What is a logline?

A logline is a concise summary of the plot up to either the midpoint or the beginning of the final act, using (ideally) no more than 40 words and phrased as a single sentence (maybe two).

Simple, right?

Well… that is a concise summary of a logline using no more than 40 words and phrased as a single sentence; however, there is so much more that a logline has to do. 

What is a logline… really?

Loglines are used throughout the development and marketing of a movie. They are commonly used amongst industry professionals to provide a clear idea about the plot as a whole. It can be used by the writer as a guide throughout the writing process. It can provide producers with an idea about potential budgets, themes, tones, and relevance. Marketers can use it to help position the movie within the market and provide clues on how to sell it to audiences. They could even be used on the poster or the back of the DVD. IMDb uses a single sentence to describe every film, series, and even episode on their site.

Variations of the same logline can achieve different things but ultimately their purpose remains the same: To sum up the film in a nutshell. 

Let’s look at some examples:

When his son is swept out to sea, an anxious clownfish embarks on a perilous journey across a treacherous ocean to bring him back.
Finding Nemo (2003 – 24 words)

An FBI cadet, haunted by memories of her childhood, must confide in a manipulative psychopath to help catch a serial killer who skins his victims.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991 – 25 words)

You get the general idea.

Why is a great logline so important?

There are many reasons why a great logline is important. I’m going to focus on two.

A logline is often the first and sometimes only chance you will ever have to get someone to read your screenplay. The progression of this script, which you have spent months or even years crafting, is all hinging on one sentence. Your next pay cheque, which allows you to buy food and pay your rent, dangles by a thread consisting of 40 or so words. Yet, countless loglines I’ve read are uninspiring, lack clarity, give me no idea what I’ll actually be watching on screen, or simply don’t make sense. When so much rests on a logline, why would you not take the same care and consideration you took crafting your screenplay, to encourage someone to read it?

The other reason is because, if you take that care and consideration before you even start writing the screenplay to write a great logline, you’ve got something that will prove invaluable throughout the writing process – a plot that works! It’s simple: you can write a bad screenplay from a good logline, but you can’t write a good screenplay from a bad logline. This is because the logline is the plot of the screenplay!

I’ve read loads of loglines that were written after the screenplay was finished (I’ve done this myself too and learnt a valuable lesson) and, occasionally, there is a major flaw. A “why doesn’t the protagonist just…” moment. Suddenly, every minute you’ve spent on the screenplay has been wasted.

Sometimes it’s not as extreme. It could just be that the arc could be stronger, or the antagonist could be better, or even that the whole concept is stronger from the point of view of a different character. How much better would it be if you ironed out all these creases before you write “FADE IN”? How much time could it save?  

If you have a great logline, you have something to keep coming back to. It can keep you on the right track because it’s a solid foundation. Sometimes, writing the logline beforehand makes you realise the story is not as strong as you thought it was. It helps you craft the best possible version of your idea because you have to whittle it down to its most basic elements. The elements on which everything else is based. In my head, writing a script without a logline is like trying to build a house without a blueprint – it’s doable but you’re never quite sure if everything is going to come crashing down around you. 

I love loglines! I love the complexity wrapped up in their simplicity. You can say so much with so little and yet I’ve been constantly amazed at, not just the lack of great loglines, but also a complete lack of understanding what makes a good logline. It’s frequently an afterthought – just something you have to do when you list your screenplay on websites or submit them to competitions. I see it differently and I know others who feel the same way. If I read a great logline that feels like someone has deliberated over, tinkered with, and carefully crafted, I would be more inclined to read their screenplay regardless. I would feel like the writer is someone who would take the same care and consideration over every scene in their screenplay. Simply put, I would read it because the writer understands the power of every single word. 

That’s a writer whose work I would want to read.