IN ONE of my classes on storytelling I invited my screenwriting students to come up with three loglines, before choosing the best amongst them.
Some were more enticing than others: Fresher concepts, new angles on old ones, dangling questions that demanded answers.
Others, not so much.
When the dust had settled and the best loglines stood shoulder to shoulder one thing seemed obvious. They all featured concrete, outer journey elements while simultaneously revealing some essential aspect of the protagonist’s inner problem.
Being loglines, they did not require too much fleshing out. The writers provided just enough information to intrigue the reader.
Loglines and high concept have this in common: They allow the reader, in the words of Steven Spielberg, to hold the story in the palm of her hand, to glimpse what the story is about—although high concept focuses on elements of uniqueness and originality far more than any ordinary logline.
So it is with any commercially viable tale. Without a concrete, palpable story in which the hero has to struggle against a powerful villain or dangerous circumstance to achieve the goal, there is no story to tell.
Apollo 13’s logline is crisp and cuts to the chase: NASA races to come up with a plan to return Apollo 13 to Earth safely after the spacecraft suffers serious damage which puts the lives of its three astronauts in danger.
“Loglines provide snapshots of stories.”
The point is important. If the reader can not sense the physical arc of the story in a logline she will probably not be interested in reading the rest of the tale in order to get to its themes and concepts.
This is not to say that the inner conflict of the character(s) is not of vital importance. Many of the greatest stories ever written had powerful inner journeys – Lord of the Rings, The Spire. But it is to say that the protagonist’s inner conflict has to be reflected in the story’s outer conflict.
The logline, “The Land Below is a post-apocalyptic story concerning a young orphan boy who embodies the themes of survival versus freedom,” is not as good as:
“The Land Below is the story of a lowly orphan boy who secretly plots to escape his suffocating, post-apocalyptic existence in a converted goldmine, knowing that if betrayed, he will be executed for fermenting inserection against the social order.”
In the second logline the themes of survival and freedom are still present, but they emerge through the visceral and emotive use of concrete, palpable words such as “plots”, “suffocating”, “goldmine”, “betrayed,” “executed,” and “resurrection”. The logline allows us to hold the story in the palm of our hand.
Loglines should use concrete, visceral language to creates snapshots of the hero’s story.