I'm A Lumberjack And I'm OK (Part 1)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


 Author's Note: Part 1 of this two part series covers the basics of loglines.  On Thursday, Part Two will cover the pros and cons of the different templates I've discovered on the interwebs.

Loglines: What are they good for?

You ever tried to tell the story of your WIP in one sentence?

No, I'm serious.  Have you ever tried to sit down and capture some of the nuance, the complex penumbra of your story in a short collection of words that begin with a capitalized letter and ends with a period?  (I suppose you could end with a question mark, but that might raise some questions...)

It ain't an easy job, as I've recently discovered.  And there's quite a bit to know--AND quite a bit of benefit to your story if you figure it out too.  

So, let's talk about loglines:

For the uninitiated, a logline is a film industry term for a single sentence that captures the essence of a screenplay.  This concept has since been co-opted by writers in other genres, such as fiction.

Here's my logline from a WIP I first began developing three summers ago (this is the same story I'm doing for NaNo this year, incidentally):

It's 2005.  Staff Sergeant James Carlson and his men are losing a vicious war in the streets of Baghdad.  As summer wears on, Carlson begins to wonder how to clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Then Michael Sedo, a young Private with the ability to ___________________, joins the fighting.  With Sedo onboard, can Carlson turn the tide of battle, or will Sedo's strange ability tear Carlson's unit apart? (I chose at the time not to reveal Sedo's ability).

Sure, it describes a story, but knowing what I know now, it doesn't do the greatest job of making us really understand what the story is about.  And it violates a number of loglines rules.  A single sentence.  Less than 25 words.  Suggest and inner an outer journey for the MC.

Back when I wrote this I really hadn't played with loglines much, and I sorta winged it, hoping it would work.  Turns out there's a science to the whole thing.  After all, every story has certain elements.  Manage to get them all in or allude to them and you have a strong logline.  Leave elements out, and your logline will suffer.

Logline Templates:

To construct a logline, you have to first understand the elements of your story. The best loglines include as many of these elements as possible: hero, flaw, lifechanging event, opponent, ally, and battle.

Here are some common examples I found on the web:

  • E.T.:  A meek and alienated (flaw) little boy (hero) finds a stranded extraterrestrial (lifechanging event/ally) and finds the courage (battle) to defy authorities (opponent) to help the alien return to its home planet.
  • Rocky:  A boxer (hero) with a loser mentality (flaw) is offered a chance by the world champ (opponent) to fight for the title (lifechanging event) but, with the help of his lover (ally) must learn to see himself as a winner before he can step into the ring (battle).
  • Casablanca: A jaded (flaw) WWII casino owner (hero) in Nazi-occupied Morocco sees his former lover (opponent) arrive (lifechanging event), accompanied by her husband (ally) whose heroism forces the hero to choose between his cynicism, his feeling for his ex-lover, and his once-strong feelings of patriotism (battle).

I've also seen this template floating around:

When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], he [CONFLICT]. And if he doesn't [GOAL] he will [CONSEQUENCES].

Kind of a plug and play sorta thing.  (Who remembers Mad-Libs?)

But putting a quality logline together, even with a template, can actually be quite a challenge.  Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.  For example, can you tell me the movie this logline describes?

A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.

If you said It's A Wonderful Life, you're right!  But look closer and you'll realize that the action described in this logline really only occurs in the third act of the movie.  A much better logline for this movie would be:

When a family man's constant struggle to escape small town America for a more successful life in the big city fails, he contemplates suicide, but his guardian angel visits and the man experiences what the world would be like if he had never been born.

Maybe a little wordy, but it certainly captures much more of the overall arc of the story.  Remember: the more story elements you can fit into your logline, the better it will be.

That concludes the first half of our discussion on loglines.  Check back Thursday for Part Two--where we talk about a few handy logline rules, and take a close look at my NaNo WIP logline!

References:

*****
  • DON'T FORGET: Tomorrow is the final installment of the #REN3 Blogfest!
  • HAVE A FAVORITE SONG OR VIDEO?  Go sign up for the NaNoWriMoVideo Songfest hosted by yours truly.  You don't have to be playing in NaNo to participate!
  • FRIDAY: My post for the Casting Call Character Bloghop goes live.  Don't miss it!
P.S. If you don't know what comedy sketch the title of this post comes from, you'll just have to wait until Thursday to find out!  :D

5 bolts from the blue:

Toyin O. said...

Thanks for sharing.

WritingNut said...

Great advice here... and now you've made me want to watch It's A Wonderful Life... again! :) And you're right, it IS hard to sum up your WIP in that one sentence.

DL Hammons said...

This post is extremely timely & relevant to what I'm struggling with lately. Thanks for the tips!!

Melissa Sugar said...

Very helpful post. I am working on this and my query right now so I found this very useful. I am off to read part 2. Yes, I came here before reading today's post. I am anal that way.

Thanks.

Jon Paul said...

Toyin--Thanks.

WritingNut--That's a great film, isn't it?! We watch it at our house at least once a year.

DL--I thought it might help you. It's a tough nut to crack!

Melissa--Thanks. I'm happy to hear the material is useful.

Thanks gang for stopping in! :D

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