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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Trick With Loglines

By now Wavers know that I have an aversion to over-intellectualizing screenwriting. There are so many books on the topic out there, and so many theories and metaphors (the elixir! the cave! save the cat! mini-movie! the pinch! the plot point! the arc! the flow! the thematic-narrative-thing-with-the thing!) that it can be ultimately overwhelming and confusing.

I did what most people do - learn all that stuff, forget it and just write a lot. And you'll find that what you've learned will then shape itself to what makes sense for YOU. Of course, at least one of you will then write a revolutionary new screenwriting book entitled: Save the Pinch! Because it came to you one night very late that the pinch must be saved and it was such a powerful epiphany of total clarity that you just had to share it with the world.

Let's talk about loglines. Baybee.

Normally loglines would be written AFTER the script is done, right? So a reader reads your script and generates a logline based on what he/she just read. So in our logline competition I asked Wavers to do something slightly counter-intuitive, which is to write a logline as if there were a script already written. Not easy to do, but a very fun exercise. The ability to write a logline based on thin air (or in this case, two words) stimulates your ability to recognize story and character combinations that MIGHT work as a screenplay. Whooo. I said "stimulates."

If you can write a decent logline - even a slightly silly, playful one - based on nothing but a couple of suggested elements, it's like playing with a Rubik's Cube; you learn how to take the given information and click it into a pattern that works. It's WAY good for your writer's brain.

So your logline needs to have:

A setup, a complication and a compelling* choice or sacrifice.

*what is compelling should be compelling to YOU and at least 12 other people.

The setup includes a main character and his or her deal: A pacifist Menonnite. An ambitious journalist. A paranoid PETA scientist.

The complication includes the situation in which the main character then finds him or herself: Is transferred to Dubai where he must manage a strip club. Gets an assignment to cover the World Mud Wrestling Competition. Is kidnapped and forced to concoct a formula that makes turkeys violent killers.

The compelling choice/sacrifice might be something like: But when he falls in love with a Persian stripper on the lam, he must choose between his non-violent ways or the love of his life. But when one wrestler drops out, threatening the worldwide simulcast, he must either get in the ring to save the event or report the sensational flop and win journalism's highest award. But when a turkey that only he can stop attacks the President of the United States, he must choose between his lifelong ethics and the life of the leader of the free world.

Now let's throw in an antagonist: A ruthless sheik. A ruthless newspaper editor. A sociopathic turkey farmer.

Okay so these are all ridiculous examples - but it's like one of those flip books for kids where you turn the page and the chicken has a dinosaur head. And now it has human legs. And so forth. So if you take the ridiculous examples above and put them together:

When a pacifist Menonnite is transferred to Dubai where he manages a strip club, he falls in love with a Persian stripper who just happens to be on the lam from a ruthless sheik who'll stop at nothing to get her back. Now he must choose between his pacifist ways and the love of his life.

So do you see how the italicized bits are the moving parts? Can you see that a "pacifist" might make a good choice of a flaw here? Can you see where that's going to arc this character? Can you see an ethical choice for him? Remain a pacifist or screw that and go get the girl. So this guy's gonna change. But the fun of this is that maybe it would be more interesting if this Mennonite were actually a kick-boxing champ. Maybe it would be more interesting if he fell in love with a ruthless sheik. What if the antagonist were the Persian stripper? See how you can move the parts around? Maybe it's not Dubai, it's Philadelphia. Or Anchorage in 1872. It's almost endless. But the moving bits have to have a fulcrum point - a relationship to one another.

Okay let's take another one:

An ambitious journalist is assigned to cover the World Mud Wrestling Competition but when one wrestler drops out, threatening the world-wide simulcast, he must either defy his boss, a ruthless newspaper editor bent on notoriety and get in the ring to save the event or report the sensational flop and win journalism's most prestigious award.

So again the moving bits have a relationship to one another. The flaw (or as I academically referred to it earlier - the deal) of the main character is going to SUCK in the situation you choose. So an ambitious journalist assigned to cover the inauguration of the new president of Zimbabwe (please, god) isn't really going to be up against much, is he? No, that's a pretty cool assignment. I mean, we could complicate that but let's choose the situation that is going to have the MOST suckage for that character. Ambition. Mud wrestling. Terrific.

And so forth.

What can kill your logline would include, but not not be limited, to:

Too broad a flaw for your main character
Too small, unoriginal and uncompelling a situation
Lack of an antagonist
Lack of some kind of big choice or sacrifice
Generic language; platitudes e.g., "must choose between love and peace."

So this is the kind of thing one might see which signals DO NOT READ THIS SCRIPT:

A college graduate gets the job of his dreams, falls in love and learns that love is more important than ambition.

I kid you not, Wavers, I read scripts in which that an approximate upshot of the script. Where's the freaking antagonist? What's the main character's flaw? What dream job? What ambition? Just kill me with a spork and do it now.

Now get back to work.

"Suckage," "moving bits," "deal" and "kill me with a spork" are all copyrighted and the exclusive intellectual property of The Rouge Wave and will be featured in the upcoming book: Kill Me With a Spork: The Importance of Moving Bits and Deal in a Script Without Suckage. Order early.

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Christian M. Howell said...

I, unfortunately, am not a fan of the "flaw." I am of the opinion that a flaw can be anything from "used to small town life" to "is murderously jealous" to "is terrified of heights."

I do try to make the point of the story, describe the McGuffin and set the location.

Julie Gray said...

"used to a small town" is not a flaw. It is one symptom of the flaw. A great way to dig down and find the flaw is to ask questions: WHY is this person used to small town life? WHAT is this character's backstory? WHAT drives that "being used to a small town" and what other symptoms are there? And does the FLAW you arrive at screw up everything in the character's life on page negative ten and then drive the action forward starting on page one? How will this character overcome the flaw? How will he or she change in the end?

FLAW is critical in a logline, in other words. Because it's what sets the stage for what drives the narrative on a character level. A character with a different flaw will have a different reaction to the situation you have created.

Putting the location in the logline is a good idea. But not every story HAS a MacGuffin and even if it does, the MacGuffin may not be the most compelling reason I'd then ask to read your script. The point of the story is the crux of the conflict. The crux of the conflict is the tension between who your character IS and what your character will become - because of the narrative thrust upon him. So the crux of the conflict in RAIN MAN is a greedy, vain guy who kidnaps his mentally disabled, totally frustrating brother to get his inheritance. But by the end of the journey, our main character has changed and profoundly so. So the conflict is CAN Tom Cruise complete this road trip and get what he wants? His flaw throws down traps for him at every turn. He has to overcome his flaw to achieve his goal. And then his goal changes because he has changed through this experience.

Every script has its own matrix of conflict and character but there is always a relationship between flaw/character and the conflict in the script. Otherwise we just don't care.

You're gonna need to become a "fan of the flaw" if you want to be an effective writer. All stories are fundamentally character driven.

Joe Public said...

Is it within reason to say flaw is the theme? The character has to learn to......

Seth said...

But Julie, just for the sake of argument, aren't there compelling stories in which the conflict is largely or entirely external? What, for example, is Beowulf's character flaw?

Or, to take kind of an odd example, what is the main character's flaw in a movie like Never Cry Wolf? He's an idealistic naturalist at the beginning and remains an idealistic naturalist to the end. Sure, he has to learn how to survive in the Arctic, but lack of knowledge isn't really a character flaw, is it?

Julie Gray said...

Beowulf, which dates from sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, is an epic poem in which our main character represents the frailty of humanity in a more overarching way than the specificity of character flaw in more modern work. It is satisfying and universally resonant which is why it endures. But it is not an apt comparison to the way characters have evolved in modernity. Shakespeare is thought of as being the first writer to personalize characters with more specificity.

Of course there are examples of stories in which the conflict is more external than internal - often action movies tend toward this. But if you want to err on the side of the audience really caring and getting invested, conflict that is generated from within and without is the obvious way to go.

J.J. said...

I'm glad you wrote this entry, Julie. It saves me the trouble of emailing to ask if you were using the logline for purposes of you own (e.g. a script you're already developing) or just as a way to jump start an idea you had...

Since my submited logline was pretty generic--and actually sucky/boring, I'm in no real danger of the above being an actual problem to consider. Nonetheless I was curious.

I developed the logline a little more and actually might (okay, I am) develop my own script idea based on the logline premise. So, thanks for mucking up my already crowded idea desk...Now I have to get back to work.

PS: I had to get a blogger account just to write this--very annoying.

Christian M. Howell said...

Truthfully, that's what I try to avoid. I don't like to be too analytical in my character profiles.

I just feel that the flaw is like the character arc; no one comes out of the movie with that on their mind. I like to flow with a skeleton and add elements(scenes, dialog) that show personality. Perhaps that's not the best way but my scripts always entertain me objectively.

As a writer the first person I have to please is myself and then I can try to find topics that will allow for compromise.

Julie Gray said...

@Christian - do what works for you. :)

@JJ - oh my god that's BRILLIANT! Have Wavers generate great loglines for me! I'm too guileless to come up with something that evil, lol! Re blogger account: yes, I needed to make it more difficult for the Anonymous Bile Spewers to post comments for the sheer, wicked joy of it. Anyone who makes it as far as registering has one more barrier to bile spewing or dogging. Neither of which I enjoy being on the receiving end of. Naturally.

J.J. said...

So, how the logline generator working for you?

And I think the next time you do one of these (or a premise for a film), the winner should get the opportunity to work with you one-on-one of that idea...

Because I'm going to struggle like hell with my logline idea--I just don't see it working as a straight comedy or as the rom-com that I usually write (I mean it could, but it would probably sell esier as a straight head thriller/action flick).

So, (hint, hint) working with a partner might be really good this time around.

wenonah said...

I think it would be extremely hard to write a character without a flaw and the flaws are the most fun, interesting, compelling and though-provoking aspect of a character. Every decision he or she has to make should come from that flaw and shown in the outcome. Someone who is painfully shy would approach and solve a problem differently than someone who is that jerk that thinks he's god's gift. The flaw is the internal antagonist, something for our hero to overcome to reach his goal, it keeps him from changing into who he needs to be at the end of the story. I think characters without flaws are flat, 2-dimensional and pretty much not real. You don't know anyone without a major flaw, how could you write a character (and a whole script) without one?


meg said...

Oh my, Julie, when I read JJ's comments I almost fell out of my chair! I would think that anyone who skews that way can't possibly be open to learning what it takes to be a successful screenwriter. The competition may fierce but I don't think I have to worry about it from that quarter.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you again for giving me something else to think about and synthesize. I printed out the post and added it to my other notes on loglines. I think I have been emphasizing structure and conflict while neglecting flaw. In my submitted entry I was perhaps a bit too subtle (I assumed the viewer would know the flaw based on the conflict). Nonetheless, my purpose in submitting,forcing me to practice rather than just reading the outcome of the contest, has already helped me. And there's something to be said for the satisfying "ahhhh, I get that" moment.

Julie Gray said...

@Wenonah - well put.

@Meg - you're welcome!

@JJ - my hourly rate far surpasses a $25 gift certificate, unfortunately. Maybe down the line at some point. But I am pleased as punch that this exercise gave you some fun ideas. You're not the first person to say that; don't be surprised if several sailor/pirate spec scripts hit the market in a few months!

Julie Gray said...

@Seth - re Never Cry Wolf - I have not seen this movie but I'll betcha a dozen cupcakes a closer look would identify a flaw. No, lack of knowledge is not a character flaw - but it might be a symptom. Use one of the most powerful tools in a writer's toolbox when it comes to building character. It's one word: WHY? Why does he have no knowledge? In INTO THE WILD the main character is also an idealist - but of a different stripe - he was REJECTING the dominant paradigm. So an idealism rooted in rejecting something else puts him on the run, rather than having an inner, reflective experience (which would make for a dull movie). Does he change at the end of the movie? Well - no, not really. He dies. But he is deeply flawed, that much is clear. And the beauty and the resonance of his journey is derived from the tragic fact that had he been able to survive, he may have had an epiphany and indeed overcome his flaw. I would also editorialize to add that his flaw, as it were - was youth ;)

J.J. said...

@ Meg:

Here's a quarter. Go buy a sense of humor--I'm pretty sure Julie realized I was poking fun.

meg said...

@JJ--Keep your quarter. I have a sense of humor. But as your post demonstrates, it's not that easy to write it.

Also consider that when someone else doesn't see the humor that doesn't necessarily mean the fault rests with the listener/reader. Comedy relies on assumptions and execution by the storyteller. A failure in some part of that can't be blamed on a humorless audience.

But I do apologize for my uncensored reaction to your comment to Julie.

DS said...

I'm very much in favour of writing the "logline" before embarking on the script. At least this way, in case you deviate from your mandate, you are on the right track.

Désirée said...

Your great article made me wonder how may log lines you have received so far. You sound a bit... tired.

Well, I love your competitions. They are great exercises. And perhaps one day I will write something that hits your heart.

Milli Thornton said...

This discussion is almost over my head (*self-deprecating grin*), but I aspire to being able to wrangle at this level at a later stage.

Meanwhile, I found the logline article very helpful in my attempts to come up with an entry. Rubik's Cube was exactly what it felt like!

About comment posting: I was saying to my husband last night how great it is that you moderate your blog comments. I've been on (and permanently departed from) screenwriting blogs where spam and other rubbish is posted.

I was on one recently (a huge one, a real free-for-all) where members and visitors appeared to take great pride in attacking one another's intelligence. Ugh. I just don't know who that helps. If they have that much angst to spare, they should put it into their screenplays!

Thanks again for all the 'stimulation' re: loglines.

J.J. said...

@Meg, as her response clearly demonstrates, Julie got it. So I guess the humor worked after all. And, to me, that's what counts.

Julie Gray said...

@JJ - yeah, I got it, lol. Although there is something just evil enough about your suggestion that'll make someone somewhere do that. Not me.

@Desiree - I have received A LOT. But in the defense of many Wavers - this is quite difficult as a skill. And it takes time to learn to write a good logline. But that's the point; this is an exercise. Re tired (insert Claus Von Bulow voice here) You have no idea.

@DS - oh GOD yes. Anyone who would argue against writing a logline to help conceptualize the script ahead of writing it is NUTS imo.

J.J. said...

Julie, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Every joke has a victim." And so it goes with my comment. I know and you know, that there are people out there (and many here who read your blog, too) in that vast unknown blogosphere, screenwriting sites, etc, who'd steal an idea for a script, or even steal a whole script, if they could get away with it because they lack the imagination to be original...

I've known you long enough (through my various disguises) to be cognizant that your reputation is that of honesty and integrity, so I have no worries that you'd steal a logline for your own purposes. I was just making a point that people do these things, either consciously or unconsciously, and it's always a good idea to keep track of where your ideas come from should there ever be a question...

meg said...

I love blogs esp the comments. Always interesting. I find it fascinating to see people’s responses, their conclusions, assumptions, etc to what I or others write. I think that’s why I find it fun to create characters--the endless possibilities!

Seth said...

Hey Julie,

Thanks for answering my questions! I get what you're saying, I think -- even in a movie where the story is mostly about human frailty (and courage) in the face of overwhelming odds, we can often ask why that person took steps to put himself into that situation in the first place.

After all, even in a straight actioner like Die Hard, the character has a choice. John McClane could choose just to be herded into the main room like the rest of the hostages, or at least hunker down and hide. But because he has kind of a stubborn, contrarian personality, he chooses to resist. That turns out to be a good thing for the rest of the hostages, but you get the sense that those same traits are also why his marriage is on the rocks....

Luzid said...

@ Julie: I love the Rubik's Cube/fulcrum concept. I get the same feeling playing with words as when I played with Legos as a kid, and this is a great way to actually visualize how to hook together a solid concept.

@ Christian: "I just feel that the flaw is like the character arc; no one comes out of the movie with that on their mind." I'm sorry, I just can't let this one go. Name any great film, and I can practically guarantee that the protagonist's change (or how s/he changes others) is not only remembered, but one of the reasons those films succeed. An aquaphobic sheriff defeating his fear to take on a killer shark, a farmboy wannabe maturing into a rebel who understands the dangers that come with adventure, a self-centered saloon owner giving up his love to help defeat the Nazis -- we remember these characters for how they evolved.

@ Wenonah: great point. The protagonist's struggle to change is why we give a damn.

@ Meg: nice comeback. I didn't think JJ was joking either. I think we fell victim to the fact that a certain anonymous douchebag keeps posting here to attack Julie.

@Seth: great insight regarding McLane's flaw being great for a hostage situation while bad for his marriage!

Steve said...

Thank you for this very informative post Julie.

A question: A character that has an eating disorder - would you state that as a character flaw or a symptom of a flaw? You mentioned "WHY" and I'm asking myself why is this character not eating? But maybe it's just a symptom of a bigger problem...



Luzid said...

@ Steve:

It's usually a symptom of some larger problem. My cousin had anorexia, and it came from self-image issues. Like many, this already-skinny girl thought she was too fat.

Steve said...

Luzid, thanks for your reply. :)