How to Write a Log­line for Your Novel

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This was by far the most popular post on my old blog. I’ve reposted here in case someone will find it useful.

Definition

A “log line” or “log­line” is Hol­ly­wood ter­mi­nol­ogy that means a 1–2 sen­tence descrip­tor of a story. It gets its name, I imag­ine, from a time when some­one had to log each story line, and they wanted to write as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. No mat­ter how they started, log lines are an ingrained part of the film indus­try and to some extent, the pub­lish­ing indus­try, as well.

Uses #1

Log lines are very use­ful to you. They allow to you answer the ques­tion, “so what’s your book about?” with a suc­cinct phrase, rather than begin­ning with the stock, “well, see there’s this guy….”

Use #2

A sec­ond good use for the log line is the pitch. This handy, dandy quick sum­mary of your story is very use­ful in per­suad­ing agents, edi­tors, and even your den­tist that you’ve hit on a “wow” premise that sim­plyMUST be writ­ten. Bet­ter yet, if it’s already writ­ten, then it MUST be read. Think of a pitch in terms of adver­tis­ing: You’re try­ing to hook a reader the way a com­mer­cial tries to hook a deter­gent user. Seri­ously. Alan Gratz, author of Samu­rai Short­stop and sev­eral other excel­lent nov­els for teens, calls this the ele­va­tor pitch, under the assump­tion that if you’re rid­ing four sto­ries with an edi­tor, you can fin­ish your deliv­ery before the doors open.

Use #3

The third use for a log line is you. A novel is a big thing. It’s dif­fi­cult to hold the whole story in your mind, espe­cially when you’ve fin­ished a first draft and are still giddy from the flow of cre­ative juices. Writ­ing a log line helps you define—for yourself—the essen­tial ele­ments of the plot. It was also let you know imme­di­ately is major com­po­nents of the plot are miss­ing. This pre­vents episodic plots that are a string of (inter­est­ing and excit­ing) events that lack a com­plete story spine.

The Spine Itself

Here’s a tem­plate for a log line:

Given sit­u­a­tion A, then Our Hero does action B despite com­pli­ca­tion C while antag­o­nist D tries to stop Our Hero by doing E before F can happen.

This is a sim­ple tem­plate, not an iron clad rule (as you’ll notice below, my log lines don’t match this exactly). The tem­plate is bro­ken into six com­po­nents. Each rep­re­sents a spe­cific part of the story.

A: Given sit­u­a­tion A…this is the state of things as the novel begins, or it may be an action that occurs at the very begin­ning of the story to incite the action. Think of it as a boul­der poised on the edge of a cliff, need­ing just a lit­tle nudge to set it rolling.

B: Then Our Hero does action …The boul­der is about to roll or is rolling already, and it’s Our Hero’s job to stop it. Or divert it. Or pick it up and fling it like a mar­ble across the Mojave Desert. It doesn’t mat­ter what Our Hero does, just as long as she/he acts.

C. Despite com­pli­ca­tion C…Plot is com­pli­ca­tion. Char­ac­ter devel­op­ment is con­flict. The two should go hand in hand to pre­vent Our Hero from act­ing. It can be a phys­i­cal inca­pac­ity. Or a geo­graph­i­cal space. Or a per­sonal rela­tion­ship. Just as long as it slows Our Hero down and makes it that much more dif­fi­cult to stop that rolling boulder.

D. While antag­o­nist D tries to stop Our Hero…Make your life easy and include a vil­lain in your story. It’s much eas­ier to ensure com­pli­ca­tion and con­flict if there is another char­ac­ter work­ing in direct oppo­si­tion to Our Hero. Don’t want a vil­lain or can’t think of one? Cir­cum­stances, time, dis­tance, soci­ety, and geog­ra­phy can be strong enough forces to stop Our Hero, although it’s more dif­fi­cult to pull off.

E. By doing E…Our Hero has been act­ing to stop that boul­der. Our Vil­lain is also act­ing to stop Our Hero, and it looks as the vil­lain will suc­ceed. So long, boulder.

F. Before F can hap­pen…In this case, F would be the dire cir­cum­stances that face Our Hero and oth­ers if Our Hero fails. The chance of fail­ure must be real, and almost cer­tain, for the story to have drama.

Exam­ples

Here are some exam­ples of nov­els I’ve writ­ten. These are real log lines from pitches. Some are bet­ter than others!

For Soul Enchi­lada: It’s ‘Faust Meets Men in Black’ in this YA para­nor­mal about a teen girl who must risk her soul to keep Lucifer from repos­sess­ing her most trea­sured pos­ses­sion, the 1958 Cadil­lac Biar­ritz she inher­ited from her dearly departed grandfather.

For Black Hole Sun: On a ter­raformed Mars, where teenaged sol­diers sell their ser­vices to
the high­est bid­der, sixteen-year-old Durango and his crew must fight a band of maraud­ing can­ni­bals to pro­tect a des­ti­tute min­ing outpost–and the dark secret they keep.

For Glory Bound: When a run-away teenager dri­ving a stolen ’65 Mus­tang picks up an elderly hitch­hiker, he begrudg­ingly agrees to drive his pas­sen­ger, a dying folk musi­cian, home to Glory, OK while to strug­gling to stay one step ahead of his father–the county sher­iff who is in hot pursuit.

Finally

Now it’s your turn. Use the tem­plate to cre­ate your own log line but remem­ber to play with it so that the line is some­thing you can mem­o­rize and feel com­fort­able say­ing to another per­son. Even on an ele­va­tor. With a boul­der rolling toward you.

Copy­right © 2009 by David Macin­nis Gill. All rights reserved. Links to this post are per­mit­ted. Any other use, includ­ing repost­ing or print­ing for dis­tri­b­u­tion, is expressly denied with­out writ­ten permission.

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