines might appear in brief descriptions of scripts online, in competitions or in the trades. It's brief, it's not particularly sexy, but it sums up the script. A premise line is a bit longer and this is a tool for you, the writer, as you are working on your script. A logline should be one or two brief sentences. A premise line can be three or four sentences. The premise line is what you the writer use as you are fleshing out your story - it might change 13 times. The logline is the end result to describe the script that is already written. Let's keep this particular conversation focused on loglines rather than premise lines - a summing up of your script AFTER it's written.

Now. We all know that summing up our scripts in two or three sentences is a horrible thing to have to do. I can't leave out the part about the crazy janitor! Oh, oh and the thing - that sequence, with the big chase scene? Or how Teo tells Liz he loves her in the coffee shop? No, no and no.

When you are a production company reader you have to generate loglines quickly, easily and often. And of course, with practice, you get pretty darn good at it. One of the key ingredients to getting to do it quickly and easily is of course repetition. Readers also don't care that much how poetic the logline is: A group of teenaged werewolves terrorize a Nova Scotia village until a legendary polar bear drives them off. Done. I'm just writing a very quick upshot.

Wait, wait, back up - didn't I just say that loglines are what readers generate? So let them do it, loglines are for suckers! Oh how nice it would be if that were true.

The ability to rattle off a quick logline as an entree to discussing your script is a great thing to be able to do on every level. You might be at a party. You might meet someone who can help you. But more importantly - perhaps most importantly - being able to state a logline for what you've written (or are continuing to work on) helps you gain clarity as a writer.

But gaining this type of overview clarity is hard and it takes practice. It's like playing Scrabble, doing a Rubik's Cube, doing a crossword puzzle and juggling all at the same time. See, we writers have weird brains. Can anyone really dispute that? We think in concentric circles. We think in details. We think in moments and bits of dialogue and the fact that this scene takes place at the dawn. With a soft rain falling. But we have to ask ourselves to shift gears into the macro. Because nobody likes to talk to a writer who lacks the ability to FREAKING UPSHOT THE SCRIPT.

Nothing glazes eyes over faster than hearing this from a writer, after having asked what their script is about: Well, okay. It's about this guy. Wait - no, a guy and his wife, right? And they're bank robbers. So they rob this bank and - wait - no, back up, okay they live in Nebraska and have two kids but then he gets laid off so they - wait - okay so they got married really young, right? And... So here's what's happening in my head as you are now what I consider babbling: I am eyeing the bar behind you. Should I get a mojito? I am looking for any escape route. Oh LOOK - canapes! I'll do anything to get out of this long, boring, circuitous conversation. That's not exactly the effect you were going for, as the writer.

Aside from boring the hell out of potential contacts, a writer who cannot rattle off a quick logline to describe their script is in trouble. Because if you can't sum up your script quickly, it's likely the case that the script is not in terrific shape. The higher the concept of your script, the more exact the execution, the more intimate you the writer are with the narrative and character arcs - the easier it is to summarize quite briefly.

It could be that you need to practice. Go ahead - rattle off your logline. Can you do it in two sentences? Remember - I'm only talking about the macro overview. It is useful to practice rattling off a logline before, during and after writing your script. It keeps you centered. It's your compass rose.

Again - crucial distinction here - I am NOT talking about a premise line (which we shall revisit later this week), we are talking about a logline - so I'm not super concerned with the old rules of having to mention the antagonist, main character flaw, etc. If you CAN get across the genre, the main character's flaw and the antagonist all within that one sentence, Willy Wonka and a chocolate river to you - that's GREAT. But don't be super concerned about that right now.

For this initial exercise, I'm asking Wavers to push the pause button today and jot down a simple logline. If you can't do it - try again. And again. And then if you still can't sum up your script that quickly, you may need to diagnose just why that is. Do you have a BOSH script? (bunch of stuff happens). Generating a logline is like a doctor being able to give you the quick upshot: You have the measles. Great - I can work with that.

Naturally, if the spine of your story is simpler, it will be easier to sum up. But in any event, you should still be able to give me the freaking upshot already: A bank robbing couple from Nebraska go on a spree and become folk heroes. Okay, I can grok that pretty quickly. That's all I wanted, a quick thumbnail so I can tell my boss that this script might be something we should read for our production company.

Now I know what you're thinking and I know this because pretty much all writers try this excuse at one time or another: But my script isn't so simple! It's complex and full of nuance and detail and MY script is far, far above simplistic pablum and defies a brief overview! You know what, I have bad news for you - these are bullshits. Your script might be complex, it might be full of detail but somewhere in there, you DO have a spine of your story. And you need to be able to pull that out, hang it up in front of the class and point to it. Basically this is the story of...what?

Learning how to summarize your script in one or two brief sentences can feel like torture. But it's good for you - trust me. Take a minute today and write a logline for your script. I know you're going to hate it, that's a given - but can you do it? Practice makes perfect. Generate loglines for movies you see or scripts you read. Generate loglines for ideas you have. Generate loglines for old scripts you've written. Keep at it and soon you'll find that your logline muscles will grow.

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millar prescott said...

Julie - Loved the post and the lesson.

I always thought the logline would be better done after the script, but somewhere along the line I was led to believe it was part of the pre-process. Or maybe I twisted it. Over the last year or so I've read so many screenwriting rules I'm afraid to open up Final Draft in case I don't do it right.

In my own case I agonized over the logline only to find, as I completed my scriptment, the protagonist wasn't as much of a dink and I had actually grown fond of him enough to spare him from his pre-determined fate, thereby necessitating a change in the logline, which I'm sure has caused the shingles.

Luzid said...

This feels like another example of the confusion of terms so prevalent among gurus and teachers.

Some say a script has 3 acts, with the second act broken into two equal halves by the midpoint (I agree). Some say it's four acts.

Some call the catalyst a pinch, or an inciting incident, or a dilemma.

Some call a logline as you decribe it here a tagline. Some call what you define as a premise line a logline.

On the latter, last week I asked a professional screenwriter (who has literally made millions off his specs and has two separate movies in production as we speak) if I could share my logline for a project I'm about to rewrite. He really liked the logline... and never called it a premise line. He knew it was a logline. One sentence, but longer than what you suggest as a logline.

So, you can see how newbies will get confused by the terminology.

As far as writing the logline AFTER the script -- never again. I've found that crafting it beforehand is invaluable to writing a great story, and (along with outlining) cutting off a couple of drafts, easy.

Belzecue said...

Think of an Egyptian pyramid. Massive. Heavy. Enduring and steadfast.

Think about the very top apex of that pyramid. Small. Wedge shaped. Pointy.

The apex is your logline. It's the tiny bit that defines the whole (fractal-like). It's the tip of the iceberg.

Keep thinking about that massive, hulking pyramid... and flip it upside down in your mind, so now the pyramid is supported entirely by its apex... balancing there, with all its crushing weight bearing down on a tiny triangular point.

THAT'S how important your logline is.

Julie Gray said...

@Belzecue - beautifully put :)

@Luzid - see, what you have to do is mash up all the terms you hear, practice executing them again and again and soon, you'll realize they all mean the same basic thing. It's really not rocket science. It just takes time. :)

Luzid said...

@ Julie:

LOL! That's pretty much what I do anyway -- for example, I merged Blake's beat sheet with my own sequence structure adapted from Gulino.

It's actually quite fun to massage the different concepts into a working model. : )

meg said...

@Belzecue--love the visual

@uzid--I agree. I enjoy pulling different concepts into my own blueprint.

Another thing that's useful to me (I think I saw the idea in Blake Snyder's or Trottier's book) is to imagine the movie poster. Some of the taglines on movie posters aren't sufficient by themselves to be a logline. You really need the picture to get it BUT I use that visualization--an image and pithy line to create a exact and concise logline. (This method also helps me create a working title). I have a hard time writing if I don't have a title and logline to begin with because it keeps me on track. (And I am not a list maker but I love them for writing).

Here's the way I look at it--create that logline that wows and then hopefully they'll read it and say to everyone else "It's complex and full of nuance and detail and far, far above simplistic pablum and defies a brief overview!"