“What’s it about?”
That’s the first question everyone asks when being pitched a script. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a screenplay, a TV pilot or even a six-minute web episode. And it doesn’t matter if the person asking is a lowly production company reader, an A-list actor or Bob Iger. People want to know what it’s about.
Your ability to answer the question “What’s it about?” in a way that is concise, compelling and evocative will factor significantly into your future as a professional screenwriter. And not just because being able to answer the question “What’s it about?” is important when it comes to selling your script; it’s just as important when it comes to writing your script in the first place.
Meet the Logline When people ask “What’s it about?”, what they’re looking for is a logline. In Hollywood-speak, a logline is a one- or two-sentence-long description of a story’s dramatic premise. Usually, a logline establishes a character — the protagonist — and the central problem or challenge he/she faces.
Loglines have often been compared to TV Guide summaries, those thumbnail episode descriptions that traditionally accompanied program listings in that venerable coffee table-top mini-magazine. You’ll still find such thumbnail summaries on the “Info” page every time you choose an episode to watch on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or other streaming service.
The term “logline” dates back to the earliest days of motion picture production when studios kept physical “logs” of all the films they owned or had in production. Along with the working title, director, and star(s), they’d include a short description of the movie’s topic or premise. Was it a period piece? A drama? A comedy? What was the main story driver? Because these notes were created for quick reference purposes, the loglines had to be short and concise while also being sufficiently descriptive. No studio wanted to find itself developing a story they already owned — or had already produced!
Loglines continues to be used in coverage, the reports studio and production company readers prepare for their higher-ups. (In Hollywood, no one of importance reads a script until it has first been read and vetted by somebody else.) A strong, compelling logline increases the chances a script will be read with eager anticipation. A weak, pedestrian or even confusing logline can mean a script will be moved to the bottom of a read list, or ignored altogether.
What Goes Into a Logline Here’s a useful tip: If you’ve written a feature screenplay, consider where your story stands at the end of Act One, roughly one-quarter through your script’s total page count. At this point, all the exposition has been dispensed with, your main character’s life has been disrupted, and he/she now has a critical mission he/she needs to accomplish. You have made a promise, either implicit or explicit, to your audience about where the story is going to go. This situation is what your logline needs to describe. It’s your dramatic premise.
Ideally, your logline should contain three essential elements:
1. A hero with a problem he/she can’t just “walk away from” without suffering serious consequences. These are the “stakes” in your story.
2. A “Wow Factor,” that is, an element that is particularly clever, unusual, unique, or just plain cool. It’s the marketing hook.
3. A strong element of irony so that the hero is constantly at odds with his/her situation and is thus poised to fail.
Here is why each of these elements is important to your story, and why it needs to be in your logline:
1. All stories are about people. They are not about events. You can’t write a story about World War II. But you can write a story about people fighting in World War II. So your story needs a main character — a hero — a protagonist — who will be the focus of the narrative. Sometimes stories have multiple protagonists, but five is usually the limit. And the hero(s) has to have a problem. A big problem. A problem so big it’s going to take two hours to solve. And if the hero fails to solve this problem, there will be dire consequences. Maybe he’s going to lose his farm. Maybe she’s going to die. Maybe the whole world is going to come to an end. Or maybe she’ll never find the love of her life. Whatever the problem is, solving the problem is the most important thing in the world to that person. It’s what we call “stakes.”
2. Roughly 50,000 scripts are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) every year. As a result, there’s a LOT of competition out of there. In movies, you’re up against the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), Star Wars, Fast & Furious, and all the other multi-billion-dollar franchises studios would much prefer to bet their money on than an original script from an unknown writer. In TV, you’ve no doubt heard that this is the era of “Peak TV.” You’re up against some of the best TV writers of all time, people with long track records of commercial and critical success. In either arena, if your script is going to be noticed, it can’t just be well-written. I has to have a “hook” that is uniquely exciting and compelling. It needs to have a gimmick or twist no one has ever seen before. In short, it needs a “Wow Factor.” Something that makes your script stand out from the crowd.
3. Irony is the driving force behind virtually all hit movies and most TV series. By “irony,” we mean that there is something about the hero’s problem that is antithetical to what the hero would normally do or be expected to do. When a cop solves a crime, that’s just a procedural. But when a cop commits a crime, that’s ironic. It’s a movie. Note that while a “twist ending” may contain a heavy dose of irony, the irony we’re talking about is a twist that’s built into the premise, that’s part of the problem and is evident by the end of Act One. The power of irony is why we have so many romances about mis-matched couples, buddy-cops, fish-out-of-water characters and David vs. Goliath confrontations. Stories about people who are ill-prepared, out-matched, out of their depth or just in the wrong place at the wrong time are just inherently interesting.
So What Does a Movie Logline Look Like? As stated above, a logline should be one or two sentences that deftly summarize a script’s dramatic or comedic situation at the end of Act One. It’s the story’s “jumping off” point based on the three elements described above.
For example, here’s how we might describe some classic motion pictures from Hollywood’s past:
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Wolff: “A young Kansas farm girl, yearning for adventure, finds herself deposited in a bizarre and hostile fantasy land where she’s immediately marked for death for her accidental killing of a Wicked Witch’s twin sister. Now her only hope for a safe return home is help from a reclusive, all-powerful wizard who dwells in a distant city.”
Chinatown (1974) – Screenplay by Robert Towne: “Los Angeles, 1937. Cleverly duped into exposing the “love nest” of a crusading — and mettlesome — Los Angeles city councilman, a successful L.A. private eye who prides himself on his professionalism vows to unravel the powerful conspiracy that has played him for a fool.”
Back to the Future (1985) Screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis: ”An underachieving teenager from an underachieving family is accidentally transported back 30 years and there must ensure his own existence by arranging the unlikely romance between his nerdish now-teenage father and hot-to-trot now-teenage mother, a mission complicated by the fact that his “mother” has now fallen in love with him.”
Nοte that all of these loglines employ all three elements. Each has a hero with a problem they can’t just “walk away from.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is trapped in Oz, just as Marty McFly is trapped in 1955. In both cases, their very lives are at stake. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes has been scandalized and needs to restore his professional reputation. It’s not his life, but his livelihood, that’s in jeopardy. All three stories have a clear “Wow Factor.” With The Wizard of Oz, it’s the fantasy world of Oz itself. In Chinatown, it’s the idea of a neo-noir that recreates Los Angeles of 1937. And in Back to the Future, it’s both time travel and the idea of seeing your own parents as teenagers. And finally, there’s irony. Dorothy Gale longs for adventure, but having been provided with perhaps the greatest one of all time, immediately wants to go home. (Sorry, girl, be careful what you wish for.) Jake Gittes is a man who prides himself on being a “tough guy” but now finds himself a dupe. Back to the Future is neck-deep in “fish-out-of-water” issues, but draws its greatest irony from the reverse Oedipus situation his accidental time-traveling has dropped him into.
Virtually the entire MCU, arguably the most successful franchise in movie history, is literally predicated on irony:
Spider-Man: The bite from a radioactive spider turns a high-school nerd into a powerful super-hero.
Iron Man: When confronted with the human carnage for which he is responsible, a nihilistic, globe-trotting billionaire arms manufacturer decides to turn his genius for invention to the cause of peace and justice.
The Incredible Hulk: An accidental exposure to gamma rays causes a sensitive, mild-mannered physicist to become a super-powered, mindless brute whenever he gets angry.
Captain America: An undersized, literal 98-pound weakling is transformed ,via an experimental serum, into the world’s most powerful super-soldier.
TV Series Log Lines are Different Loglines for proposed TV series are a bit different from those for movies. Movies are usually about characters solving a specific problem. When the problem is solved, the movie is over. But TV shows are about ongoing problems. They tend to be situational.
Here are some loglines for popular TV shows from the last ten years:
Breaking Bad – Created by Vince Gilligan: “When a mild-mannered, professionally frustrated high school chemistry teacher learns he has terminal cancer, he decides to provide for his family’s future the only way he knows how: By becoming the best meth cook in New Mexico. Oh, and his brother-in-law is an agent for the DEA.”
The Good Doctor – Created by David Shore: “A contemporary hospital drama that centers on a young autistic savant who, despite having the world’s worst social skills, is also a preternaturally brilliant surgeon.”
black-ish – Created by Kenya Barris: “A contemporary family comedy about three generations of African-Americans who struggle to maintain their cultural identities while assimilating into the upper-middle class of modern Los Angeles.”
Despite being different types of shows, all three of these premises have clear “Wow Factors” (The middle-class meth cook, the autistic savant surgeon, the Black/White culture clash) and strong elements of irony. (Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan famously pitched his show as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”) But while movie loglines usually focus on a specific problem/solution, TV premises tend to be situational. (And not just for sitcoms.) While each episode will be about solving a specific program, there’s an overreaching general problem that serves as an engine for the series as a whole. Walter White is dying from cancer and always needs money; Dr. Shaun Murphy must always deal with his autism; the Johnsons will always be a Black family in a White world.
If you’re writing a TV series logline, ask yourself: What’s the general situation from week to week? Because that’s what your series is about.
Write a Good Logline, Write a Good Script Being able to write a good logline is about more than just being able to market your screen- and teleplays effectively. Because if you can’t articulate your premise in one or two lines, then you probably can’t write a marketable screenplay, either. People who struggle to write a logline for their scripts tend to realize that the problem isn’t them, it’s their scripts. They’re unfocused, badly structured, meandering and/or lacking a strong narrative engine.
Before you even sit down to write your script, work on the logline. Massage it over and over again until you’ve incorporated all three key elements in a clear, concise and elegant fashion. Once you’ve done this, something magical will happen. You will find that writing your script becomes 100% easier. You know where the story is going. You know why the story is going there. You know the nature of the obstacles that need to be put in your hero’s way.
In other words, you’ll know what your story is about. – Allen B. Ury