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You are an aspiring screenwriter looking to sell your screenplays. To seal the deal, you need a solid pitch.
Whether you are pitching in person or on the page, the most important element is the logline. So how do you write one?
To write a logline, think of it as a formula consisting of four elements (not necessarily in this order): [protagonist] + [inciding accident] + [action towards a goal] + [conflict]. Fx, start with an inciting incident and then introduce your protagonist. The incident creates a conflict that leads to the story’s main action that the protagonist must resolve as part of their ultimate goal.
A good logline includes all of the above elements. Still, we’ll expand more on the different ways you can piece them all together below, including the way story/career consultant, writing instructor, and author Jen Grisanti suggests you structure your pitch.
Let’s dive in!
What is a logline?
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a logline is a one or two-sentence pitch for the entire plot of your feature film, short film, or television series.
Loglines are used both in written film treatments and verbal pitches as a way to summarize your story in the most succinct way possible. In essence, a logline needs to sell your story in one sentence.
Whether you are submitting to a contest, querying a potential manager via email, or elevator pitching a producer on zoom, you will want a tight logline that hooks the recipient to want more.
How do you write a logline?
You can write a logline by summarizing your film’s core plot into one sentence. This sounds like murder to first time writers, and it feels like murder to working writers, but every writer who ever sold a script created one.
That said, every great logline has four elements in common (not necessarily in this order):
[protagonist] + [inciding accident] + [conflict] + [action towards a goal]
When a [protoganist] discovers that [inciting incident] his life is [conflict] so he decides to [take action].
After a [inciting incident], a naive young [protagonist] embarks on a perilious [action] to get back at [conflict]
In other words: What happens? Who does it happen to? What problem does it create? What action resolves the conflict and lead to the final goal?
There are a few different ways you can structure a logline depending on what elements you want to highlight. Here are a few examples:
Start with the inciting incident.
Sometimes referred to as a trigger, starting your logline with the inciting incident is a good way to get into the action.
From the inciting incident, you want to introduce the protagonist, and then get to the conflict that arises from that inciting incident and finish off with the goal behind solving said problem.
Here’s an example:
When an emergency signal from a kidnapped princess lands in front of a naive farm boy, he discovers he has magic powers and teams up with a ragtag group of rebels to save the day from an evil empire threatening the entire galaxy.
Sound familiar? While that’s certainly not the original logline – as it was written by me and not George Lucas – the above example is how you can use the inciting incident to hook your audience before introducing your main character.
There are pros and cons to this, but the main pro is starting with the action to kick things off.
The main con? Missing out on empathizing with the lead character, which is why you could alternatively…
Start with the protagonist.
Instead of starting with the inciting incident, you can start your logline by introducing your protagonist and then introduce the inciting incident.
By starting with the “who”, the listener can immediately identify a character to empathize with.
The story consultant, instructor and author Jen Grisanti advises the following on her Tips for Writers blog post:
“Think set up of who (create empathy for your lead character), dilemma, action and goal. Also, for your log line, add a twist of irony. This tells your audience where you are going.”– Jen Grisanti
Jen’s advice is great. Starting with “the who” creates empathy for the character when you introduce your dilemma. The listener will feel for your protagonist, and hopefully become curious about how the main tension will get resolved. From there, you can wrap up with the goal.
We’ll get to her suggestion about adding a twist of irony in a moment.
First, here’s another attempt at the same logline from above.
“STAR WARS—A science-fiction fantasy about a naive but ambitious farm boy from a backwater desert who discovers powers he never knew he had when he teams up with a feisty princess, a mercenary space pilot and an old wizard warrior to lead a ragtag rebellion against the sinister forces of the evil Galactic Empire.”
Instead of starting with an inciting incident like I did, Bill began with introducing the protagonist, getting you to immediately empathize with the main character before introducing the magic powers and forces of evil the same way Jen recommends.
Using the character’s point of view to inform your logline.
What’s great about introducing the protagonist first is that you can write the logline from that protagonist’s perspective.
For instance, observe how the same story can be pitched differently when told from different character perspectives:
Option 1: Luke’s perspective.
When a naive farm boy receives a distress signal from a kidnapped princess and discovers he has magic powers, he goes on a quest to save her and the galaxy from the galactic evil known as the Empire.
Option 2: Leia’s perspective.
After a rogue princess gets kidnapped by the sinister galactic Empire, a naive farm boy receives her distress call, and with the help of an arrogant mercenary, the three must team up to save the galaxy from untold evil.
Option 3: Darth Vader’s perspective.
When a notorious space wizard is outwitted by two bumbling droids, he is forced to defend his nearly-complete planet-destroying super weapon from a motley crew of rebel scum to maintain his iron grip on the galaxy.
While this film is not in any way Darth Vader’s story, we do get glimpses of his perspective throughout the film, so this logline isn’t completely off-base.
In fact, it might be a good idea as you write your story to consider what the logline for your film would be if it was written from the villain’s perspective. If it sounds disjointed or incomplete, you may want to rework your villain’s motivations so that they stand on their own.
Nothing makes a story stronger than a protagonist and antagonist with equally strong motivations!
How do I keep my logline short?
You can keep your logline short and to the point by using a few simple adjectives to describe your protagonists and plot elements.
Keeping your protagonist’s bio short.
I was taught to include only one or two descriptive adjectives when introducing your main character.
These descriptors could inform us about the character’s state of mind, their place in society, or their occupational skill set.
If you want to focus on a character’s state of mind, you might introduce them as “an unhappy clown” or “a hopeless romantic.”
If you want to focus on a character’s social status, you might introduce them as “a recent widower” or “a runaway bride.”
If you want to focus on a character’s occupational skill set, you might introduce them as “a reluctant assassin” or “a disenfranchised franchise owner.”
As Jen Grisanti says:
“When you are writing up your character breakdowns, think about what is the wound that drives the character and the flaw that gets in the way.”– Jen Grisanti
However you describe your main character, you should inform the listener of two things: the core of this person’s identity as it relates to the story, and why we should care about them.
Keeping your plot elements concise.
Your loglines need to be short, and your inciting incidents and ensuing dilemmas are no exception.
If your story has a ton of twists and turns, you might be tempted to include them all in your logline. You may worry that you’re leaving something important out. Don’t worry about that.
Instead, focus on the most dire aspect of the dilemma your protagonist faces and why solving it is important – but don’t answer how it’s all resolved.
If you’re struggling with how to do this, it might help you to answer these four questions about your story’s central plot:
- When things are their worst, what’s really at stake?
- How does your protagonist answer this call to adventure?
- Why do they need to solve this crisis?
- How does achieving this goal help them change?
What you are doing when you write your logline is asking the central dramatic question.
I’ve written more about this in how to write a story that works, but what it boils down to is tying your character’s internal arc to the resolution of the external plot.
Here’s what Jen Grisanti recommends:
“When you are thinking about what motivates your central character, think about whether there is something in his/her subconscious that connects with the goal due to a past wound and by solving the goal in the story, they not only help others, they help themselves. To go deeper, think about whether there is something in your own subconscious that resonates to the goal and why the pursuit needs to be successful.”– Jen Grisanti
Logline examples from recent films.
Here are a few logline examples from some of my favorite recent films. Keep in mind, these are the public-facing loglines from IMDB and not necessarily the same ones that were used to pitch the movie (though they could be).
Let’s look at the logline for Book Smart, directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman:
“On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.”
Great logline, and even though it’s two sentences, it’s succinct while focused on the most important aspects of the characters and story.
You have two academic kids [protagonists] who realize they missed out on a massive part of high school [inciting incident], become as determined to have fun as they are successful in school [conflict] and try to make up for it all in one night [goal].
Inherent in that plot description is a goal that’s tied to the characters’ need, but doesn’t answer the question of how it’s resolved. Instead, it draws you in and makes you want to watch the movie to see how it all plays out.
Here’s another logline, this time from writer and director Jordan Peele’s breakout 2017 hit Get Out:
“A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.”
This logline is brilliant, particularly for how it encapsulates the film’s double-entendre tension of the uneasiness [dilemma] of being the only black person [protagonist] in a room full of white people [inciting incident], in this case his girlfriend’s family, and wanting to resolve that tension [goal].
Without revealing what goes down, the logline hits us with the question of whether or not this tension stems from microaggressions or if something more sinister is going on.
With this logline, the main character’s goal is subtle, but it’s still there: to ease the tension of why he’s so uncomfortable.
Here’s another logline, this time for last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho and co-written by Han Jin-won:
“Greed and class discrimination threaten the newly formed symbiotic relationship between the wealthy Park family and the destitute Kim clan.”
This one’s a little more vague, especially because the film has more of an ensemble cast so it’s hard to pinpoint a particular main character.
That said, it hits on the film’s key themes without spoiling any of the brilliant plot and makes you wonder what this film is all about.
All the elements are there, even if they are a bit more subtle. The wealthy Park family and the destitute Kim Clan [protagonists] face greed and class discrimination [dillemma] that threatens their newly formed symbiotic relationship [inciting incident + goal].
How do I know my logline is good?
You’ll know your logline is good when you have boiled your story down to its most simple elements and it still sounds enticing. If the logline makes people want to know what happens next, it’s a good logline.
“Start your character in a place that is easy to empathize with. Specify the powerful dilemma that starts your Teaser and then the goal that stems from this dilemma. Discuss the obstacles, escalating obstacles and turning point. Make us root for the achievement of the goal.”– Jen Grisanti
Following Jen Grisanti’s advice, if you start your logline by introducing your character and make us feel for that character, it can make the dilemma and ensuing action more impactful.
By the time you end with the goal, the recipient of your pitch should be eager to know if and how the story is resolved.
What about loglines for TV series?
Loglines for television shows follow the same rules as above. Depending on the show, you’ll have more than one protagonist, so you may need to generalize about the community at the center of your series.
For example, the logline for HBO’s Game of Thrones on IMDB is:
“Nine noble families fight for control over the lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for millennia.”
The nine noble families are the protagonists, the fighting for control over the lands of Westeros is the dilemma and the goal, and the ancient enemy returning is the inciting incident.
You could also pitch your show by giving the logline for the pilot episode instead of the whole series.
For instance, if you were pitching the pilot for Game of Thrones, you would write something more specific, like this episode summary from IMDB:
“Eddard Stark is torn between his family and an old friend when asked to serve at the side of King Robert Baratheon; Viserys plans to wed his sister to a nomadic warlord in exchange for an army.”
As you can see, since there are two parallel stories happening in the pilot, pitching the pilot as a logline can be a little messy if you try to summarize your A, B, and C plots all in one sentence.
In that case, I’d recommend sticking with a series logline for a more ensemble series and a pilot logline for a series that follows one main storyline.
What about that “twist of irony?”
As Jen noted, a twist of irony can hint at your larger themes, and give the recipient of your logline a sense that not everything is what it seems.
This element is optional, as it’s not applicable to every story, but it can definitely elevate every story if you do it well.