The Right Tool for the Job: Logline
by Chris Mandeville
I’d like to share a tool that will help you talk about your book: the logline.
A logline is a one-line synopsis that typically answers the question:
“What is your story about?”
The obvious use for the logline is the “elevator pitch” where you have one minute to “sell” the agent- or editor-of-your-dreams on your book idea. It can also be useful as an introduction to the pitch paragraph of your query letter. And it’s an invaluable tool to have on your belt when mingling at book signings and writer’s conferences.
But that’s not all. The logline can assist you in casual conversation at a wide variety of non-writing functions, from doctor appointments to family reunions. After all, when Great Aunt Nelda, or your barber, or the guy sitting next to you on a plane says, “You’re writing a book? What’s it about?” they often don’t really want to hear a dissertation.
So let’s get down do it:
What’s in a logline?
If you’re writing nonfiction, scroll to the bottom of this article for more information about nonfiction loglines. For creative nonfiction and memoir, depending on your project you may find that the fiction techniques work better than the nonfiction method I describe. Go with what works best for your project.
A “standard” logline for fiction typically includes these three elements:
1) Character: Who is your story about? Give a description, not a name. I suggest using a “dominant impression” as described by Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer: use an adjective plus a noun of vocation (e.g. scatterbrained writer, neurotic housewife, murdering dentist).
2) Goal: What does your character want? The character’s overarching goal in the story.
3) Conflict: What’s keeping him/her from reaching the goal? Can be internal and/or external.
Want more bang for your logline buck? I recommend adding a fourth element – what I call the “plus” – to provide a little something extra to “hook” the listener/reader.
Arriving at the logline:
The first few attempts at crafting a logline will invariably yield something too detailed or too general. It takes work to hone it to the perfect short one-liner that hooks the reader and conveys information about your story without sounding like a thesaurus.
I’ll try to illustrate what I mean using The Hunger Games.
A girl on a reality TV show has to make difficult ethical choices in order to win.
If I hadn’t told you, would you have known this logline was for The Hunger Games? Maybe, but it’s awfully general, isn’t it? It could take place in any time period, in any place. It reveals nothing about the world, and almost nothing about the character. And I don’t see anything intriguing or unique to hook the reader.
Let’s try to improve on that example.
In the future, amidst the ruins of North America, lies the nation of Panem where a sixteen-year-old girl who is a loner and sole-supporter of her family, Katniss Everdeen, takes her younger, weaker sister Prim’s place in the nationally televised Hunger Games where she’s a longshot to survive the fight to the death against other teenagers from every District—a fight to the death on live TV.
An improvement? Well, it’s certainly not too general any more! But I think this version is too wordy with way too many clauses and details. It does convey more of the world and the character, and it has a hook, but the sentence is too dense to make it memorable or even understandable.
A desperate sixteen-year-old fights to be the sole survivor of the Hunger Games, but at what cost to her humanity?
I think we’re getting somewhere now. This version has the first three elements I recommend above. Here’s how it breaks down:
A desperate sixteen-year-old (CHARACTER) fights to be the sole survivor (EXTERNAL CONFLICT, GOAL) of the Hunger Games, but at what cost to her humanity? (INTERNAL CONFLICT)
This version is better an our previous ones, but I don’t think it’s as good as we can make it yet. Let’s try adding the “plus” – that something extra to hook the reader.
In what used to be North America, a desperate sixteen-year-old battles to be the sole survivor of the nationally televised “Hunger Games” where teens fight to the death, but at what cost to her humanity?
Here’s the breakdown:
In what used to be North America (PLUS), a desperate sixteen-year-old (CHARACTER) battles to be the sole survivor (EXTERNAL CONFLICT, GOAL) of the nationally televised “Hunger Games” where teens fight to the death (PLUS), but at what cost to her humanity? (INTERNAL CONFLICT)
Did we nail it? Would that logline get me a “send it” if I pitched it to an agent on an elevator at a writer’s conference? Maybe, assuming The Hunger Games hadn’t already sold!
Ultimately the success of a logline comes down to a matter of personal opinion, market considerations, and a host of other factors we (the writers) don’t have control over. But we do have control over creating a clear, straightforward, succinct sentence that conveys the essence of the story. And by adding a little “plus,” hopefully we can hook the listener (reader).
What I describe above is not the only type of logline. Here’s another:
The “Hollywood Pitch” has become a common way to address the logline. This type of logline is a catchy “tagline,” like you might see on a movie poster. It gives a tease, the flavor of the story, maybe the big picture concept, but typically does not address all of the elements I list above.
I have some examples to illustrate this approach in case you want to try it. But first some cautionary notes:
- This approach does not work for every story.
- If you use a Hollywood “tagline” you must nail it, meaning
- it must be good/catchy, and
- it must actually be demonstrative of your story.
- You should be able to follow up this tagline with a second line of more substance, such as the four-element logline above.
Types of Taglines:
- Tried and True (CLICHÉ):
- Beauty and the Beast
- Marriage of convenience
- Fish out of water
- Tried and True with a Twist (CLICHÉ PLUS):
- Beauty and the Beast BUT the Beauty is an eighty-year-old man
- Marriage of convenience BUT it’s between two aliens
- Equate and Differentiate (AN EXISTING WORK PLUS) where you equate your project with a book/movie that has a proven track record, then differentiate it from that story to show your unique take:
- It’s like Lord of the Rings with giant spider-creatures
- It’s Lord of the Flies with Vikings
- X + Y = Mine:
- The Flintstones in Jurassic Park
- Sleeping with the Enemy on the Starship Enterprise
- General “High Concept” that does not follow any certain formula:
- Save the world, get the girl, pass math. (Agent Cody Banks)
- For three men the Civil War wasn’t hell, it was practice. (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)
- A man sues God. (A Piece of Heaven)
- What if Peter Pan grew up? (Hook)
- Outerspace now belongs to 007. (Moonraker)
So if it sounds like Hollywood-style might work for your story, give it a shot. Then try out the best versions of your taglines on friends to gauge effectiveness. Be sure to assess your own personal comfort level in delivering a tagline (on paper or verbally, whatever applies to you) because if you don’t “own it,” it will be hard to sell anyone on it.
For those of you writing nonfiction, as promised I have something for you. For your logline, I suggest using your title, to include a subtitle. The title should be catchy; the subtitle should tell what it’s about.
Here are some examples:
In conclusion, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, a logline is the right tool for the job when you’re “selling” someone on your book idea, whether that someone is a literary agent, your boss at your day-job, or Great Aunt Nelda. So what are you waiting for? Whip up a logline, and maybe a tagline or two, and tuck them into your writing toolbox so you can pull them out whenever you need them.
Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com.