Welcome to the first installment of the Celtx Blog’s new Learning Series. These articles will provide you with background, insight, and instruction designed to lead you through the writing, planning, and production of a film or video project with confidence.
Every movie begins with a screenplay, and every screenplay begins with a logline.
Say you’ve got your idea and you know you want to write a script around it, but you’re not sure where to begin. The first step is finding a way to encompass your story succinctly in one thought-provoking sentence. This is called a logline.
Examples of loglines are everywhere – just check out the descriptions for films offered on streaming services like Netflix. When done right, the logline passes along just enough information to get your prospective reader hooked.
Here are a couple of loglines from famous films to help you get the idea:
With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife and wreak vengeance upon a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. – Django Unchained
A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help in catching another serial killer who skins his victims. – Silence of the Lambs
A spirited farm boy joins a rebellion to save a princess from a sinister imperial enforcer – and the galaxy from a planet-destroying weapon. – Star Wars: A New Hope
A logline is a brief (usually one or two sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, while providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.
Your logline will need to lay out all the components of your story in their simplest form. These components are as follows (applied to the Star Wars logline mentioned previously):
Now let’s look at each of these components individually and see what we can make of them.
- Setting – The Galaxy
This sets our tone and genre pretty clearly. Your story does not exist in a vacuum; it instead draws upon the wealth of human storytelling as context. Galaxy-spanning stories are obviously sci-fi, and those bring with them all sorts of assumptions. Make sure your setting is clear, and that it helps to build your story.
- Protagonist – A Spirited Farm Boy
Obviously there’s more to Luke Skywalker than this, and you’ll get to that as you develop your story. However, we need a three or four word description. Use strong adjectives to convey meaning in that limited space. As well, at this point there’s no need for names unless the story is about an already well-known character.
- Problem – A Planet-Destroying Weapon
Your problem needs stakes. What’s going to happen if our hero fails? Success cannot be certain – will he succeed?! Stay tuned to find out! The Death Star is as clear an example of stakes as you can get. This problem destroys planets and threatens the entire galaxy. It needs to be big enough so that your hero obviously needs to take action.
- Antagonist – A Sinister Imperial Enforcer
The cause of the hero’s problem is often a singular figure or monster. They tend to be capable, threatening, and a worthy foe – a darkness to your hero’s light. They are everything the hero isn’t.
- Goal – Save a Princess (And The Galaxy!)
Your protagonist has to want something. Luke’s goal in the story changes a bit once he saves the princess, but that initial objective informs the overall arc.
- Conflict/Action – Joins a Rebellion
Conflict is the result of goals being blocked by the Problem and Antagonist. Darth Vader and the Death Star need to be dealt with for Luke to save the princess and the galaxy. So, faced with this conflict, Luke must take action: he joins the rebellion. Your hero must be the motivating force (pun intended) of the story. They are the person whose decisions dictate the plot.
You’re going to write out 10 loglines. “So many!” you might say. Well, you want to be a writer – so get writing!
We can make this less challenging by doing it Mad Libs style. Fill in each line of this sentence:
“In (a setting), (your protagonist) has a (problem), and must (take action/enter conflict) against (an antagonist) to (achieve a goal).”
Once you have these in place, look at each of the pieces individually and try to extract as much meaning, tone, character, and stakes as you can out of every word.
Next, start restructuring your sentences a bit. This is a guide, not a prescription. If something can be simplified or better communicated in a different order, do it.
Read It Out Loud
If you’re going into an elevator pitch session, your logline better not sound silly (or if it does, that had better be your intent). Stand in front of a mirror and say each of your loglines out loud to yourself. And know it by heart. You won’t have a piece of paper on hand at all times. It’s one sentence, learn it.
Ask For help
Show these to your friends and family, especially ones not in the film/TV industry. These are the people who will eventually be watching these films on the big screen. They’ve got lots of experience hearing about stories.
Watch their faces! If the smile at a character description, great! If they look confused, perhaps your sentence structure is a bit tangled? Simplify. Ask them if they would watch your movie. Why? Why not?
Edit Again… And Again.
Never stop tweaking and adjusting your loglines. They’re the seeds of your story – get them right now and save yourself a lot of heartache and editing on your 100 page script later.
Our advice is to practice this every day. Write out three loglines a day until you have something you love. It doesn’t matter if they’re not good – work on them until they are.