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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.

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:

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.

So, how do we take these archetypes and use them to create a logline? That’s where the Killogator™ comes in!

Killogator™, a Logline 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 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 a logline for a classic spy thriller, generated using the Killogator logline 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.

Killogator Logline Formula Tips

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 you set your story 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,” use “A resistance fighter in Berlin”.
  • 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.
  • Make sure your logline is not too generic.
    • For example: “When a person is murdered, a detective investigates and must discover which of the many suspects is the murderer is before they kill again.” uses 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.

Don’t Panic!

Having helped multitudes of people with their loglines over the years, I realise they generate a lot of angst. Loglines are important so you certainly need to be sure yours works, but don’t fall into any of the common traps below:

Problem? Conflict? I Don’t Get It!

One thing that many people struggle with is the difference between the PROBLEM and the CONFLICT, and the difference is subtle, so it’s worth expanding on:

  • 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 from reaching their GOAL. If that complicating factor builds to a dilemma for the protagonist, so much the better.

My Logline Misses Out Too Much!

Many people get concerned that their logline “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, and you can include more detail in your synopsis.

Think of it this way, the purpose of your logline is to pique the interest of an agent or publisher. If your logline gets the agent or publisher to consider your story further, it’s done its job.

This is All Fine For Thrillers, But I Write Serious Literature!

Another problem I see is authors who just can’t accept that their story has any archetypes in it, so they think writing a logline for it is impossible. I’ve yet to see a story where that was actually true.

All stories, including the world’s great literature, use Archetypes. Tolstoy’s novels, Nabokov’s novels, Proust’s novels all have Settings, Protagonists, Antagonists, Problems, Conflict and Goals.

Remember, archetypes are not the same as clichés, and conflict is not necessarily melodrama.

Some things to consider when writing a logline for a character-driven novel:

  • The Protagonist’s Goal might not be an external one.
    • It could be an interpersonal Goal, like romance.
    • It may be an internal Goal, like happiness.
  • The Conflict doesn’t have to be external either.
    • For stories about internal Conflict, the Protagonist and the Antagonist may be different sides of the same person.

I heard that Loglines Have to Be Tiny!

First, you might be thinking of High Concepts, which do have to super-short.

But perhaps not – some people claim that: “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 of your story. If it takes more than twenty-five words to get that core story across, that’s okay.

No, Really, My Logline is Too Long!

If you’ve written a logline that’s more like a paragraph than a sentence, then you probably do need to focus it down further.

Try the process again, and in the step where you write the SETTING, PROTAGONIST, PROBLEM, ANTAGONIST, CONFLICT and GOAL down separately, before trying to combine them, make sure each one is just a couple of words.

Killogator Logline Formula examples

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.

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

See Logline Examples for dozens more example loglines, from movies, novels, comics and games.

It Works!

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 Logline Formula Unleashed

Now it’s your turn.

Lots of people struggle to write loglines to start with, so try practicing on some of your favourite stories by other authors first. It’s a lot easier to produce a logline for someone else’s work and practice really helps.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, move on to your own work. Remember, loglines can be tricky, but if you persevere, you’ll discover one that really sells your story.

Good luck! And once you’ve got it nailed, remember it’s just one of the three parts of an Irresistible Elevator Pitch that you’ll need if you want to get your novel published!

Agree? Disagree?

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