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:
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
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.