(Spoilers: Nightcrawler, Interstellar, The Sixth Sense)
One of the challenges for less experienced writers is knowing whether an idea is going to generate enough story for a feature film. Something that sounds dramatic as a logline may not turn out to have the heft to sustain two hours of story. The problem is magnified in television where a series premise must sustain hour after hour of story.
Experienced writers, producers and development folk know one warning sign is when the logline is built around a “transitory action.” A transitory action is one that only takes a second or two of screen time. It may suggest a larger story, but the nature of the ongoing action is unclear. Common transitory actions are things like deciding, realizing, discovering, choosing, admitting and learning.
So, for example, Nightcrawler (written by Dan Gilroy) could be described as: “A driven loner decides to become a crime photographer.” But that doesn’t really capture the action of the story. The character's decision only takes a second. The story is about his efforts to start a freelance crime photography business. In this case, the transitory action doesn’t allow for much conflict – the decision isn’t hard, it’s the execution of his plan. Often a logline with a transitory action will prompt a response of, “Okay, but then what happens?”
In other cases the transitory action seems dramatic because it contains high stakes, but it doesn’t imply any real plot. So Interstellar (written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan) could be described as: “An astronaut must choose between his daughter and saving the planet.” That choice is significant, certainly, but what will it look like on film? Will we see the astronaut making pro and con lists? And of course the story of Interstellar isn’t really about Cooper making that choice, it's about what happens after he chooses.
Nightcrawler and Interstellar are existing movies which makes it easy to see how the transitory actions don’t capture the nature of the stories. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical story idea (which I’ve loosely lifted from King Lear):
When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son must choose between his older brother and sister as they go to war for control of the company.
There is potential for a lot of conflict in the premise, but the choice that is the focus of the logline is a transitory action. Imagine trying to write the story of the youngest son making the choice. You could end up with scene after scene of the two other siblings trying to convince the main character to support them. It would probably get old fast, and the main character would be passive.
There are many ways to make this idea active. Here are a few:
When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son must keep the company together as his older brother and sister go to war for control of the business.
When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son struggles to make peace between his older brother and sister as they go to war for control of the company.
When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son manipulates his older brother and sister into a war against each other in order to seize the company for himself.
When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son suspects his father was murdered, and hunts for the truth as his older brother and sister go to war for control of the company.
Each of these are obviously very different – and that should be a clue as to why it’s important to avoid transitory actions. The choice or discovery or decision is usually the thing that sets the story in motion, not the story itself. In other cases, the choice or discovery or decision is a twist late in the film. In The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Malcolm discovers he's a ghost in the twist at the end, but that's not the action that drives the story. A logline for The Sixth Sense would focus on Malcolm's attempts to help Cole, not the surprise discovery.
As I said, television shows have even bigger requirements for ongoing action. In a close-ended (sometimes called procedural) show, you need an engine that will provide a new action for each episode, an action that will fill that episode. So in House, the doctors would need to investigate the life of a patient to find the source of a mysterious illness. Open-ended (sometimes called serialized) shows need even bigger actions, actions that will take dozens or even hundreds of hours. It takes the characters in Lost a long time to find a way off the island!
Creating a logline is an important way to test whether your ideas are viable. Make sure that the action of the logline is enough to sustain your story.