A great script begins with a great logline

6 steps to writing powerful loglines

“What’s your movie about?” It’s the most common question you’ll get when writing a screenplay or working on a film.

Yet it’s surprising how often a filmmaker will struggle to deliver a clear logline for their movie. If you can’t describe your project in a simple statement, how do you expect anyone to remember it?

When a screenplay or completed film is confusing, or even boring, the problem often boils down to a weak logline. Many first-time screenwriters don’t work on their logline before they begin writing. The result is often a dull script that doesn’t resonate around a central idea. Blake Snyder—author of Save the Cat, one of the most popular screenwriting books—called the logline “the DNA of your film.” It should capture the essence of the movie you want to make. A logline isn’t just a sales tool, it’s a writing tool, and an important part of the creative process.

We’ve scoured screenwriting books, interviews with screenwriters, and other resources to examine what advice is already out there. Next, we compared the common wisdom to  the The Black List 2016 loglines. The Black List is a survey of the most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Past Black List honorees include Argo, The Revenant, and The Imitation Game.

Studying loglines from the Blacklist can be even more useful than loglines for films that have already been made. After all, these are loglines that 250 Hollywood executives are excited about right now.

The following are six steps you can take to write powerful loglines. Use them to focus your great ideas into powerful loglines.

1) Learn the formulas, but don’t worship them

There are two big formulas that screenwriting books and teachers spout over and over, but they aren’t as common in the real world as you’d think. To get it out of the way, the two formulas are:

  • [PROTAGONIST] wants [OBJECTIVE] but [OBSTACLE], so they must [STRATEGY]

You can jam a lot of great stories into these formulas, which is why they are so popular, but adhering to the formulas can sap the special magic of your story. Think of them as a great starting point, but know that your finished logline may look different. For example, this year’s top Blacklist honoree, Bubbles, by Isaac Adamson:

A baby chimp is adopted by the Pop star Michael Jackson. Narrating his own story, Bubbles the Chimp details his life within The King of Pop’s inner circle through the scandals that later rocked Jackson’s life and eventually led to Bubbles’ release.

It’s a great logline, but it doesn’t focus on obstacles or objectives. Instead, it introduces an unconventional protagonist, and suggests the turbulent world of the story. Not every logline needs to dictate the Hero’s Journey.

2) Know what makes your story special, and put it first

Stronger, an adapted screenplay by Jeff Pollono and Scott Silver, begins, “The true story of Jeff Bauman…” because its appeal lies largely in its biographical nature. Crater, by John J. Griffith, begins, “On the moon…” because, well, you guessed it.

The first three words of each log line imply a genre—namely a biopic and a science fiction story. Bubbles, beginning “A baby chimp…” tells you something very important about the movie’s point of view.

3) Work on your logline out loud

Dramatic storytelling began as spoken word. By working on your logline out loud you will instinctively hit on the compelling aspects of your concept.

When you get closer to a final version of your logline, ask a friend to let you pitch several versions of your logline. Pay attention to their body language and the questions they ask to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

4) Inspire questions from the reader

A good logline invites the reader to imagine the possibilities of the film, filling their mind with images. Someone should read your logline and wonder, “What happens next?” Never, “So, what’s it really about?” or “Why would I want to see that?” Confusion is bad, but your worst enemy is boredom. Pale Blue Dot, by Brian C Brown & Elliot DiGuisseppi, is a great example from this year’s Blacklist:

Twelve months after returning from a space mission, decorated astronaut Laura Pepper is arrested for the attempted murder of a fellow astronaut.

Is she guilty? Why would she do that? This evocative logline inspires dozens of questions about the story. It makes you want to pick up the script and read it immediately.

5) Remove any extraneous details

A great logline isn’t bogged down with too many details. You know a lot about your characters, and you want readers of your logline to understand what makes them tick. But too much information dilutes your logline and saps power from your story. Take, for example, this logline for Boomtown, by Matt King:

A slick corporate investigator with a closely guarded secret discovers a sinister criminal conspiracy in North Dakota oil boom country.

There are two mysteries in this logline—the investigator’s secret and the criminal conspiracy. The screenplay is going to be about uncovering the mysteries, the logline’s only job is to introduce them.

It’s worth noting how little the logline tells us about the investigator. By sticking to a cliche (“slick corporate investigator”) the writer focuses on the tension between the two mysteries and the unique location. We’ve seen versions of this story before, but the North Dakota oil country makes this story specific.

6) Write it again (and again)

Once you think you’re done with your logline, force yourself to come up with ten more versions. David Oglivy, one of the greatest ad writers of all time, claimed to spend half of his time working on his headlines. You’ll be amazed at the great writing you can discover by rewriting a logline that’s already pretty good.

By taking the time to write great loglines, you prioritize clarity and focus on the kernel of your story. What logline writing/rewriting tips do you have that aren’t included in this list? If you’re brave, you might even share the logline from the project you’re working on now.

Stephen Heleker

Stephen is a producer and writer/director living in Los Angeles. His first feature film as a producer—Good, starring Keith David—debuted at the 2020 Austin Film Festival. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @stephenheleker

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