Author: lefttowriter

Loglines: The Inciting Incident

One of the key lessons to learn with an inciting incident is that it is out of the main character’s control. It is never an action or decision taken by the hero; it is an involuntary event which is irreversible and forces the protagonist to act. It is the event that kicks everything off. Without this, you are simply watching the character live their “normal” life, and this is not a story. The story comes from the abnormal. Synonyms for the word “incite” are things like “stir up”, “urge”, and “encourage”. This is precisely what you’re doing to the main character – you’re mixing up their life. 

I have two ways I like to consider the inciting incident:

  1. As the event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s life and sets up the goal of correcting this imbalance. 
  2. As a question that the hero tries to answer. Their answer is their goal. 

Note how, in both methods, the inciting incident sets up the goal. They HAVE to be related to each other and the journey between the two is where you have your story. If they are not connected, either your goal is wrong, or your inciting incident is wrong. 

Method 1 restricts itself slightly to a story where the protagonist believes his life is fine. They are proactively trying to return to their “normal life” without realising that they will change. Sometimes, however, the protagonist is actively trying to get somewhere new. 

For this reason, I favour method 2 as I think it can apply to every scenario. The important bit in method 2 is “their answer”. It’s not your answer, it’s not necessarily the right answer, but it’s what you think the character would do to answer that question. This feeds into your character and their characteristic.

I find the inciting incident the hardest part of a logline! There can be so much information that you have to try and cram into 20 or so words that it just seems really daunting to whittle it down to the essential elements. Here are the things which are worth thinking about in an inciting incident:

This time it’s personal

A question that I see frequently in logline feedback is “why this guy?”. Why does he/she/they have to be our protagonist over any other character within this world? Consider the following:

“When terrorists take over an office building (on Christmas Eve)…”

This could be the inciting incident to 1988’s Die Hard (a Christmas classic – don’t @ me). The problem with this is it doesn’t give us any reason why John McClane must be our hero. 

Compare that to:

“When terrorists take over his wife’s office building (on Christmas Eve)…”

Suddenly, we understand why John McClane must be our protagonist. Do we need to know they are separated? Not really because what does it add? A bit of history but that’s it. It doesn’t change the fact John McClane wants to save his wife from terrorists.

I prefer to frame my inciting incidents around a main character for the simple reason that this is their story. It gets a little trickier in ensemble films where a group of characters have a shared goal, however, usually one character is the “leader”. Independence Day (1996), for example, follows a small group of characters trying to save the world from an alien invasion but one character is the guy who calls the shots: President Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman. He’s the president of the United States, so we immediately understand why this guy is our central protagonist. Framing the logline around his character gives the reader a very clear sense of what sort of film will be about. It gives us a personal story within a huge global event, and this lets the reader/audience into the story. It connects emotion to a premise.

Other ensemble films aren’t so easy but considering the themes within the story can help pinpoint a character who embodies the message you are trying to convey. Another option is to choose the character who has the biggest capacity for change, either internally or externally. If you go with the character with the biggest internal arc, the reader can immediately see that this is a more personal story, whereas if you go with the character who can affect external change, it feels more plot driven. 

This gets more complicated if your story is an exploration of a theme. The best example of this is Love Actually (2003). There is no central character, it has a multi-stranded narrative, and it takes an exceptionally talented writer, such as Richard Curtis, to pull this off! I’ll discuss how to logline for multi-stranded narratives in a future post. 

Keep it simple

This one can be tricky. Some stories have a lot going on in the first act and it’s difficult not to get bogged down with expositional events that influence the story. The inciting incident is precisely that though. One incident. Singular. It is usually a remarkably small moment within one scene – Rocky is challenged by Apollo Creed to a fight; Capt. John Miller is ordered to save Private Ryan after all his brothers are killed in action; Sulley accidentally lets Boo into Monstropolis.  Such simple events, but the consequences sustain the 90+ minute runtime.

If you find your inciting incident becoming long and unwieldy, with a chain of events and lots of world building and exposition, try thinking about that one scene which provides the question leading to the rest of the story. Write that one moment down and see if it makes sense on its own. The Lord of the Rings is set in a huge world with a vast history, mythical creatures, fantastical ideas, magic, hobbits, elves, orcs, etc. and if you wanted to write a logline for the whole thing, it could easily become complicated. So… let’s start with the inciting incident for the complete story (without any exposition or world building):

“After discovering his uncle’s old ring is the lost all-powerful magic ring and the dark lord is coming for it.

That’s it in 20 words. If this one simple event didn’t happen, Frodo would never leave the Shire. The important bit is underlined. Without this, as Frodo himself suggests in the film, they could put it away, keep it hidden, and never speak of it again. If we took that bit out, there’s no reason for Frodo to do anything. There’s no urgency; no question that needs answering. With that, we suddenly understand why it must be now! Including the exposition about the ring being his uncle’s also goes someway to explain why it must be Frodo – there’s a sense of familial responsibility and suggests a backstory far greater than we could ever get in this logline… that creates interest whilst still maintaining everything a logline needs to do. 

The other great thing about this inciting incident is, whilst it seems simple, it does so much! It immediately confirms the genre you’ve selected (Fantasy), you get that it’s a good vs evil story, we get a glimpse of the protagonist, we get the antagonist and what his goal is, we get a hint of the stakes (if the dark lord gets hold of the all-powerful ring, it ain’t gonna be good!), and we get the magical MacGuffin that is central to the whole story. 

A couple of things to note in this inciting incident:

  • It’s THE lost all-powerful magic ring, not A lost all-powerful… This makes the ring seem important, not just to the plot but within the world. 
  • It’s THE dark lord, not A dark lord. Make the bad guy sound like the biggest bad guy ever and, similarly to the ring, makes him significant within the world. 

I haven’t mentioned hobbits, or Middle-Earth, or anything a reader wouldn’t understand, and it sets up everything that happens next without reams of world-building and exposition that could bury the plot. 

If a reader doesn’t understand what’s happening in the inciting incident and why this leads to the plot, you’ve lost before you’ve left the gate. So, as much as you can, keep it simple, relatable, and understandable. 

Don’t confuse an exciting incident as an inciting incident

All too often, people mistake a really exciting moment which has massive significance to the story as the inciting incident. The best example is the moment an ordinary teenager gets bitten by a radioactive spider and wakes up the following day as Spider-Man. Yes, this is absolutely fundamental to the story BUT what is the question that this poses to the hero? What do you do when you develop superpowers? Based on everything suggested so far, if he wants to return to his “normal” life, his goal is to get rid of these superpowers. This doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. Ok, so let’s say his goal isn’t to go back to normal, it’s to move forward as a superhero. Well then, he becomes his friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. That’s about it. Helping those in need in his community… for 120 minutes. This also doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. So, what is the inciting incident? A superhero is nothing without a supervillain and THAT’S the one event that really asks a question of the protagonist. What do you do when a big bad guy with their own superpowers tries to take over the city? You try and stop him because you’re the only one who can. Simple. 

In ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, it’s not when the freak weather events happen, it’s when Dennis Quaid realises his son is stuck in the New York Library and will freeze to death. In ‘Jumanji’, it’s not the discovery of the game, it’s not even when Alan Parrish is sucked into the jungle; it’s when he’s spat back out again in the future and has the chance to end the game… at last! Why? Because they ask a question of the protagonist. Dennis Quaid can’t stop a force of nature, but he can rescue his son. Alan Parrish can’t escape a magical game until someone rolls 5 or 8… it’s out of his hands, so our PROtagonist can’t be PROactive. When he finally does get out though, he does whatever it takes to end the game!

The inciting incident may not be the most exciting incident within your first act, but it’s the one that carries the weight of the rest of the film on its shoulders and sets up a clear goal for the protagonist. If it doesn’t pose a question to the main character, it’s probably not the inciting incident. 

A quick checklist which may help when it comes to crafting your inciting incident in a logline:

  1. Is it one singular event happening to the protagonist which is out of their control?
  2. Is it as short and succinct as you can make it?
  3. Does it mix up the protagonist’s life in some way?
  4. Does it ask a question of the protagonist and set up a clear goal?

If your answer is “no” to any of these, my recommendation is to think a little more about your inciting incident – not so you necessarily answer “yes” to all the above – but simply so you can understand whether your inciting incident is doing everything it needs to. The most important thing is that it is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. 

Specifi-City: Where loglines thrive

I read a lot of loglines. I love them. I think there is so much skill required to make one which not only provides a clear outline for the plot, but also sparks the reader’s imagination and gets them excited. All too often though, I find loglines lacking specificity – there’s just not enough information for me to really understand what this story is about or worse… there’s just enough for me to think I do. 

I believe there are three main reasons why a writer creates an ambiguous logline:

  • They are worried someone will steal their idea, so they hide elements – usually in an attempt to keep the best bits of their safe and not give too much away – this is also called “burying the hook”
  • They’re confusing a logline with a tagline.
  • They don’t know any better. 

Let’s flash forward. You’ve sent your ambiguous logline off to a big shot producer – one of three (probably more but let’s keep it simple) things are going to happen:

  1. The producer reads your logline but it’s too ambiguous, so they struggle to “see” your movie. Remember, a producer is looking for something they can market and sell. They need to get a sense of genre, tone, themes, budget, etc. and they simply can’t do that if they’re not really sure what’s going on. That’s as far as you go, kid!
  2. The producer reads your logline but there’s nothing that sets this story apart from other films or scripts. You’ve buried the hook! That’s as far as you go, kid!
  3. The producer reads your logline, and they like it! GREAT! They have a clear idea in their head what this story is, so they pick up your synopsis… BUT WAIT! This synopsis is nothing like the story they have in their head. You’ve wasted the time of this big shot producer so guess what? That’s as far as you go, kid!

How can you avoid of these outcomes and give yourself the best possible chance of getting past the logline stage?

Let’s deal with burying the hook first. 

You’ve had an idea for a story and there’s something totally unique that you’ve never seen done before. It’s brilliant… verging on genius! It could easily make this story an instant classic! So rather than putting that front and centre of your logline and framing EVERYTHING else around it, you omit it completely because you don’t want someone to steal it. The one thing that sets this story apart from all the others… and you hide it. WHY???? That’s the equivalent of Usain Bolt running in flip-flops (he’d probably still win)! 

T. S. Eliot said “Good writers borrow; great writers steal” and he’s not wrong! So, whilst that means someone might pilfer your genius hook and claim it as their own, never forget that nobody (NOBODY) will write this story like you will. This is your hook! Your story! Inside your brain is a tangled web of plot, character, theme, tone which is completely unique to you. This big shot producer knows that! Give two writers the same logline and you’ll get two completely different scripts. The more specific the logline, the closer those scripts will be, sure! But different they will be none-the-less. 

Simply put, burying the hook is the best way to sabotage the best chance you have. 

So, don’t! 

Do you know the difference between a logline and a tagline? I’ve given feedback to writers before, telling them to be more specific, and their response has been they want to save the mystery so someone has to read the script to find out what the story’s about. No no no no no NO! That’s not what a logline is. A tagline is designed to get people interested in seeing the movie. Mystery, intrigue, suggestiveness, all work brilliantly in a tagline. But we’re not crafting taglines. We’re crafting loglines and loglines are designed to give the reader a concise summary of the plot (up to either the midpoint or the beginning of the final act) and provide a sense of genre, tone, themes, budget, etc. Sure, a logline can be used to market the film, or to help the writer during their process, or to get a producer interested, but ultimately it MUST SUM THE FILM UP IN A NUTSHELL! 

If the producer is looking for a contemporary rom-com with a small cast and they’ve got $2 million to spend, they’ll be looking for a script which sounds like it fits this category. If your logline doesn’t give them enough information for them to determine if it meets these criteria because it’s actually a tagline… that’s as far as you go, kid! It could be the best tagline ever, your script might be The Godfather of romantic comedies, but they don’t want to see a tagline. They want a logline! So make it a logline!

Ok, you haven’t buried your hook… congratulations! Now you need to avoid being ambiguous because you simply don’t know any better. This one’s easy! Now you know. 

I’ll break it down a little more though. As mentioned in my “introduction to logline” post, a logline is formed of various components – main character, inciting incident, stakes, etc. Each one of these elements has the potential to send your logline to Ambiguity – the place where loglines go to die! My favourite thing to do to avoid this is simply to ask myself “can I be more specific whilst staying as relevant to the story as I possibly can?” If the answer is yes, then go for it until you can’t be more specific. 

“A man must take care of a sea creature before it eats any more townsfolk”

This is a very (very) bad logline for Jaws. It leaves you asking a lot of questions, doesn’t it?

Instead of “a man” (see my post on character in a logline), how can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? He’s not just a man, he’s the Police Chief. Suddenly that changes how this story feels – he has some power and is looked up to, making the reader understand why he might be the main character. Throw in a characteristic too, like “aquaphobic” or “ex-big-city-cop”, and through specificity you’ve brought this protagonist to life! 

Instead of “sea creature”, why would you not say shark? Of course, you would, unless you were trying to hide that it’s a shark. Can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? Yep! Bruce isn’t just any shark. He’s a Great White Shark! With specificity, we’ve made the antagonistic hurdle that much more difficult but that much more exciting. This has the potential to be a proper battle between man and beast! You could choose to say “gigantic” rather than “Great White”, but even “gigantic” could be ambiguous. Is a 25ft shark “gigantic”? How about a 200ft one? It’s subjective but most people know what a Great White is. 

The action our protagonist takes to achieve their goal is one of the most important components to be as specific about as possible as this is the bit that fills the runtime. “Take care of” in this context most likely means kill but there’s a little more wiggle room in there than I’d like, especially since that’s what Chief Brody spends a large percentage of the 130mins trying to do. If you mean kill, say kill. This is pretty short though, and while this is his ultimate goal, consider (if you have the word count available) padding it out so it sounds like this will take longer than 10 minutes. In this case, you could say “track down and kill”. Now it gives the impression it might not be a quick job.

Our new logline looks like this:

“An aquaphobic police chief must track down and kill a Great White shark before it eats any more townsfolk”

19 words. Plenty of space to do a little more. 

Where is this set? We know it’s a town on the water. Can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? Of course, we can! It’s a picturesque island reliant on tourists. It’s a town which needs the summer crowds to survive the winter. It’s a town run by a mayor who will do whatever it takes to keep the beaches open. 

This is where it gets really interesting, and specificity really starts to tell the whole story. The goal isn’t just to kill the shark. More specifically, it’s to kill the shark so the beaches can stay open, and the tourists come spending the money to keep the town alive over the winter months. It’s a political struggle as much as a Man vs Nature tale. Isn’t this more of a story about a lawman who fled the stressful and violent big city to a quaint little island community in search of a more peaceful existence and found sharks both in and out of the water?

“An aquaphobic Police Chief who’s relocated from the big city must track down and kill a great white shark who’s eating the swimmers on the shores of their small-town island community before it scares the Summer money away.” (38 words)

 It’s not perfect, but we have a very clear protagonist, a clear goal with clear stakes, and using words like “big city” and “small-town” demonstrates some of the themes which build this story up. There are also clear suggestions to the politics at play without overshadowing the Man vs Shark struggle that will pull the punters in. 

Arguably, both my first and last version of this last logline would make people think of Jaws, but if the film never existed, which would give the reader a better idea of the story they were about the read? Which would give you a clearer vision of the film? I really hope it’s the latter!

In summary, try to be as specific as you can while still being relevant to the story. Take the time to consider each element carefully and how the specifics of each component can work together to create an engaging and exciting logline that does everything it’s supposed to do. 

Loglines: Your Main Character

A character assassination

I’m frequently disappointed with how little thought seems to go into how to describe the protagonist in a logline. This is the MAIN character! The emotional conduit for the audience; the being whose shoulders bear the weight of the entire plot; the relatable linchpin without whom, you have no story. Yet, more often than not, I see them described as “young man” or “young woman” and I then find myself banging my head, repeatedly, on my desk. 

It’s long since been established that using names is completely redundant in a logline as it does nothing but take up valuable real estate. The name “Luke Skywalker” meant nothing before Star Wars was released. So, what should you use? Most protagonists in a logline are described in two parts (the fewer words the better) – the Characteristic and the Character. The Character tells the reader who they are externally, the Characteristic suggests who they are internally. If you’re really clever, you can use the Character to do both! Whichever words you choose are up to you, but the most important thing is whatever words you use must be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. You’re reducing your character to the fewest number of words required for the reader to understand who they are. Imagine trying to define who you are in 2 or 3 words… you’d probably think for a while about it, so people understood as much about you as possible, right? Don’t do your protagonist an injustice by not sparing them the same care and consideration – they’re your baby after all. 

I’ll just deal with Character for now, Characteristics will be covered in a separate post. Whilst they are just as important, it’s essential to understand how the language used to introduce your Character can suggest so many different things without relying on a characteristic for help.

Gender

Using gender is probably the broadest stroke you can use before you’re basically providing no information about a character other than a species. You are reducing the character down to a gender. If that’s all that’s needed to understand them and the story they’re in, so be it, but I very much doubt that there isn’t a more informative way to tell a reader who this story is about. The most important thing, (and this will be repeated time and time again), is it must be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell

There are times when using gender has thematic relevance for the story i.e., when gender is something you wish to highlight. If it’s a story about sexism, gender inequality, societal roles etc. where the simple fact that she’s a woman, he’s a man, he’s a man in a woman’s body, or even something non-binary, plays a big part in the narrative, then using gender to describe your character could help convey the potential message. 

Even the language used can help create the tone or demonstrate genre in the story. Simply by saying “guy” and “girl” immediately suggests Rom-Com to me.

Race 

Similar to gender, using race is a pretty broad stroke to describe a character. You’re reducing them down to the colour of their skin. Stories that focus on issues of race are some of the few that can benefit from this character introduction. If the fact that a character is black, Asian, white, Indian, etc. is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, then go for it. 

If you are just using gender or race to introduce a character in your logline, spend more time considering their characteristic(s). The more information a reader has about a character, the more real they will appear in the reader’s mind. In order to fully understand the story, the reader must fully understand the characters. 

Species

Not all stories involve humans so it’s important, if a human isn’t the main character, to let the reader know. Mostly because, if it’s not explicitly stated, there’s a very big chance the reader will assume (never let a reader assume anything!) they’re human. Of course you would! In this scenario though, the characteristic will be doing the heavy lifting, or you may have to accept that another word or two is needed. Not always – Finding Nemo, for example, needs nothing more than “an over-protective clownfish”. Combine this with it being in the “Family” genre and you don’t need much else to understand what the story is about.

In any Fantasy or Sci-Fi story, you have to accept that a certain amount of world building is probably necessary in a logline to understand what’s going on. This is why these loglines are pretty much always the longest. If all your characters are elves however, and it’s clear your story is set in a fantasy world, seriously consider how important it actually is for this character to be an elf in a fantasy world. If you transpose the entire story to a real-world setting with humans, does it make any difference? I’ll tackle how to set up your world in a logline in a separate article, but in my opinion, there must be a reason why this story can only be told in this land of make believe. 

Most Fantasy stories have a variety of species. The world has its own societal structure which is separate to our own and MUST be fundamental within the story. Take Lord of the Rings; it is absolutely essential to the story for the hero, Frodo, to be a hobbit, a halfling, because Sauron doesn’t see this diminutive species as a threat. There’s a reason why this story can only be told like this. 

I’m aware that Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, etc. are all described as different “races” within Middle Earth, however, it gets very confusing to be discussing issues of race in both fantasy and real-world stories. For simplicity, I’ve thrown them into the “species” category. That being said, there are HUGE similarities between any story focusing on different species and those focusing on different races and genders. Even in Family films – the rivalry between cats and dogs has long been drawn upon for animated fun! Don’t all films focusing on the big differences between us usually have a similar message: We’re not all that different.

Age

Using a character’s age is a good way to tell the reader a lot about a character. It can give us clues to their emotional maturity, life experience, social pressures, family life, etc. This, ultimately, positions the character within their world and is a very easy way to get a lot of information across in very few words. 

Usually, the younger a character is the greater the probability that you will use an age for them. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being the younger you are the less chance there is that you can be easily defined by something else such as occupation, marital status, etc. Secondly, we’ve all been there. We understand what it’s like to be 7 or 14 and if a character was introduced this way we’d all remember what it was like to be that age. Empathising with a character is much easier the more you have in common with them. Thirdly, the younger the character is, the more pronounced the difference is between ages. A 4-year-old and an 8-year-old are two very different characters, and a reader would glean a lot more from an age compared to simply calling them “a child”. Even saying “teenager” isn’t as informative as saying 13- or 19-year-old. 

Specific types of story in particular lend themselves to using an age, the obvious one being a coming of age story. Saying “15 year old” is fewer words than saying “boy on the brink of manhood” but the suggestion would be there. Certain ages have meanings attached to them and, whilst there are cultural differences, there will always be some universal understanding. 

The most important thing is the age must be relevant to the story. For example, a logline for Jaws wouldn’t gain anything from knowing how old Chief Brody is with the exception of perhaps assuming (never let a reader assume anything!) he’s a father and has some life experience but this could be inferred by his occupation. He’s a chief… not a rookie! Using ages is one of the broader strokes you can use, but if using an age goes a long way in the reader’s understanding of the story and the character’s role within it then use it.

Occupation

Introducing a character through their occupation is one of the best ways to introduce a character as long as it has some relevance to the story. If the story revolves around the character’s profession, crime thrillers for example, then introduce the character as a detective or a mob boss. It makes sense! The logline wouldn’t actually make sense if you didn’t introduce the characters this way. 

It gets more complicated when the story doesn’t directly focus on the professions of the characters. However, the jobs you give these characters can say an awful lot about who they are. This is where you can be really clever, not just in your logline, but in your story, to make everything coalesce. One of my favourite examples of this is in The Matrix. Take Neo… he’s a computer programmer and a hacker. Neither is directly relevant to the rest of the plot, but they say a lot about who he is: Slave to the machines with his day job but fighting against the establishment by night. It’s amazing how much information we can infer from a profession.

Certain traits are generalised by certain professions and this can help provide the reader with an understanding as to who the character is emotionally and what their values are. A “soldier” might be patriotic, rigid, and unwavering, “actor” might be proud, loud and exudes confidence whereas a “writer” could be shy yet imaginative. 

Using their occupation in the logline is best when it is directly relevant to the plot. However, if a profession suggests a load of characteristics that would far exceed the ideal word limit and there isn’t a better way which is more tied into the story then this is certainly an option. If you do go down this avenue, spend a little more time considering their Characteristics. If you said “a confident actor” you could simply be wasting a word unnecessarily. The flip side of that is if the character actually goes against type, then you absolutely must include it. If your story is about an unpatriotic soldier or even a traitorous one… this speaks volumes about this character and the story you’re telling – and with only TWO WORDS!!!  

In summary

It may be an obvious thing to say, but the this isn’t just about considering how you describe your protagonist in the logline. It’s about considering who your main character is within your story in general. How can you make them the most perfect candidate for this particular story? Why is this story their story? What about them makes them the only person this story works for? This is what you should be considering when coming up with your hero. The beauty of a logline is it forces you to carefully think about what the most important things are the reader needs to know in order to understand the character and the story you’re trying to tell. Then be as specific as possible within that. Simple… right?

DnDeveloping Your Story

How RPGs can improve your storytelling ability

In the midst of a global pandemic, I played my first ever game of Dungeons & Dragons. A friend of mine, Nick, suggested it and, being a nerd anyway, I agreed and together we created my character – a wizard named Venebor. We distributed my stat points and, over a Thai curry, he ran a solo quest for me and my character. Several hours later, I’d levelled up, acquired a hawk familiar I named Lyka, and came face to face with a necromancer who had the power of invisibility. Sneaky bastard! Several hours later, I also realised how valuable playing RPG games such as DnD could be to a storyteller.

The precise moment I realised what a valuable tool it could be was when Venebor, under my control obviously, was naively wandering around the sewers by himself. At night. Without decent weapons. Or armour. A rookie mistake. After taking a left turn at a fork in the tunnels, I was almost killed by a skeleton – one of the weakest creatures within DnD. In fact, I think I did actually die, but Nick took pity on my wizard and adjusted the quest so I was still alive. Barely. The point is though, is that my one little decision changed everything. Suddenly, the whole story was forced into a completely new direction even Nick wasn’t expecting but, arguably, made the story better. I learnt a valuable lesson and the consequences of my decision added a new dimension to the story. 

This is a fundamental part of storytelling. The character makes a choice, the consequences of this choice take the story in a new direction, the character learns something from the experience both internally and externally, and eventually they’re faced with another choice. The cycle repeats, the character evolves, until eventually both the plot and their arc reaches its destination.

Living through the character and making those decisions for them and ultimately being unaware of how these choices will affect the story provides a unique perspective on the process. Usually, screenplays are linear with a series of beats you want the character to arrive at. These beats are often mapped out in advance, so you know where you need them to be and when. This then determines what actions they need to take in order for them to arrive at each beat roughly around the right page number. I, as the writer, orchestrate the events to push the character (as surreptitiously as I can) into situations that feel like he has been led there by his choices. 

With DnD it’s different. Nick had a story in mind, a bullet pointed list of beats as it were, a rough outline of characters I could meet, places I could go, and situations I could find myself in. Whilst he can direct me and occasionally do a “cut scene” to ensure I learn necessary exposition, or to effectively give me a clue, ultimately, however, what I get Venebor to do and when is my decision and mine alone. 

The difference is that, in DnD, the story reacts to the character’s choices. It doesn’t really have an option. Keeping this in mind when writing any story could make the whole thing feel more character driven because, well, it is. 

Most beat sheets I’ve seen all plot the beats more as things that happen to the protagonist. They meet new characters, they have fun and games, the bad guys close in, and they feel like all is lost. I think simply the language used encourages a story where events happen to our characters, not that are happening because of our characters. This applies more to character driven stories, but even characters in plot driven stories have choices to make that affect the world around them. Perhaps an alternative beat sheet would be useful, that focuses more on where key decisions are made, and worded as questions so it’s obvious that a choice is required. Food for thought at the very least. 

I’ve since ran my own campaign for Nick and learnt just how hard it actually is to constantly adapt to Nick’s decisions. What I wanted him to do, because I’d planned some set pieces, he often didn’t, so I tried to force him down certain avenues. In a DnD campaign, as in any story, this isn’t necessarily a problem – characters frequently find themselves in “corridors”, where you have no choice but to keep going. What is a problem though, is the audience (or player in DnD) feeling like the character only has the illusion of choice – they don’t have the option of not entering the corridor in the first place. If Nick reaches a fork in the road, and when he tries to go left, I say “the left road is blocked”, his immediate thought is “then why give me a choice?”. The other thing I found interesting as I ran the campaign was, Nick, a veteran of RPGs, frequently said of his characters “it’s not what I want them to do, it’s what I think they would do”. 

Applying this to a film, the audience should never feel like the protagonist is only making certain decisions because the plot demands it. Every choice the hero makes should make sense to the audience. They might not agree with the decision, but they should, at the very least, feel like it is the decision this character would make at that moment in time. It’s a choice that reveals something about the character, even in a plot driven story. The internal and external world should change with every decision made. 

Having both played and ran a campaign, I think RPGs could be a really valuable tool in a writer’s arsenal. It really highlights how every choice has a consequence and how little control the writer should feel like they have. They should feel at the mercy of their creation, constantly having to adapt the story as their characters make choices their character would make. Yes, a writer creates the world and all the creatures within it, but after this, they should be merely documenting the events as they unfold. 

“If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.”

dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

Loglines: An Introduction

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. 

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