Writing a Killer Logline
A killer logline is a must have. Everyone knows they need one, but what is a logline, exactly? And how the hell do you write one? Is there a logline formula even?
To find out we need to visit the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In those days, the Hollywood studios had scripts piled high in their offices. The executives didn’t want to have to search through the scripts to find one they were interested in.
So they had their assistants write a very brief synopsis of the plot on the spine of the script. One sentence, or perhaps two, that enabled the busy executive to make a decision. These short summaries are called loglines.
Imagine that – executives didn’t even open the script when considering it. Does that remind you of anything? Literary agents and publishers are, of course, notorious for sending work back unread. Why was it unread? They didn’t like your covering letter so they didn’t even bother to read it. Why didn’t they like your covering letter? Because the logline was weak.
In the studio system, executives decided whether to back movies based on nothing but the logline. The same is still true in publishing.
Is it an Elevator Pitch?
The simple answer is no. The killer logline is part of the elevator pitch, but there’s more to the elevator pitch. To learn about the other components read Creating An Irresistible Elevator Pitch.
What’s your Novel About?
How often have you been asked “So what’s your novel about?” If you’re anything like me then it’s a lot.
The classic questions used to explain anything are WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY.
In terms of story archetypes, they translate to:
For an explanation of archetypes see Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate.
Killogator™, a Logline Formula
First, write down:
- SETTING: When and where your story takes place .
- PROTAGONIST: Who your main character (hero or heroine) is.
- PROBLEM: The issue or event that causes your Protagonist to take action.
- ANTAGONIST: Who or what tries to stop your Protagonist.
- CONFLICT: The major obstacle, difficulty or dilemma your protagonist faces.
- GOAL: What your Protagonist hopes to win, achieve, find or defeat.
Then insert those archetypes in the Killogator logline formula below to make a sentence, or two, that captures the core of your story.
In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).
That’s your logline.
Using the Logline Formula
Here’s an logline for a classic spy thriller, generated using the Killogator logline formula:
The British Secret Service
A retired spymaster
To find a soviet mole
One of his former protégés
He can trust no one
To discover who the traitor is.
Put it together and what do you have?
The British Secret Service asks a retired spymaster to find a soviet mole who must be one of his former protégés. He can trust no one as he tries to discover who the traitor is.
Of course, it’s Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré.
This article has been very popular and lots of people have now used the Killogator logline formula. Some of them have written to me with their questions and issues, which has helped me to clarify and refine the process.
So, some useful tips for using the Killogator logline formula are:
- The Killogator formula works best if you write the SETTING, PROTAGONIST, PROBLEM, ANTAGONIST, CONFLICT and GOAL down separately first, before trying to combine them into a sentence.
- If your story is set in the modern-day in a normal town or city then there’s no need to include SETTING as the reader will assume it.
- Don’t use characters’ names. So, for example, instead of ”Kitty Geisler, a resistance fighter in Berlin,” use ”A German resistance fighter”.
- Many people struggle with the difference between the PROBLEM and the CONFLICT.
- The PROBLEM is the event or issue that kicks the story off, sometimes called the inciting incident.
- The CONFLICT is the complicating factor that prevents the protagonist reaching their GOAL. If that complicating factor builds to a dilemma for the protagonist, so much the better.
- Make sure you actually follow the Killogator logline formula – too many people send me a ‘logline’ that doesn’t follow my logline formula!
- Don’t reference other novels or movies. Lines like ”James Bond meets Waterworld!” are fine, but they’re a High Concept, not a logline.
- Don’t end in a question. “Can they escape?” or “Who will survive?” are also fine but they’re Taglines not Loglines.
- For stories about internal Conflict, the Protagonist and the Antagonist may be different sides of the same person.
- Similarly, the Protagonist’s Goal may be an internal one, like happiness.
- Many people get concerned that their logline “misses too much out” or “isn’t accurate”. That’s not necessarily something to worry about. The logline can only ever capture the core of the story, not all of its nuances. You can include more detail in your synopsis.
- Some people claim “loglines must be less than twenty-five words long”. I don’t think publishers and agents sit there counting the number of words in your logline, I think they want to understand the core story. If it takes more than twenty-five words to get that core story across, that’s okay.
- Make sure your logline is not too generic.
- For example: “When a person is murdered, a detective investigates and must discover which of the suspects is the murderer is before they kill again.” does use the Killogator logline formula correctly, but it doesn’t tell the reader what’s interesting about the story.
- Think about what it is about your SETTING, PROTAGONIST, PROBLEM, ANTAGONIST, CONFLICT and GOAL that makes your story unique.
All my film and book reviews include a logline generated using the Killogator formula – here’s three examples:
In 1960s France, die-hard imperialists hire a professional assassin to kill President de Gaulle. When the French discover the plot, the assassin must stay one step ahead of a brilliant French detective in order to complete his mission and change history.
When an innocent advertising executive is framed for murder by foreign spies, he must evade the authorities for long enough to uncover the spies’ plot, and save the enigmatic woman who is mixed up with them.
After 9/11, a CIA analyst spends years tracking Osama bin Laden down and must negotiate terrorist bombs, moral dilemmas and sceptical superiors to find the terrorist leader’s hiding place and persuade the government to attack it.
See Logline Examples for dozens more example loglines, from movies, novels, comics and games.
When I entered the Terry Pratchett Prize my covering letter included a logline generated using the Killogator Formula. The novel was shortlisted for the prize, and was later bought and published by Transworld.
Read the opening of A Kill in the Morning by clicking here or on the cover:
The Killogator Unleashed
Now it’s your turn – try practicing on some of your favourite stories. Remember, loglines can be tricky, and a lot of people struggle with them, so don’t worry if you have trouble. If you persevere you’ll discover one that really sells your story.
If you’d like to discuss your logline, the Killogator logline formula or the logline examples, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share this article using the buttons below.