How to write a logline

by on March 25, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley grapple with the challenge of summarising the plot of Schindler's List in just 27 words.

Before you write a single scene of your 120-page screenplay, try to express your film’s logline in 27 words or less. Putting your concept to this simple, early test can help focus your narrative, gauge potential and save years of wasted effort.

Write your logline at the beginning – not the end

Typically, screenwriters sweat for months or years over a screenplay, going through endless drafts, major revisions and minor refinements. Only when the script is “finished”, and even then only at the request of the producer, will they write the logline. This is arse about. Here’s why.

Writing the logline up front could save you years

I was recently asked to produce script notes for a project that has been in development for several years. Yet after reading just 10-15 pages of the screenplay I knew the project was in trouble because the fundamental concept wasn’t sound. Thousands of dollars could have been spared and years could have been saved – if only the writer had first written a logline.

What is a logline?

The logline is a single sentence description of your film’s basic story idea in 27* words or less. You might also hear it referred to as the concept or the premise. It’s the concisely written version of what you say when people ask you the question, “So what’s your film about?”.

Why the logline is a good test of story – simplicity

Film is a demanding medium. You have just an hour and a half – 2 hours if you’re lucky – to tell your story. That’s nothing. The average 300-page novel might take 6 hours to film – which is one reason why book adaptations are so hit-and-miss in the cinema. So good movies tend to have simple story ideas. The plots might be complex, but the concepts are almost always simple. That’s why the logline is such a great test of film stories. One sentence. 27 words. If your story’s too complex to be told in 27 words, then it’s almost certainly too complicated for a 90 min movie.

Why the logline is a good test of story – marketability

Writing films is tough but marketing them is even more difficult. How do you arrest people’s attention in a one-sheet poster? How do you hook them with a tagline? How do you open a window in their diary with a 15 second trailer? Again, it’s going to need to be a simple, easily communicatable idea. But it’s also going to need to be immediately compelling. If you can’t hook me in 27 words you’ll have no chance with the cinema-going public.

What should you include in the logline?

Learning to write loglines is an art in itself. Here are some tips for what you should include in those precious 27 words:

Who is the hero? – You should identify the protagonist (though not necessarily by name), the person whose story this is, the character with whom we are meant to identify. e.g. an ageing baseball player, an alcoholic lawyer, a struggling single mother.

What is the Quest? – What does the hero want? What is the overarching external goal that is going to drive the events of the second act at least and possibly even the third act as well. e.g. has to kill a great white shark, rescue the princess from a dragon, find the groom.

What is the hero’s flaw? – Stories are plots that force the hero to grow. What is your hero’s failing? Does he lack courage or compassion? What sort of opportunity is there here for emotional growth? e.g. selfish, cowardly, greedy, materialistic, immoral, womanising, ruthless, workaholic, obsessive.

Where is the conflict? – Drama is all about conflict so we need to understand why this quest is going to be difficult for the hero.

What’s at stake? – For audiences to care, the hero has to have a very strong motivation. If they don’t achieve this goal, the consequences are massive – in their eyes any way. You will generally try to convey in your logline what’s at stake .

Who is the antagonist? – You won’t always include the antagonist – unless it’s a romantic comedy – but it can be a good way to establish the conflict and the impossibility of the hero’s quest.

What is the tone? – If it’s a comedy, it’s a good idea to try to convey that through either the title or the logline.

What’s the USP – In advertising, they used to talk about Unique Selling Point (USP). The thing that set the product apart from its competitors. What is it about your film that is most likely to appeal to the audience? Your logline should attempt to convey this quality or element to us.

How do you do all that in 27 words? Yeah, it’s not easy but here are some clues.

How to write your logline

If you’ve read any Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler, or you’ve been to one of my courses on classic film story structure, you’ll know that we meet the hero in their Ordinary World, that they get a Call to Adventure and that this quest presents a challenge to their character. Consequently, it’s often effective for your logline to have a structure something like this:

When < flawed hero at start of story> is forced to <call to adventure>, he has to <opportunity for emotional growth> or risk <what’s at stake>.

What you don’t include in the logline

There’s one thing you shouldn’t include in the logline. The ending. It must tease, tempt and demand that the person reads your script. Give away the ending in the logline and you’ve removed that need.

You also shouldn’t include a goal that isn’t concrete. e.g. “must find true love”. What is that? How will we know when they’ve got it? The goal has to drive the drama so it needs to be specific.

Examples of film loglines:
Here are some examples of loglines for well-known films:

Schindler’s List:
When a materialistic, womanising Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them.

Groundhog Day:
An egotistical TV personality must relive the same day in small town Punxsutawney and be denied the girl of his dreams unless he can become more selfless.

Raiders of the Lost Ark:
A dashing archaeologist must reunite with the ex he dumped if he is to beat the Nazis to find the all-powerful lost Ark of the Covenant.

Little Miss Sunshine:
When a dysfunctional family reluctantly embarks on a road trip to a Californian junior beauty pageant it’s forced to address its serious underlying tensions or fall apart forever.

When Harry Met Sally:
When a cynical anti-romantic befriends a cheery optimist he’s forced to challenge his belief that men and women can’t have a Platonic relationship.

The Hangover: After a wild Vegas Buck’s Party, a dysfunctional bunch of guys wakes with no memory of last night, a tiger in the bathroom, and no groom.

Judging your logline – try to be objective

One of the great things about the logline is that it’s almost self-regulating. The 27-word limit will make it impossible to communicate ideas that are too sprawling or ill-focused for a mainstream movie. However, just because you’ve written a logline that complies with the word limit doesn’t mean you’ve got a blockbuster on your hands. Be honest in your assessment of your logline. Better still, give it to someone who isn’t your lover, spouse or mother. Does it intrigue them? Do they want to know what happens? If not, chances are your idea isn’t strong enough for a movie. If you’re disciplined, you’ll rework the idea or ditch it altogether. If you’re a fool, you’ll persist and potentially waste years on a project that has only the slimmest chance of success.

The logline – write it early and write it often

I would encourage you to put your film idea to the logline test very early in the writing process. Trying to express the idea in a single sentence of 27 words can help distil the essence of your idea.

  • Whose story is it?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s stopping them getting it?
  • What’s at stake?

Constantly revisit your logline during the writing process. Is your story still true to the logline? Or have you strayed? Sometimes during the writing process you’ll come up with an idea that takes the story in a new direction that you believe has even better potential. If so, rewrite your logline. Move from logline, to story, to screenplay, then back to logline again. In this way, you’ll hopefully avoid the all-too-common mistake – particularly in Australia – of spending years writing a screenplay that either no-one wants to make or no-one wants to see.

Related screenwriting articles:

The 6 most common logline mistakes
10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago

* Why 27 words? That’s what I asked my lecturer at UCLA Extension, Peter Exline (who, incidentally, was one of the inspirations for the Dude in The Big Lebowski.) He said “Because it works”. He was right. It does.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

BJ September 29, 2010 at 4:03 am

What was the log line your student wrote? and what were the 5 words, and why did those words raise the rd flag?

Rick A December 15, 2010 at 10:14 am

Your logline for Groundhog Day doesn’t live up to your own rules, because you give away the ending.
When I watched Groundhog Day the first time, I didn’t know what to expect, except he’s stucked in this little sleepy town and living the same day over and over and over again. I had no idea of the ending.
You are also using 2 words (selfish, egotistical) with the same meaning to describe the weather man, which isn’t necessary; one should be adequate.

Tyler Lurvey December 31, 2010 at 1:07 pm

The Coen brother’s inpsiration for The Dude is a man named Jeff Dowd.

Jiveh April 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Hi! Just wanted to say thanks for the very informative, insightful site. What are your opinions on log lines for a web series. Log line per episode?

Allen Palmer April 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Hi, Jive,
The logline has 2 functions: as a tool for the writer, and as an aid to get your project made or watched. My focus has mainly been on the former because in my experience it takes writers a long time to understand what a strong dramatic engine looks like. The goal isn’t just to write a logline in a single sentence of 27 words; it’s to form an objective assessment about whether that dramatic scenario you’ve summarised is going to produce a conflict that will engage and escalate across 90 minutes. With a web project, I would say you want to be writing a logline for the series overall. Once you get it up, you then want to focus on individual episode loglines to help entire your viewers. Hope that answers your question.

mattware May 17, 2011 at 11:05 am

Hey Allen,

I often go back to this post whenever I have a new story idea to see if it passes the “logline” test. It’s been very helpful!

I love how you’ve listed the hero’s want as their quest and their need as their flaw, that has really helped me find an efficient way to articulate each within the logline.

However, I do feel like the “who is the hero?” paragraph could be improved. I feel like it’s hard in a few words to describe a character that the reader would “identify” with. Or by “identify”, do you just mean a brief description of the hero to give the reader a clear picture of him?

I wonder if instead of asking “who is the hero?” one should instead ask, “what is the hero’s contradiction?”. Meaning what makes him human, and intriguing. I’ve found trying to include the fundamental contraction of the hero’s character within a logline can make the character more appealing, especially if it complicates the quest and flaw. What do you think?

Matt

Allen Palmer May 17, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Hi, Matt,
I wasn’t actually suggesting that you try to make the audience identify with the character in the logline necessarily. That is not always that easy. What I said was: “You should identify the protagonist (though not necessarily by name), the person whose story this is, the character with whom we are meant to identify. e.g. an ageing baseball player, an alcoholic lawyer, a struggling single mother.” I was just trying to help you identify whom you should be describing – the character with whom your screenplay (hopefully) will make us identify. Your description should help us understand why this challenge is going to be hard for them, and, if possible, to implicitly suggest through their flaw, the transformation that they will need to undertake.

But if you could include their contradiction that would be fantastic. Pessimistic life coach. Enthusiastic undertaker. Honest politician. This would particularly helpful in comedies.

Reggie December 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm

I’ve spend dozens of months to try to come up with a logline and I still can’t. I am entering a logline contest for Janurary, and haven’t came up with a good logline in mind yet. Thanks for the advice though. I hope I can get a logline in with patience.

Nonuv Jurbsinez April 2, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Sure it sounds good and rational to follow this guy’s advice and create your logline before you write your script, but this thinking only reveals that this advisor has never written a script or has only written extremely shallow ones. Characters and situations are deepened as you write about them and this creates new ideas that not only make the story better, but also couldn’t be caught in your original logline. You have to go through the fire and come out the other side to know how to describe it. Do your logline after you’ve finished.

ari April 5, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Hi…
what’s the difference between a logline and a premise? Thx in advance for your answer

Allen Palmer April 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm

A lot of people use premise and logline interchangeably but they describe very different things for me. A logline expresses the concept of the film. The premise – Lajos Egri and my colleagues at AFTRS would say – is what the film has to say about the human condition – e.g. “You must take love as it appears, not as you would like it to be” could be said to be the premise of Brokeback Mountain.

Allen Palmer April 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm

It is my policy these days not to publish comments that resort to ad hominem attacks. However, what Nonuv says is so delusional I have decided to relax this condition in this instance. Yes, your characters and storylines will deepen as you work on the film but that wont’ alter the logline.

Here is the logline for Schindler’s List: When a materialistic, womanising Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them. That would have been the logline when Steve Zaillian started writing it, and that would have been the logline after he finished writing it. The story would have been richer once it was bound by a couple of brass brads, but the logline – the core idea, the central dramatic conflict and the fundamental character arc – would have been unaltered.

Amateurs resist expressing their idea at concept stage and baulk at early criticism because they say, you’ll see when I finish the script. It’s going to be great. But, for the most part, it isn’t. If it sounds like a dog as a concept, it will be a howling Great Dane in 110 page form.

If you don’t mind wasting several years of your life writing a screenplay that no-one will want to make, or that no-one will go to see, by all means, write your logline after you’ve slaved over the screenplay. But, if you want to follow the practice of professional writers, you’ll write the logline early, bounce it off some people, and come to a decision about whether the idea warrants further investment.

Esope RESTEICI May 20, 2013 at 4:14 am

Hi Mr. Palmer,

Here is the logline of Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT (51 words) :

“A bogus spiritualist and an amateur actor hope to con a wealthy woman out of $10,000 by locating her sole heir — a nephew given up for adoption under shady circumstances — but find they are in deep water as the nephew turns out to be a kidnapper who’d rather not be found”

It’s easy to réduce it to 42 words :
“A bogus spiritualist and an amateur actor hope to con a wealthy woman out of $10,000 by locating her sole heir but find they are in deep water as this one turns out to be a kidnapper who’d rather not be found”

Seems to me very difficult to reduce it to 27 or 28 words without impairing its meaning and humor.
Can you do this ?

Regards

Allen Palmer May 20, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Dear Esope Resteici,
My first observation would be that Family Plot was one of Hitchcock’s least successful films and perhaps this fact and your difficulty with the logline are not unrelated. However, I would state this logline as …
A bogus spiritualist and an amateur actor can wangle $10,000 if they locate an heiress’s sole beneficiary, but discover he’s a kidnapper who wants to remain hidden.

That’s 27 words. Not that I ever get too hung up on hitting that precise number. Is it a great logline? No, but that’s not the fault of the logline or the word limit. It’s just an ordinary concept.

Lae October 20, 2013 at 3:06 am

Thanks for the post. Most interesting and instructive.

Here is my logline: When a couple of farmers are forced to pay their debts or lose the farm, they find their strong religious beliefs challenged or risk everything they’ve worked for.

What do you think?

Allen Palmer October 20, 2013 at 6:24 am

Sorry, I don’t provide feedback on individual loglines.

Urfi Ahmad January 28, 2014 at 1:23 am

Hi Allen,

Very helpful information! Thanks.

My questions: are there any intrinsic differences between the logline for a movie and one for a tv series? Does it change if it is for a reality show?

Allen Palmer January 28, 2014 at 7:00 am

Hi, Urfi,
In answering the question it’s helpful to think about how your film or TV show attracts an audience. With a film, it’s very common practice for people to form an opinion about whether to go see a film on the basis of a logline they see in a newspaper or online movie guide. Someone – generally not the writer – will have written a short one sentence summary of the movie and if it sounds like it’s going to be intriguing or funny, they’ll go. If not, they won’t. People don’t make their TV selections in the same way. You would rarely see a TV series – except before the very first ep perhaps – summarised in a logline. What you might see is a logline for the specific episode. So my general comment about log lines for TV series is that they can tend to be a little longer – but don’t get carried away. You might have a couple of sentences to set up the story world and indicate the combination of characters and conflict that is going to engage the audience. The same would apply for reality TV. But, I would say that there is one truism that applies to all forms of screen entertainment. If it’s taking a long time to communicate the idea, it might indicate the idea isn’t really very strong.

joshua April 1, 2014 at 12:34 am

Hi Allen,

thanks for the wonderful information on log line. i had seen this blog a year or so. i came back searching for it, but found it after a bit of struggle. i have not seen anything like it. God bless you.

joshua

Leave a Comment

*

{ 10 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: