Tag: preparation

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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