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