What is a logline supposed to do, really?
Wikipedia’s illustrious hive mind defines it like so:
A brief (usually one-sentence) summary …that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.
Yeah, yeah, but what’s the purpose of a logline? What’s a logline supposed to do?
In answering those questions, some of us screenwriter hacks prefer to toe that Wikipedia line above, in all its quotidian plainness, and that, frankly, is perfectly fine.
But for me, I want the logline to do one simple thing: give me a reason to read the screenplay.
We’ll go a bit more into that later, but first let’s dive into what a logline shouldn’t be , and the way I see it, there are four bad logline types that fit that particular bill.
To illustrate, let’s throw out a premise and write a few bad loglines for it.
Let’s say the story we’re writing a logline for is a short. And it’s about a serial killer who’s a door-to-door salesman. And that salesman/serial killer happens to knock on the door of another serial killer. And then they try to kill each other. And then hilarity ensues. Or Hillary Swank ensues. Whatever you like.
Still with me? Good. Let’s write some bad loglines. The first type of bad logline is what I like to call…
The Not-Nearly-Enough Information Bad Logline
The Not-Nearly-Enough-Information type of bad logline is one where the writer opts for maximum brevity (yay!), at the expense of actual, you know, information about the story (booooo!). For example, using our serial killer short we mentioned above:
When a man knocks on the door of another man, it’s a situation of do-or-die.
Yep, points for being succinct! But this logline tells the reader of the logline nothing about the story. Remember: the story we’re talking about here is about two serial killers going mano y mano. The logline should probably mention the fact that they’re serial killers, instead of referring to the two characters as just “man” and “man.” After all, a movie about two serial killers, well that’s a lot different than a movie about just two boring regular men.
The Teaser Bad Logline
Using a pet metaphor here, pun intended, a writer composing the Teaser type of bad logline imagines you, the reader of the bad logline, as a cat. Yes, a cat.
Then that writer of the logline, seeing you as a metaphorical cat, metaphorically cracks open a can of smelly, delicious metaphorical cat food, then throws the metaphorical can of cat food in the metaphorical trash, never allowing the cat to eat the smelly, delicious metaphorical cat food. Like so:
A door-to-door salesman, who may or may not have a penchant for murder, knocks on the door of someone else who may or may not have a penchant for murder.
If that’s your best logline, you may as well write instead:
And for all you Pisces, there’s change in the air. Maybe postpone that important business trip and get cozy with loved ones this week.
The Yawner Bad Logline
The Yawner type of bad logline does exactly what you’d expect to do: it puts you on a morphine drip and lulls you into snoozeville.
A young, dedicated door-to-door salesman is selling his wares and then happens upon a house where the occupant of the house is not as he seems. Then a cascading series of events unfold, revealing a murderous outcome.
Reading something like that for our example short story, we’re compelled to ask the fictional writer of this fictional bad logline: Could you, O could you, make a script about two serial killers trying to kill each other sound more boring?
The Yawner takes what could be a fresh or popping or neat story idea and turns it into mush. Keep in mind though: if the story is already mush, it’s the story that’s the Yawner, not necessarily the logline. In other words, it’s not easy to write a good logline for a story that has nothing inherently interesting about it, either conceptually or with regards to execution. For extra points, repeat the word “mush” five times right now. It’s a fun word.
The Marketeer Bad Logline
It’s probably safe to say that screenwriters writing loglines are writing loglines because they opted to not pursue marketing. If we operate from that assumption, then we must ask ourselves “WHY?” when we see loglines like this:
Two serial killers. One crazy summer. What could go wrong?
Door-to-door salesman? More like door-to-door MURDER!
Hold on to your seats. The serial killers are in the house!
Stab stab! You’re dead!
All of these are exaggerated for effect.
If you’re writing anything like these examples, that’s wonderful, but please go work in the marketing department with Larry. Loglines like these aren’t loglines. They’re taglines. They belong on movie posters and DVD boxes.
If a logline is selling you like this — i.e. carnival barker vocabulary/telling you nothing about the story/you feel like you’re being sold a product more than told what the script is about — you’re probably reading a Marketeer Bad Logline.
So what’s the solution to bad loglines? Good loglines. (Duh!) And in my book, there are exactly two kinds: The Hooker and the Harry Truman.
The Hooker (A good type of logline)
The Hooker is the type of logline that writes itself because the script’s story is a concept has a great hook. And honestly, our two-serial-killers story isn’t a bad hook at all.
A serial killer knocks on the door of another serial killer and tries to sell him knives. Hilarity ensues. And some murder.
A good example of a story that would be nigh impossible to find a hook within, let alone write a Hooker type logline would be Tenet, the brainchild of the eternally pseudointellectual, humanity-eschewing mind of Christopher Nolan. Here’s how one of its loglines goes:
Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
But if Tenet wanted to have a logline that was more a The Hooker type of logline I’m describing, it would need to have an actual, you know, concept — that is, something that live human beings — and not robots programmed to make Batman films — could get their head around. Like this:
A swingin’ British spy from the 1960’s is frozen and brought back to save the world in the 1990’s.
Going back to the cat food metaphor from above, the logline for Tenet doesn’t tease the cat — instead, it asks the cat to drop everything it’s doing, learn how to read the ingredients off the side of the cat food can, and then recite those ingredients backwards. (With bullets from the future…! Ooh! So deep!)
In short, you can have a Hooker logline, but there’s one hitch: you need a hook.
Does that mean that a good logline can’t be written about a script without a strong hook? No. Because that’s where the Harry Truman logline comes in. Good ole Harry.
The Harry Truman (A good type of logline)
Harry S. Truman was a United States president who spoke plainly and simply. He may or may not have been a fun guy to party with. I just don’t have that information. But if a logline is needed for a script without a clear or strong hook/concept, you could a lot worse than a plain and simple one. For example, the IMDB logline for the 2020 Tom Hanks film, Greyhound:
Several months after the U.S. entry into World War II, an inexperienced U.S. Navy commander must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by a German submarine wolf pack.
Or even 2020’s Pixar film, Soul:
After landing the gig of a lifetime, a New York jazz pianist suddenly finds himself trapped in a strange land between Earth and the afterlife.
Do they grab you by the neck? No. Do they have mind-blowing concepts? No.
But they do their jobs, like Harry S. Truman did his job: plainspoken and simple.
A Harry Truman logline gives us an idea about three key things: how the story might unfold, what conflict the protagonists may face, and what kind of tone to expect. And it does it simply and plainly. Is it beautiful? No. But was Truman?
The Logline’s Prime Directive
I asked above “What is the purpose of the logline?” I’ll answer that here. Or attempt to. (I don’t know anymore.)
Sure, the folks on Wikipedia got it right, somewhat: a logline states, briefly, the central conflict of the story, yadda, yadda. Absolutely.
But when you strip away all the abstraction, you end up with the original purpose of the logline, and that purpose is: to save a studio executive time.
It’s fair to suggest that the logline may have originated long before the advent of script coverage (its true primordial origin story is apocryphal at best) but it can’t easily be denied that the logline found its true calling — its main original use — in the script coverage documents they’d bandy about studio lots.
Script coverage, for the uninitiated, is the 1-2 page “book report” on the script. It’s the abstract written by the script reader, intended for the studio executive and other muckety-mucks. The idea being: the studio executive spends one hour to read 50 script coverages to find what he or she wants to produce, rather than two hours to read one entire screenplay.
And guess what? The logline is at the top of each of those script coverages. As such, the logline will either entice the studio executive to read the entire script coverage (and then perhaps the entire screenplay), or it will not.
So the Prime Directive of the logline — arguably its original purpose and its main purpose today, despite whatever you may read or learn through ye old abhorrent grapevine — is to entice.
The studio executive.
Not the audience.
Let the marketing department use taglines and movie posters and Burger King coupons to entice the audience. The logline is written for the studio executive. For the name director. For the A-list star or agent who needs to know if they should keep reading this damn coverage or even maybe take the entire script home and read it over the weekend.
What I’m trying to say is that when writing a logline, if you can’t write it as a Hooker, you should write it as a Harry Truman. And even if you disagree, you can’t argue that The Hooker and Harry Truman sounds like a great idea for a movie.
How to write a logline with stakes and irony
A logline for the movie Jaws might be: An island town is terrorized by a giant shark.
While, technically, the example functions as a logline in that it’s a one-sentence synopsis, the absence of an important element keeps it from achieving logline self-actualization. That missing element?
But tension comes from knowing the stakes. Who’s in the film? What are they trying to do? What happens if they fail?
So how are you supposed to jam stakes into a logline, when you only have 1-2 sentences to work with? But how do you jam tension into such a small bit of text?
Easy. Set up the who, set up what they’re up against, and tell us what happens if they fail.
A police chief with a fear of the ocean battles a gigantic shark terrorizing a beach community.
Who: The police chief. What he’s up against: giant shark. What happens if he fails: Shark eats beach community.
The bare minimum of a good logline: telling the audience what the movie’s about in a way that renders for the reader of the logline a good idea of what’s at stake.
But all good loglines also contain some sort of irony as well.
For those of you who don’t know and for those of you who might be sharks, irony is the art of saying one thing but meaning the opposite. With that in mind, let’s spice up our previous lackluster Jaws logline with a dash of detail and a hearty dollop of irony:
A seaside town is terrorized by a giant shark.
It’s perfect, right? We covered everything in the movie. There’s a seaside town. There’s a giant shark. There’s terror. Yup, we got it, mission accomplished. Martini shot. It’s safe to go back into the water. Just kidding! Okay, so it’s not a perfect logline yet but we’re making solid improvements especially with the addition of irony, but why does irony matter?
Because narratives are about change, screenplays whose loglines contain a high amount of irony tend to offer the largest room for narrative growth. Irony plays into our sense of justice too. With great power, comes great responsibility for retaining franchise rights. Along with Spider-man, what every professional screenwriter knows is that the best movies aren’t about only good or only bad moments. Balance is essential. Rise and fall or fall and rise or fall and spring or winter and summer or construction season, you get the point.
Irony provides the give-and-take necessary for a good story idea to become a great film. Let’s look at another example of a movie we’ve just made up called HIPSTER VS SHARK.
A hipster who’s afraid of water wins tickets for his favorite band’s cruise ship tour.
In this example, there’s a central character with a problem that he needs to overcome in order to achieve his goal. The irony at work here grants the character room to grow from where he began. Without this necessary space to develop, the character might not have much of an arc and the narrative could suffer because of it. Who wants to fund a movie about a character that doesn’t change or an event where nothing happens?
The other job irony is doing in this logline is providing balance to the character’s fortune. This balance is necessary to maintain plausibility and help the audience suspend disbelief.
Often confused for irony, coincidence is a double-edged sword when it comes to creating the plot. When used poorly, coincidence can make the plot feel too convenient. Typically, we find misfortune to be far more plausible than being lucky. In our example, the hipster’s good fortune of winning the tickets is balanced by his misfortune of being afraid of the water.
Hipsters may do things ironically but there’s no such thing as ironic shark fishing. Although in our case, we’re not fishing for sharks. We’re fishing for a producer, agent, director, or anybody with connections to get our screenplay to the next level. With the right application of irony to our loglines, we can be sure to reel in our catch.