How to Write Outstanding TV & Movie Loglines: The ULTIMATE Guide
There’s no doubt about it: A fundamental step in the initial stages of writing a screenplay is devising the perfect Logline.
Having the ability to create a concise and effective summary of your story is a big step toward securing a high-quality story in your hands.
Quite simply, the process of writing a logline will help you to better understand your narrative and to better communicate your ideas. It’s a key part of learning how to write a script.
And yes, it will also make you a better writer.
What exactly is a Logline?
A logline is a concise and striking summary of your screenplay in one or two sentences. It describes the main purpose of your story and makes perfectly clear what the goal of the protagonist is and the stakes of reaching that goal.
In addition, it must generate intrigue and grab the attention of the reader.
Of course, the task is not as simple as it sounds. It involves distilling dozens and dozens of pages to a single sentence, one that must generate curiosity without getting into many details.
In this post, we’ll break down the elements of a logline, show you some samples, and help you create this vital part of your scriptwriting process.
The Importance Of Your Pitch
Regardless of the level, stage or budget of your production, the pitch will be a constant tool throughout the whole process. With a good pitch, the process of recruiting people to your project will be much more effective. And a great logline is fundamental to the success of that pitch.
It’ll be much easier to convince investors, executive producers, cinematographers, musicians, actors and practically any member of the cast & crew to join your project if 1) they perceive your clarity and confidence with the story 2) they clearly understand what you’re going for and 3) their curiosity is piqued.
Without an effective logline–and therefore pitch–, all that effort put in can become repetitive, tedious and futile.
A logline is also an important part of being a Script Reader or writing script coverage, where you’re required to break down the story after you’ve read it.
The exact same rules apply to if you where a writer trying to generate your logline, so budding Script Readers pay close attention too.
The Logline As A Diagnostic Device
The most important value of a good logline is its ability to help you diagnose the quality of your story.
It’s very simple: If after trying it many times you cannot write a good logline of your story, there’s something missing in your original idea.
Writing a logline forces you to answer questions like:
- Who is my protagonist?
- What do he/she/it/they want?
- Who/What is against my protagonist?
- Why is vital for my protagonist to achieve his/her/their goal?
And if you cannot answer those questions, you may have to rethink some things before putting everything into a 120-page detailed screenplay.
In other words, being able to write a solid logline about your story from the beginning, will save you from many future re-writes.
Still not sure what a logline looks like?
Here we have…
Some Examples of Loglines
Tokyo Godfathers: On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents.
Pan’s Labyrinth: In the Falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.
Booksmart: 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.
American History X: A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.
The Exorcist: When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.
Don’t confuse Logline with Tagline
The tagline is a marketing copy designed for purely promotional reasons. They are usually seen on posters, trailers and any other advertising material. It’s a catchy phrase designed to captivate quick looks. Most of the time, it gives almost no information about the plot.
Let’s see an example using Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver:
Tagline: All you need is one killer track.
Logline: After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.
How to Write Loglines
Pedagogically, there are dozens of “formulas” recommended to design the perfect logline. However, this is far from being an exact science and, by definition, it adapts to each project.
Overall, a logline must briefly describe at least three elements:
- 1) The Protagonist
- 2) The Goal
- 3) The Antagonistic Part
Coco’s logline clearly shows these three elements:
Aspiring musician Miguel [protagonist], confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music [antagonistic part], enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer [Goal].
Let’s break down each one of the elements:
The protagonist is the main character and the one who provides the main voice in the story. It’s the character that the audience should connect and empathize with the most.
In the vast majority of cases, that character is the protagonist because they/he/she is forced to do something he/she/they wouldn’t do in normal conditions.
It’s not necessary to use the name of the protagonist in the logline. Unless we’re talking about an already famous character–Like Elton John in Rocketman, for example–a name won’t tell us much about the character.
The key here is to define the character with very few words. The “sweet spot” is to describe its main profession/trait along with its most characteristic qualifying adjective. Terms like “insane general”, “lively septuagenarian” or “bookish young stepdaughter” immediately give us a clear picture of the protagonist.
Usually, the goal comes immediately after the description of the protagonist. And it makes sense: without a goal, the protagonist has no reason to be. The goal is what moves the main character. The protagonist’s effort to reach the goal should be the reason why the audience connects with the story. If you’re confused about what the protagonist’s ‘goal’ means and how it works in actuality, our list of examples of protagonist’s goals should help clarify.
The Antagonistic Part
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a clearly outlined villain. It doesn’t even have to be a character. For example, in Coco‘s case, the main obstacle that the protagonist must overcome is the “family’s ancestral ban on music”.
But no matter which way it comes from, the antagonistic part must be described in the logline. That information will unveil the vulnerabilities of the protagonist and will give more context to the goal.
Other Potential Logline Elements
It’s perfectly possible to come up with a logline using the three main elements mentioned above. However, each project is unique and sometimes more information is required to achieve the perfect logline.
Let’s examine other possible elements that will help you perfect your logline.
When the context of the story is different from our reality and strongly influences the protagonist and the goal, is vital to briefly describe it on the logline. This tends to happen–but not exclusively–in genres such as sci-fi or fantasy.
For example, let’s take a look at the Children Of Men‘s logline:
In a chaotic world [Antagonistic part] in which women have become somehow infertile [Setup], a former activist [Protagonist] agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea [Goal].
Do you see the relevance of the setup? Without the infertility context, the importance of the goal of the protagonist wouldn’t be clear.
That brings us to the next point…
It will never hurt to accentuate the drama of the story by making clear what the stakes are.
Stakes are usually linked to death and, depending on the genre, can be literal or figurative. Let’s examine the elements in Dr. Strangelove’s: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb‘s logline:
An insane general [Antagonistic part] triggers a path to nuclear holocaust [Stakes] that a War Room full of politicians and generals [protagonist] frantically tries to stop [Goal].
Undoubtedly, “nuclear holocaust” is a BIG stake and certainly adds more intrigue to a logline that otherwise wouldn’t be that shocking.
The catalyst is an inciting incident that changes the protagonist’s life and motivates the journey for the goal. Sometimes that incident is provoked by the antagonistic part. It’s what puts the story in motion.
A good example of this can be found in Kill Bill‘s logline:
After awakening from a four-year coma [Catalyst], a former assassin [protagonist] wreaks vengeance [Goal] on the team of assassins who betrayed her [Antagonistic part].
In this case, what kickstarts the journey of the protagonist is having awakened from a four-year coma. And in this case, this information is important to better understand the motivations of the protagonist and her goal.
Some Recommendations to Achieve The Perfect Logline
1) Don’t be afraid to rewrite the logline several times. This is an art in itself where every word counts. Tweaking is key.
2) Don’t reveal the ending. Don’t even describe the third act. Ideally, the logline should motivate whoever reads it to find out what happens at the end.
3) Avoid empty loglines. A phrase like “a young lawyer faces the trial of his life in an epic tale of social justice and revenge” doesn’t really say much. The key is to give unique details of your story, in very few words.
4) Emphasize the ironies and contradictions of the story. Dichotomies are fundamental to generate tension and give a unique personality to your project. The Fight Club logline, although somewhat different for what’s established, is a great example of this:
An insomniac office worker and a devil-may-care soap maker form an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more.
Characterizing the office worker as “insomniac” (lethargic, depressed), contrasting it with a “devil-may-care” soap maker (active, hectic) and then revealing that this dissonant duo created an underground fight club, generates an instant engage.
5) Don’t be afraid to leave amazing details out. Yes, sometimes a secondary character or an unexpected twist ends up becoming a memorable aspect of a screenplay. However, if they don’t directly influence any of the discussed elements of the logline, they shouldn’t be mentioned.
6) Describe the core idea. Just one. Even if your screenplay explores several interesting topics. It’s what will determine if you have a solid story in your hands.
Don’t be afraid to modify your logline as you polish your screenplay. Don’t perceive the logline as a law engraved in stone that immobilizes your creativity. The important thing is that with each change, tweak or rewrite, your corresponding logline remains of high quality.
Bonus: Art-House Films loglines
Are you creating an arthouse, spirited-free screenplay? Do you consider that a logline is a restraining device for your rule breaking project?
Yes, maybe the results wouldn’t be as striking and engaging as those of a blockbuster or an Academy Award-Winning film, but even in extreme cases of films that are almost video-art (Holy Motors comes to mind), the process to write the ideal logline will help you 1) find your narrative goal and 2) communicate better your intentions with the project.
Don’t believe us? Here are some…
Examples of Arthouse Film Loglines
Mulholland Drive: After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesiac, she and a perky Hollywood-hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality.
Enter The Void: A French drug dealer living in Tokyo is betrayed by his best friend and killed in a drug deal. His soul, observing the repercussions of his death, seeks resurrection.
The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie: A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.
There are no excuses. If David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, and Luis Buñuel can have loglines of their films, anything is possible.
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