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Writing a Killer Logline

A Killer Logline is a Must Have

During the old days of Hollywood, the 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 than just a logline. To learn about the other components read  Creating An Irresistible Elevator Pitch .

What’s your Novel About?

The classic questions used to explain anything are WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY.

In terms of story archetypes, they translate to:

How story archetypes relate to the classic who, what, when where how and why questions

For an explanation of archetypes see  Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate .

Killogator™, a Logline Generation Formula

Writing the Killer Logline

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  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 is your logline.

Using the Logline Generation Formula

Here’s an example of a logline for a classic spy thriller, generated using the Killogator  Formula

SETTING

The British Secret Service

PROTAGONIST

A retired spymaster

PROBLEM

To find a soviet mole

ANTAGONIST

One of his former protégés

CONFLICT

He can trust no one

GOAL

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.

Any guesses?

Of course, it’s Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy , by John Le Carré.

Logline Tips

This article has been very popular and lots of people have now used the Killogator  formula. Some of them have written to me with their questions and issues, which has helped me to clarify and refine the logline generation 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 in the logline. 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 formula – many people send me a logline that doesn’t!
  • Loglines don’t reference other novels or movies. Lines like ”James Bond meets Waterworld!” are fine, but they’re a High Concept , not a logline.
  • Loglines also 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 .

Logline examples

All my film and book reviews include a logline generated using the Killogator  formula. For example:

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.

The Day of the Jackal

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.

North by Northwest

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.

Zero Dark Thirty

When a mild-mannered com­pany man gets embroiled in futur­istic mega-corporations’ cyber-espionage wars, he must decide whether to trust his instincts about the only woman who might be able to save him

Cypher

It Works!

This method of writing a logline worked for me. 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:
A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

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 a logline that really sells your story.

Good luck! And once you’ve got it nailed, remember your logline is just one of the three parts of an  Irresistible Elevator Pitch  that you’ll need to sell your novel!

Agree? Disagree?

If you’d like to discuss your logline, please  email me.  Otherwise, please feel free to share this article using the but­tons below.

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