So what’s this log-line thingy?
Basically, we should be able to tell someone (an agent) what our story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels.
Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread.
We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.
So let’s look at components of a great log-line:
Great log-lines are short and clear.
I cannot tell you how many writers I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.
Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is probably structurally flawed. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?
A good log-line is ironic.
Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:
The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.
What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”
A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.
A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.
During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.
Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.
A good log-line will interest potential readers.
Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. In Save the Cat, author Blake Snyder relays stories of how he would take his log-line to Starbucks and ask total strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel.
Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.
Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence.
You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc. Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.
You have your log-line. Now what?
Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.
One of the best ways to learn how to write log-lines is to go peruse the IMDB (Internet Movie Database). Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described.
You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing. Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.
Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes 6) ticking clock.
EXAMPLE: Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.
An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes/ticking clock).
Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.
This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.
It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a NYT best-seller, I think Crichton did okay.
So here is an exercise.
See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent or hook readers to BUY, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park.
Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles. And happy writing!