The term log line stems from the old shipping days, where a log line was used to measure the speed of a ship. Old Hollywood used the term to log their scripts which were stacked away.
Script Loglines - Part I: Why create a Logline?
"A meek and alienated little boy finds a stranded extra-terrestrial and has to find the courage to defy the authorities and help the alien return to its home planet." – ET
An amazingly written and imaginative logline which summarizes ET beautifully.
Before we jump into things lets define what a logline is:
“A Logline is a one to two sentence imaginative and descriptive summary of your screenplay, used to sell your script. It’s the core and advertising of your story.”
Loglines were created by the Hollywood studios back in the early days when screenplays were stacked away and logged as loglines in the story department.
It's now used for pitches and in query letters, it's a great way for you to present your idea, stand out from the crowd and get a producer to read your screenplay.
It's just as important to put as much work into your logline as you do into your screenplay.
A Logline describes your story in a clear and precise way right from the get go. If you have trouble writing it, you might not be clear on your story and you will run into problems during the script stage. Being able to sum up your screenplay in an amazing logline is a good test to see if your idea has "legs".
It also acts as your compass and will help you to focus on your story.
In the film industry no one has time so everyone wants a short and descriptive presentation of your movie.
If you are able to present your idea with a short, visual, high concept logline it will set you apart from other writers and perhaps even excite an industry player.
“High concept means I can hold the film in the palm of my hand, so straightforward, so simple.” - Steven Spielberg
You can achieve the above with a great logline so put in the work, you can do this!
Script Loglines - Part II: How to create a Logline?
Use active writing
Movies are about action, being in the moment. You write a screenplay this way so the logline should be the same. A reader wants to see the movie in terms of how it plays out, within the moment. It also makes a character seem active, not passive. This is precisley what a main movie character should be about.
Give them a glimpse of your world
If the movie is set in a special world, time or location, add it to the logline to give a reader a glimpse as to where the movie takes place and what that world is about.
“In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a despondent cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed.” – Minority Report
In this example the futuristic description of the world provided the rules of the world which makes it very intriguing.
Include the genre
The “Minority Report” example above also describes the genre nicely. It a science fiction set in the future, but indicates action due to the main character being a cop and having to prove his innocence for a murder. One instantly gets the picture of a cop on the run.
Don’t add the character’s name
Keep it simple here, you don’t need to add a characters name. Some famous loglines do add character names, but I feel they just distract from the description of the logline.
What is more important than adding a name is the character’s personality (see the next rule). If you want to add a name, make the name intriguing so we get a sense of the personality or even what the movie will be about.
For example “Indiana Jones” sounds like an adventure, “Donnie Darko” reflects the dark nature of the main character in “Donnie Darko”.
Give your character a personality
A lot of books and articles say make your character interesting, but what tends to be missing here is to also describe the inner issue of the character, thus hinting at the inner journey of your main character in the screenplay.
In the E.T. logline from above the character description in the logline is “A meek and alienated boy”.
By only using the word “meek” only the character of the boy would be described. But by adding the word “alienated,” we get a hint about his inner turmoil, as the boy is struggling with the separation of his parents.
Give your character a goal
Here it is important to address the want line of your character but also add the obstacles your character has to overcome to achieve his goal. This describes the outer journey your character goes on but should also incorporate how it will resonate with the inner journey.
In the E.T. example the boy “has to find the courage to defy the authorities and help the alien return to its home planet.”
Those are strong goals to reach for a little boy who is “meek” and “alienated”. They not only make a great outer journey but you can see how he will go on a strong inner journey too. So the outer journey will move along the boy’s inner journey.
Add high stakes into your logline. The main character’s goal should be hard to reach.
In the above E.T. logline example the stakes for the boy are high, both internally and externally. Stakes are important and encourage someone to read your screenplay as the reader wants to know what will happen.
Stakes come in many ways and are mostly linked to the antagonist of a storyline. It could be something the antagonist does.
But it could also be plot driven, like for example adding a time frame like in Speed (1994):
“A young police officer must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.”
Give you antagonist a personality
Like with the main character a reader should get the gist of your antagonist. It should be brief but intriguing at the same time.
You can also add the action of your antagonist instead of just a description.
Remember antagonists can be more than just people or monsters. They can be things, events or sometimes the main character is his own antagonist like in “Liar, liar.”
“When a pathologically deceitful attorney gets zapped by his son’s birthday wish, he learns that he can no longer tell a lie even when he tries, so he must now win the biggest case of his career by being honest.”
Think about your main antagonist and describe him accordingly.
Add contrast or give it a twist
This will make you stand out from the crowd. A lot of movies contain some contrast with either characters or the story itself. Referring back to the “Minority Report” example which is about arresting criminals before they have committed a crime, which is super original.
Here the contrast lies within the actual plot and rule of the movies futuristic world.
In Jaws the contrast lies within the character, which is a police chief who is afraid of the sea, but has to fight a shark.
“A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.” - Jaws
Have a special introduction
Try to figure out what makes your story so special and try to start your logline with this.
In the “Minority Report” example it starts with, “In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs…”, which makes the logline intriguing from the get go.
Script Loglines - Part III: Exercise, Tip and Selected Links
Write a compelling logline for your screenplay idea. Check if you followed the rules above and pitch it to trusted others to see if they are hooked.
Create a logline during the development of your screenplay idea. Don’t start writing the actual screenplay until you have a solid logline, your compass will guide you along the way.
An amazing article on how to write loglines the "right" way.
Some neat examples which add all important and needed elements into a longline.