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A logline is a one to three sentence summary of a story, used to pitch a script to producers and other buyers.

It should contain:

  • the protagonist
  • the goal of the protagonist
  • the antagonist
  • the stakes of failure

Obviously the logline must hook the audience of prospective buyers by

  • irony
  • evoking a compelling mental picture
  • etc.

As an example, here's the logline for the movie Jaws:

A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.

There are numerous descriptions of the purpose and structure of a logline, and many examples from real films, published in books and on websites. There are even some exercises explaining how to distill a script or novel plot into a logline, but I find they don't yield good results. Maybe my plot is not good, but maybe I don't really understand how to get from my plot to a logline, despite the vague hints in those hyped screenwriting books. So:

How do you distill a plot into a logline?

Please provide a cookbook step-by-step that even an idiot like me can follow.


Despite having provided my own "answer" below, I am still interested in this last aspect of my question: the step-by-step how-to. Most texts on the logline are very general, and don't help you much with how to make your logline hook. I'm still hoping to read your answer, so please give it a shot.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted
+100

If you can't boil down your novel into a logline (or "elevator pitch," which is how I learned it), then you may actually have a problem with your novel.

You've provided the structure of your answer in your own question. An elevator pitch much have:

  • the protagonist
  • the goal of the protagonist
  • the antagonist
  • the stakes of failure

So pick those out of your book.

Quick example: Lord of the Rings:

  • Protagonists: Nine Walkers
  • Their Goals: Get the One Ring to Mordor under Sauron's nose
  • The Antagonist: Sauron and his cronies (Saruman and orcs)
  • The Stakes: the end of Middle-Earth, the dominion of Sauron

Once you have them, then the main job is to reword the sentence until it's a hook.

Nine people from disparate cultures must join together to destroy the magical artifact which will allow the ultimate evil to rule the realm. Meh.

A mighty wizard leads a reluctant band of men, hobbits, a dwarf, and an elf on a terrifying quest to destroy the One Ring before an ancient evil god becomes manifest and destroys all Middle-Earth. Now we're getting somewhere.

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2  
I'm rasing the stakes to the bounty a bit with my own answer. "A disillusioned forum elder battles a smart-aleck newbie for a bounty of 100 rep to regain her trust in her writing skills and finally win the acknowledgment of the community." ;-) –  what May 14 at 9:01
    
What I most miss in your answer is the step-by-step guide. –  what May 14 at 9:44
    
@what I'm a bit confused by your comment. You need a step-by-step guide to figure out your own protagonist? Or to reword a sentence? –  Lauren Ipsum May 14 at 10:44
    
To create a logline. Look at the last part of my answer. It's becoming clearer to me, now that I have read around for a few days, but at first it was not so obvious to me what to do with the protagonist, goal and antagonist. Just putting them in a sentence does not make that sentence hook. –  what May 14 at 11:15
    
@what Oh, I see. Well, then you've really answered your own question. Your method for creating the hook is quite explicit -- I tend to be more intuitive about it. –  Lauren Ipsum May 14 at 11:18

Seems like step 2 of the 3-step method of coming up with the title.

First step: you compress the story into a half-page summary, that catches the essentials, piques interests, and so on. You condense events from the chapters into single sentences, cull unnecessary fluff, replace revelations with mysteries, spoilers with questions. That way you obtain the blurb, the kind of thing that is printed on the back envelope of a book, or as a summary on the page where you buy one.

Second step: you compress the blurb into 1-3 sentences. You ignore the original story, you summarize only what the blurb says. It's currently short enough, that you should be able to grasp its essence and pick the juiciest pieces. This is your logline.

And then you can compress the logline into one word or a short phrase, and that's how you get the title.

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While loglines (or log lines) serve as "elevator pitch" once you have finished your screenplay or novel, some authors, like Blake Snyder in Save the Cat! recommend that you come up with your log line before you embark on the journey of writing, because like the premise it will serve as orientation whether you are still on track.

A logline must be:

  • one to at most three sentences long
  • an optimum lies around 25 words
  • written in the present tense
  • written from the perspective of the protagonist
  • identify the genre and setting
  • if possible give a timeframe ("[protagonist] has 48 hours to [goal] before [stakes]") to instill a sense of urgency

If you have two sentences, often:

  • the first sentence describes the outer conflict and outer goal of the protagonist
  • the second sentence describes the inner conflict, the psychological barriers, and the emotional development of the protagonist, as it relates to the moral premise of the story

A logline must contain:

  • who is your main character (protagonist)
  • what are they trying to accomplish (goal)
  • who is trying to stop them (antagonist)
  • what happens if they succeed or fail (stakes)

A logline must not contain:

  • the ending
    Do not reveal, wether or not the protagnoist succeeds. The logline is not a summary of the plot, it focusses on the first and second act: the setup or starting situation, the inciting incident, and the conflict.

When you try to come up with a logline:

  • do not name the protagonist (or antagonist), but use a descriptive noun:
    "A hobbit..."
  • describe the inner conflict or imperfection of the protagonist with an adjective or short phrase that the viewers can sympathise with:
    "A self-doubting hobbit and his discordant companions..."
  • use a verb that shows the protagonist as intensely proactive:
    "A self-doubting hobbit and his discordant companions battle..."
  • if the antagonist appears humane, the conflict becomes even more torturous:
    "A self-doubting hobbit and his discordant companions battle the pitiable creatures of evil as well as their own greed for power..."
  • a clear goal that any reader can understand:
    "A self-doubting hobbit and his discordant companions battle the pitiable creatures of evil as well as their own greed for power to destroy the ring that holds their minds in thrall..."
  • raise the stakes as high as possible in the context of your story:
    "A self-doubting hobbit and his discordant companions battle the pitiable creatures of evil as well as their own greed for power to destroy the ring that holds their minds in thrall and save their idyllic country community from the corruption of capitalist industrialization."

You might disagree with my description of the LotR – and I drag the moral premise too much into the foreground and totally neglect the surface plot –, but I guess you get the idea ;-)

Now rewrite this logline until it shines. Then go out and test it: approach strangers of the intended target audience and ask them if you can tell them of the book/screenplay you are writing and see if it excites them. If they are bored, work on your logline a bit more and test the new version.

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Personally, such rigid step-by-step recipes for ANY creative work (even 25 words long) really stroke me the wrong way. This is trying to squeeze every single written work into a narrow frame. I wonder how your logline would treat, say, Game of Thrones without making it shallow. –  SF. May 15 at 11:18
    
(1) I don't find this rigid at all. You must not overlook the prompt to "rewrite this logine until it shines", which of course includes changing the syntactic structure or adding subsidiary clauses or second sentences (which were mentioned before). (2) Hollywood movies are schematic. All the screenwriting books I have read emphasize that you must adhere to a certain schema. (3) To me (as a novelist) this is a beginner's guide. Learning a new skill, I find it helpful to follow a limited set of rules at first, and only start to experiment when I have mastered these. –  what May 15 at 12:02
    
(2) that's I no longer watch Hollywood movies. You've seen a hundred, you've seen them all. (3) I agree - one of these rules that exist only to be broken. This I can accept. –  SF. May 15 at 12:07

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