InkTip Advice: The Logline

I met this agent once who told me that, over the course of her career, she'd managed to earn a "special thanks" credit on a half dozen feature films, discovered talent that are now household names, shepherded television series which you've probably watched even if you spent your life in a coma, and sat in the audience at the Oscars with A-list actors who got nominated for reciting lines from scripts her clients wrote. And this agent was quite a bitch, but if everything she said was true, she was easily the most knowledgeable bitch I've ever met in this business.

So I asked her how to write a logline.

About an hour later, with three pages of notes and insults duly recorded ("if you wipe your ass the way you write I bet you smell awful because this shit's all over the place," was my favorite), I'd managed to take a test logline and reshape it according to her secret industry insider formula which she swears made her and her clients filthy rich. Here's that formula: every logline should have three sentences; one for the character, one for the conflict, and one to tell how the story ends. The first sentence should never name the character, but it should describe some personal shortcoming or weakness which the protagonist needs to overcome in the story. The second sentence should always contain a description of the antagonist and his or her conflicting goal. And the third sentence should always tell how the story ends, while simultaneously somehow managing to convey how the protagonist changed or what he learned in the course of his adventure.

I took that shiny new logline and posted it up on InkTip, and then I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. No one clicked on the synopsis. No one read the script. That shiny new logline wasn't working.

So I took the old logline, the one I started with before the super-agent from hell shared her secret formula with me, and I put that back up on the site. Then producers started reading the synopsis again. They started reading the script. I got a couple emails asking about the script's status and where it'd been shopped. I said to myself "ah hah, I know more about writing loglines than an agent who's been in this business longer than I've been alive!"

Of course I had to wonder: why did the old logline work when the new one didn't? And if her formula didn't work for me, then how did she manage to get anywhere with it?

Let's just cut to the chase and state the obvious: she wasn't teaching me how to write a logline, she was teaching me how to summarize a story. She didn't even define the word logline the same way I do. To me, a logline is a written pitch that attracts a reader to the script. To her, pitching is something that's done over the phone or over lunch. With her relationships and reputation for bringing really good material to the table, she doesn't have to pitch her clients' material. She just has to tell them what the stories are about.

If this is your agent, congratulations, you can go back to that script you're working on. If you're still trying to land an agent, here are a couple pointers on writing a logline:

First, go back and re-read last week's article on The Hook. Figure out what your hook is before you even begin with your written pitch.

Second, a logline needs to convey some idea of what the story is about, specifically the aspect that makes your story unique. So don't just write a tagline; if your script is about spelunkers getting trapped in a cave full of ravenous vampires, don't say "They came for the adventure. They stayed for lunch." No one reading that has any idea what the hell the story is about.

Third, realize that, just like when pitching in person, appearance matters. You want your logline to say "I take my writing seriously and I'm fun to work with in person." If you misspell a single word, use incorrect syntax or punctuation, employ a run-on sentence, or make any sort of demands, your logline will instead scream "I'm barely literate and socially awkward!"

Finally, a logline needs to be tested, and not just once but on a frequent and regular basis. For the first test, I recommend running your logline by a few people who aren't close friends or family members. If they say "it's great," they're just being polite; go back to the drawing board. If they say "wow, can I read the script?" Congratulations! That's what a logline is meant to do.

But don't just stop because you have one logline that works! Keep writing and testing new ones, and switch them up every once in a while. You can use a dozen different formulae or just your own intuition, it doesn't really matter. Ask a bunch of agents and development executives how to write a logline and they'll each tell you something different and equally insightful. In fact, I asked a few agents and executives to share their techniques with you, and here are some of their replies:

Nouns + Verbs + Irony = Logline

No proper nouns needed ergo...

Clause 13 - A security guard father-to-be (noun) pisses off (verb) real super heroes (noun) by accidentally killing one (verb), and has to run for his life(verb)-when he learns you don't have to be super to be a hero (irony.)

When writers do this, they nail it.

I learned from the best: Blake Snyder, RIP.

-- Barbara Bitela, The Silver/Bitela Agency

It should be in the active voice. No more than 2 lines or so. Mention what it's in the tone of or vein of, but never say in the vein of ________meets_________. A lot of people find this annoying. Convey the genre and the central conflict of the script. Avoid run on sentences. If you can't fit in one sentence, make it two.

For example, "Hang Up and Drive" by Bob Gale:

To impress a girl, a teenager figures out how to call bad drivers in their cars and harass them for their poor driving...only to inadvertently become the target of an infamous ‘freeway killer'.

--An Anonymous Coordinator at APA 

A logline should not only summarize your screenplay but more importantly, it needs to reflect the genre of what you're writing. If it's a comedy, make it punchy.  If it's a cat and mouse thriller then set up the chase.  Going for horror?  Paint me a life or death scenario and roll out those words that conjure up feelings of dread.  You only have thirty seconds or so to grab a reader's attention with your logline so spend it well.   Better to use that time to get in a joke then tell me how "perfect" it is for Zach Galifianakis or Jonah Hill or insert name of funny guy of the week here __________________.

-- Amy Wagner, Abrams Artists Agency

Think of a logline like journalism 101.  I want the who, what, where and when in one sentence.  Here's the logline for Pirates: "A 17th Century tale (the when) of adventure on the Caribbean Sea (the where) where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow (the who) joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship (the what)."  I know everything about that movie in one sentence and I know if I'm going to be interested in it.

--Manny Fonseca, Kopelson Entertainment

An effective logline should reveal the protagonist(s); the primary conflict/antagonism he/she/they will face, the high concept (if it has one); the tone (action, thriller, comedy - and ideally the tone comes out in the description of the world in the logline and doesn't need to be referenced directly); when people read it, the logline opens up clear possibilities of a second act that will sustain the conflict/story in a theatrical and fresh way. Originality is key - generic loglines that bear little distinctiveness from other movies typically breed an equally generic script.  And having a touch of irony in the logline will lend to the potentiality and sustainability of the conflict.

--Scott Carr, UTA

I've never used a formula. I've always just written them myself. But I'd say 1 sentence, 2 sentences tops. It's some character, some plot and the challenge facing our hero. And it has to tell you what, at its core, is cool about the story. What's the thing that makes an exec want to read it or a moviegoer want to buy that ticket?

-- Bruce Bartlett, Above the Line Agency

We've got to see the movie in one line!

--Sue Giordano, Hudson Agency

Put your marketing hat on.  Summarize your story in no more than a couple of sentences explaining the backdrop of your story and hurdle(s) your main character must overcome. Sounds easy, right Jared?

-- Paul Weitzman, Preferred Artists Agency



Jared Wynn
Questions? Comments? Connect with me on Linkedin!

Jared Wynn has interviewed thousands of producers, agents and managers about what they're looking for in a script or writer, and he happens to know a thing or two about marketing your screenplay.


Written by: Jared Wynn
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