The ability to write a good log line is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. Log lines are used to convince people to read your script. They are used on tracking boards and services like The Blacklist and Ink Tip to describe your script. They are a crucial part of a good pitch, as producer Ken Aguado and I describe in our book The Hollywood Pitching Bible. A well-prepared log line give you a quick, pithy answer to the question, “What’s your script about?” at parties and networking events. Log lines are even required on film festival submission forms, ultimately finding their way into the festival catalogue and influencing how many people see the film.
As important as they are for selling your script, creating a good log line can also help you creatively. It forces you to zero in on the core concept of your story, allowing you to focus your plotting. Conversely, the inability to create a good log line can point out narrative problems in your story.
Here are some tips for crafting better log lines:
1. Align the character with the plot. The way you describe your character in the log line should resonate with the story elements that follow. So if your story is about a “woman who finds love,” it is better to describe her as a “lonely thirty-something” than as an "aspiring journalist." But if the story were about a woman who “uncovers government corruption,” the journalist angle would be better. You want your log line to answer the question: Why is this the best character for this plot? (And never describe your character simply as a guy, girl, man, or woman – see tip #6.)
2. Include the character’s goal and the reason that goal is hard to achieve. This may sound obvious, but many log lines fail to explicitly contain these core story elements. Consider our above concept of “An aspiring journalist who uncover government corruption.” That’s fine, but is it her goal to uncover the corruption or does she just stumble upon it? If it’s her goal, why is it hard? If she just stumbles upon it, what does she do next? Write an article? Why is that hard for her?
Try to determine what the core obstacle is to the character achieving their goal. Often this is an antagonist. Maybe a cutthroat district attorney is trying to silence our journalist, for example. If your story is about the lonely thirty-something woman finding love, does she just meet someone and fall in love? What’s interesting about that? Maybe there’s a rival suitor or maybe some situational obstacle blocking the relationship. Maybe the primary obstacle is internal – but think about how it will be dramatized.
3. Keep the main character front and center and make them active. It's almost always best to introduce your character before you describe the conflict of the story. Then, describe the action with a verb that makes the character active rather than passive. In our investigative reporter story, “investigates” would be a better verb than “uncovers” because it implies action and intention. Consider these two approaches:
A city is thrown into turmoil when an aspiring reporter uncovers government corruption and a cutthroat district attorney sets out to silence her.
An aspiring reporter investigates a corrupt city government, putting her in the crosshairs of a cutthroat district attorney.
See how the main character is much more central and active in the second version? In the first, it’s not even clear who the main character is – it sounds like it could be the district attorney!
4. Avoid transitory actions. The log line needs to suggest an entire film, so make sure the action is something that will take an hour or more of screen time. So “investigates” is better than “discovers” because discovery might only take a few seconds. Other transitory actions that pop up frequently in log lines are realizes, decides, learns, and finds out.
5. Don’t clutter your log line with secondary elements that don’t add to the concept. You have limited words in a log line so you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the story. You should focus on conveying the central concept and what is unique and compelling about it. Your goal is to get the listener or reader to want to know more. However, it is easy to include unneeded elements subconsciously because you know how they work in the story. The person reading/hearing the log line won’t have that context.
So, for every word you include, ask why does this matter in the log line? Let’s say your log line begins, “An aspiring reporter who’s estranged from her husband uncovers corruption in the land use office of a city government…” Does it really matter that the reporter is estranged from her husband? It certainly might in the script, but if that detail doesn’t pay off in some way in the log line, cut it. Similarly, it is probably not important that the corruption is in the land use office unless the log line is going to deal with land use later. Though it would be more evocative to keep “land use office” and cut “city government.” That’s because…
6. Specific is better than vague. You want the listener/reader to visualize your story. The more specific your word choice, the stronger the image will be in the listener/reader’s mind. This is why simply describing the character as a “woman” is not as good as saying she’s an “aspiring reporter.”
Your log line needs to stand on its own to intrigue a reader or listener. Give the version of your story that works best in one or two sentences. The script will naturally include a lot more – in fact, it better!
Check out my new book on screenwriting: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.