Big Break's Crash Course on Writing Loglines for Your Script
March 29, 2023
It's seemingly one of the simplest tasks connected with screenwriting. In comparison to writing an entire TV pilot or feature-length script, it's a minor chore, something to be dashed off hurriedly at the last moment when suddenly required.
I'm talking about writing the logline. As many writers will tell you who have had to create one — often for a script they already wrote — it's actually not that easy. But you need it: you will be asked to submit your logline to producers and when entering most contests, including Final Draft's Big Break Contest.
Everyone knows what a logline looks like: every movie and series episode on every streaming service has one. It's also called a synopsis, although the word "synopsis" can also mean a much longer and more detailed summary. "Loglines," on the other hand, are always fairly short, just one or two sentences. Three sentences would be a long one. What could be more basic or less challenging to produce?
Here's the thing though. A really well put-together logline can totally make or break your script's chances of being read. Yet a lot of them are really…well, there's no other honest to put it…quite awful.
How bad are they? I went looking for an example of a good one for all the movies in current release at the moment, official synopses only, so I could serve up a positive example.
There weren't any. Given where I'm going with this article, I should have expected this. But I was still shocked anyway.
They're too vague. They're a listing of cast members. They're in no way intriguing or engaging. They rely on other marketing materials to grab your interest — because the loglines sure don’t.
The great basketball coach John Wooden (from my alma mater UCLA, go Bruins!) said this:
"I believe in the basics: attention to, and perfection of, tiny details that might be commonly overlooked. They may seem trivial, perhaps even laughable to those who don't understand, but they aren't. They are fundamental to your progress in basketball, business, and life."
Yes, sir, coach. I know nothing about basketball. (Run, dribble, shoot? I like that Lakers TV show "Winning Time.")
But I do know the importance of fundamentals. So, what are the fundamentals for a logline? OMG so glad you asked. I have a formula:
P + W, B - O = L
Holy what the what, you're saying?! I didn't come to the Final Draft blog for freakin' MATH. Okay, sorry, it just made me seem so smart.
It stands for this:
Protagonist + Want BUT - Obstacle = Logline
Who is the Protagonist? (If you don't have one, this is a problem).
What do they Want? (If you don't know, this is a problem).
BUT, what is the major Obstacle they face in getting it? (If you don't know, this is…okay, you get it by now.)
The thing missing from a LOT of loglines? That major Obstacle. I call it, "looking for the Big BUT." Protagonist X Wants Y…BUT Obstacle Z.
Let's run some recent cinematic successes through the formula, shall we?
Former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane is assigned to find patient zero — and a cure — during a global zombie outbreak that threatens the future of all humankind. (World War Z)
- Protagonist = Gerry
- Want = Find patient zero and a cure
- Obstacle = worldwide zombie outbreak
Aspiring writer Jo March struggles against social and familial pressures to establish herself as a writer in the male-dominated world of 19th-century America. (Little Women)
- Protagonist = Jo March
- Want = establish herself as a writer
- Obstacle = social and familial pressures, male-dominated society
With her new foodie boyfriend Tyler, the elegant Margot travels to an exclusive dinner on a private island, unaware that their celebrity chef host is not what he seems. (The Menu)
- Protagonist = Margot
- Want = Exclusive dinner on a private island with new foodie BF
- Obstacle = Celebrity chef who's not what he seems
Of course, more could be added…
There are some elements that COULD be in your logline but aren't required; they’re just adornments that make it ever more fun and informative.
- Tone / Mood
Again, none of the above is a must, if you've got that Protagonist, Want, and major Obstacle, you're all good. But these additional elements don't hurt. (Actually, the logline for The Menu included the Antagonist.)
LET'S STIR THE POT
Now it's time for some controversy. Didn't think a blog post about loglines could possibly be controversial, right? Wrong! I'm going there. Get ready for me to set the Internet ablaze!
As a professional writer of loglines and synopses (yep, that's a thing that exists, I have the pay stubs to prove it), it's my humble but well-informed opinion that we live in an era of wretchedly awful loglines. Why?
Writers are so white-knuckle terrified of giving away anything that even remotely seems like it could possibly faintly have even a whiff of an aroma of spoiling any aspect of a story, that they just totally avoid all specifics and go into generic mode, producing loglines (and synopses) that are so information-free that they're essentially meaningless. I often cannot tell what the stakes are, or anything about what happens in the second half of a movie, from its official logline.
Everyone has seen examples of what I mean. Not going to use specific real-life examples here because I'm not a shamer, but I've read loglines for episodes of TV shows (some of them big hits) that went a little something like this:
"Jim gets into trouble."
"The survivors encounter a mystery."
Um. Okay. But these could describe every single episode of the show. Jim gets into trouble in every episode. The whole show is about survivors encountering mysteries. These don't tell us anything. On purpose. I plead from my heart of hearts for this madness to stop. Honestly, don't even have a logline if this is what you're doing.
I'm not saying give away the ending. Or even any big twists. But we live in a time that's so deeply spoiler-averse that steamers, studios, networks, and everyone else that produces content strain themselves to not only give nothing away, but to not even *appear* to give anything away. I've had copy that was edited to remove a story point that was not a spoiler, but appeared to be one, and in the Era of Spoilerphobia, this cannot stand!
The problem, of course, is that very often the one thing that would make a movie or show interesting enough to watch (or a reader to pick up the script), is some well-crafted information about, you know, what the story is actually about. Usually this is avoiding the Obstacle, the thing that comes after that big "But."
Don't be afraid to reveal what the major obstacle in your story is. This doesn't mean you should give away the end of Act II, or the Climax, or the big Twist at the end. Don't give those away.
Not one of the examples above goes further in revealing anything beyond what happens after the midpoints in those films; usually not even that much. NOTHING was spoiled. But the reader was (hopefully) intrigued.
And THAT is the function of a good logline.
Written by: Karl WilliamsKarl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He has won the Comedy and Sci-Fi Awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Jack Nicholson Prize for Excellence in Screenwriting at UCLA, where he earned his MFA.