Conflict - Your Logline Needs It
If your logline is missing a central conflict, then it’s possible your story is missing one as well.
At least that’s what a reader will assume about your script.
Think about trailers. We complain about trailers giving away too much of the film: “They just showed the whole movie.” Despite this annoyance, trailers still have a big impact on marketing.
A shorter version of the preview, the teaser, is sometimes no more than a minute and offers little more than a mood piece, or a smorgasbord of images intended to hype up the film before a full trailer is released. Sometimes this is put together before the film is finished.
The trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens explodes with explicit conflict.
What does this have to do with loglines and how you pitch your script? Often, we fall into the trap of pitching like a teaser, forgetting that the person to whom we’re pitching is more interested in a trailer.
Here’s an example of a logline that has too much tease and not enough payoff:
A man boards a train but is horrified by what he sees.
This pitch is really just a set up. It’s teasing an element of surprise, but we’re not sure if we’re supposed to laugh at what he sees (a comedy) or be frightened. Is this horror? Thriller? Comedy? It’s hard to tell. All we know is there’s a guy, a train and he’s surprised by something. Of course, if you filmed this as a 30-second teaser, you could add a score and cast actors that would help us determine the genre. But we aren’t watching a logline; we’re reading a logline in a few seconds.
The above pitch is missing something: conflict.
Imagine you are a reader for a production company. You come across ten pitches today. Perhaps twenty this week. You go through fifty next week.
Eventually, the pitches will begin to sound similar. That’s because many loglines won’t include a clear conflict. And the basic premise for many pitches within any genre sound alike. So to help your script distinguish itself from countless others, your conflict has to shine.
The truth is that from the time a script is finished to the time it reaches an audience in the form of a completed film, many people will have pitched it.
First, the finished script must be pitched to a reader by the writer or the writer’s rep. Then, the reader must pitch to his or her boss. That will then get pitched to investors. It may also get pitched to distributors. If the film eventually gets made, it must be pitched to audiences.
That last pitch–selling to an audience–asks the question: how will an audience react when they see the film's pitch in the form of a trailer, a poster, online ads, interactive content or talk show guests plugging away? Despite decades of intense research, trial and error studies and countless formulas, no person, company or studio can ensure what will be a hit movie or not every time.
But that doesn't mean audience anticipation isn't the most important factor in selling a film.
This brings us back to trailers. The vital information an audience receives after seeing an effective trailer is “What is this movie about” and “Who’s in it?”
There’s little a writer can do to determine “Who’s In It” unless he or she is a producer. But the first question – “What’s the movie about?” – that starts with the writer.
Conflict is just more interesting.
Conflict is crucial to “What’s this movie about?”
Start with your conflict by asking yourself, what is the opposing force? What stands in the way of what my protagonist is doing?
Then, be explicit about your conflict in your logline.
- If you are writing a horror movie, mention what your hero is running away from in your logline.
- If you are writing a thriller, mention what your hero is running up against in your logline.
- If you are writing a comedy, mention what your hero is struggling with (because the struggling will create the humor).
- If you are writing a biopic, mention the main conflict/struggle in your character’s life (e.g. speech, communication is what plagued King George VI in The King’s Speech). Otherwise, you are just pitching a sprawling depiction of events without some kind of theme central to the main character's development.
Do not just rest on a premise. Teasers may only promise a premise, a mood. Don't tease.
So to go back to our original pitch:
A man boards a train but is horrified by what he sees.
What does the man see? Let's be more specific.
An insurance agent boards a train headed to his grandma’s funeral but is horrified to find that his very–much alive grandma is not only on the train, but much younger -- and that the train is headed straight to a nuclear wasteland in an alternative timeline. Now he must find a way to stop the train while avoiding guards that resemble people he knows.
Or, another version:
An insurance agent boards a train headed to his grandma's funeral. To his surprise, his grandma is on the train, alive, and decades younger. Now, he must stop the train from colliding into a nuclear disaster while avoiding his grandma and the train guards who want to prevent him from messing up this timeline.
Now that we added conflict to our logline, a reader can see that this is some kind of thriller with sci-fi aspects. And, it is clear what our hero is up against. If people saw a trailer for this logline, they would be able to tell their friends what the movie is about because they would see a man, a train, the fact that his grandma is supposed to be dead, then the fact that she's not, then him running around the train, then people who are trying to stop him, etc.
Remember, conflict can sell your story. Make your conflict stand out and let it transform your pitch from a vague tease to an engaging trailer-like experience.
Questions? Comments? Write me at InkTipStoryPower (at) gmail dot com
Michael Kim has worked in every department at InkTip. He is now the VP of Product Development & Media. Besides working on music, he enjoys waiting for Guffman, finding Forrester and being John Malkovich. His favorite film about film is Cinema Paradiso.