How to Write Great Loglines
Lane Shefter Bishop on selling your story in a single sentence, common logline blunders, and the importance of stakes.
Lane Shefter Bishop isn’t kidding when she laughs, “I have such an eclectic background.” Not only is she a multi-award winning producer and director (including an Emmy and six Telly Awards), but she’s also the CEO of Vast Entertainment, a production and development company that focuses exclusively on fostering book-to-screen adaptations.
In 2008 when she founded the company at the height of the recession, she said she would do it only for a year and “see what would happen”. In that year, she set up 12 projects alone. She credits the company’s success to her loglines.
And it’s her effective loglines that have led her to newest venture: author. In May, Bishop released her first book, Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence, a guide that shows you how to effectively sell your screenplay, or novel, all by using the mighty logline.
The book came from her various experiences at writing conferences where she would ask authors what they were working on, “And you could never get a single sentence answer out of them. They would say, ‘Let me tell you the entire plot of my book.’ I thought they needed this information that I’ve been creating and using in regards to loglines.”
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Bishop about the essential components of an effective logline, the most common mistakes writers make with crafting their loglines, and the importance of stakes.
Why is a logline so important for screenwriters?
A logline is your biggest asset. It’s your number one selling tool. It literally becomes the difference between “Yes, I want to read that,” or “No, I don’t.”
I was given this property to read about a woman who was being used as a drug mule, even though she didn’t do drugs and her boyfriend didn’t do drugs, and then they were in this huge drug cartel, and ended up in jail, etc, etc. And I said to her, “This is all very fine and great, but it sounds like the movie Traffic to me. How is this not Traffic? How is this unique?’
We went through this process of being more specific, because the more specific you are, the more unique the story is. And so we ended up with a logline that literally sold the project: “A woman who at only 19 ran the biggest drug cartel in U.S. history.” Okay. Now I care. Now I want to read the project.
It’s such a great skill because it really does help you sell your material, especially to those who only have five seconds to hear your spiel because they have a billion things to do in a single day. So you better have a good five-second pitch, which is your logline.
Why do you think screenwriters overlook the importance of having a solid logline?
Number one: I think writers are really intimidated by having to come up with a logline. Which I get. It is intimidating, and it is hard. After finishing writing a good deal of material, the last thing you want to do is come up with a logline.
But, also, I think there was this weird perception in Hollywood that you could say, “My movie is like Jaws meets The Professional,” and that would be your logline. Not only do I think that’s sort of lazy, but also – how does that even sell your material?
I never understood that approach. To me, that doesn’t sell your particular story. But writers do it. They put two cool movies together and think that’s a logline.
What are the essential components of a good logline?
The main three are: Who is the protagonist? And that’s important. You wouldn’t believe how many people think their antagonist as their protagonist in the logline. The protagonist is the one who has the most at stake, and whose actions are moving the story forward.
Then, the second part is: What do they want? A lot of writers give the emotional want. Like, they want to save the world. No, that’s not it. What do they want in particular? They want to stop a killer. They want to win the Kentucky Derby. What do they literally, specifically, want?
And the third part is: What’s at stake? This part is usually missing from most loglines. Nine times out of ten, writers won’t include what’s at stake. What happens if they don’t achieve their goal? I’ll get a logline that says, “A queen wants to retrieve the gold that someone stole from her kingdom.” Okay, but why? Why is that important? What’s at stake? If the stakes aren’t high enough, then I don’t care.
Someone gave me a logline about a man who had a brain tumour that was making him play golf really well, and he wanted to play in the Master’s. Yeah, but so what? If he loses, then he doesn’t win a golf game. Those stakes aren’t high enough. So the redone logline included that either he gets the surgery to save his life, but he can’t play golf anymore, or he plays golf at the Master’s but he’ll die. Now I care. It’s life or death.
What are other common mistakes that writers make with their loglines?
The number one mistake is that they are much too general. If you’re really general and broad, then you sound like everyone else’s story. What are the specifics? Because that’s what is going to make your story unique.
My number one comment that I give to writers is: be more specific. Don’t give me these huge, broad stroke generalizations. Tell me the details. Because that’s what matters.
What are some helpful tips and techniques that a writer can use to help improve their loglines?
Logline creation really is about practicing. In the book, I used ten steps to show how to write a logline, but, in reality, that’s 100 steps. It’s re-writing, rewriting.
Sometimes I write something and I love it, but then I’ll run it by other people. So run it by other people and see if their eyes light up.
It’s also about finessing. I’ll look at a word and see if I can come up with another word that’s even cooler, that has more power. One word can make such a difference.
The big thing, really, is putting in that time. The time to rewrite and finesse, and improve. And don’t use it until it’s rock ‘n roll.
Some people have differing opinions about when to write a logline: before, or after the project. Why do you think writers should create one before they start their screenplay?
It’s because the logline is like the rudder of a boat. It steers you. But it can also tell you what’s wrong.
Going back to the logline with the queen and the gold. If you don’t know the stakes of your story, then you shouldn’t be writing it. These are things you need to know before you sit down to write pages and pages. Otherwise, you’re in for a huge rewrite once you do your logline and find out that it’s not specific enough. It’s a bummer.
Do the logline first. It will keep you on point. It will keep you following who is the protagonist, and what is at stake. It’s literally a map that will guide you through the writing.
You’re obviously big into book-to-screen adaptations. Would you recommend screenwriters to adapt their screenplays into books?
I always recommend it. Right now, underlying Intellectual Property (I.P.) is so valuable. Everyone wants I.P. It’s because Twilight did well, and Hunger Games did well, and Harry Potter did well.
So I recommend to screenwriters that even if they don’t want to write a whole book, at least write a book proposal. That way, when they ask you what you’re working on, you can say, “Oh, hey, I’m also working on a book.”
Worst case scenario: if you’re not a writer of books, then go online and find an article or some sort of material that “inspired” your screenplay. It just gives your screenplay more value these days. Makes it more sellable.
What’s the biggest takeaway that you want writers to have from your book?
As a writer, the biggest question you can be asked is, “What are you working on?” So you better have a great freakin’ answer that makes someone say, “I want to read that.” And that’s what your logline does for you.
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