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 brief 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 has someone asked you “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.
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
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:
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.
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 the Lego Movie!” 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.
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, call to adventure, catalyst or hook.
- 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 because as authors we’re very close to the story and know just how much is being missed out.
Inaccuracy isn’t necessarily something to worry about. Your 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: sell don’t tell. 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.
But My Novel is Complicated!
Similarly, I get quite a few people writing to me because their novel is “too complex to write a logline for”. Usually because it has multiple protagonists, timeframes, settings or points of view.
Do you think complex stories with unusual structures, say Inception or Memento got made without someone pitching them using a logline?
Here’s a logline for the highly complex Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for example:
After his girlfriend erases him from her memory, a heartbroken man does the same. However, as she fades from his mind, he realises he loves even the memory of her and fights to hang on to what little remains of it.
If they can do it, you can.
It’s true though, more complex and literary novels are harder to summarise and write loglines for.
Here’s another rule: simplicity sells.
Rather than trying to cram every detail into twenty-odd words, try to look at your story at a higher level of abstraction. Think about what your story elements have in common. Unravel the complex structure and gain clarity about your core concept.
For example, if your novel has multiple protagonists in multiple different time periods and multiple locations, you can say something like: “For decades, and around the world, a plucky team of scientists…” or “Across the years, an estranged mother and daughter…”
And remember the motto: sell not tell. If your logline broadly captures your concept and it grabs the reader, that’s the important thing.
My Logline is too Clunky and Boring!
It’s certainly a danger when you use any kind of formula that you end up with something that’s too generic.
For example, I’m often asked to review loglines that read a bit like this:
In a city, a person is murdered. A detective investigates and must discover which of the many suspects is the murderer in order to stop them before they kill again.
That logline uses the Killogator logline formula correctly, but it’s basically the plot of every whodunnit ever. Instead of telling the reader what’s different and interesting about the story, the logline makes it sound boring.
To avoid a clunky, boring, generic logline, the next step is to make the logline grab the reader by tinkering with the exact wording:
- Write a single adjective + noun combination for each of the SETTING, PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST that captures their essence.
- What was it about the characters that drew you to them?
- Think about what it is about the PROBLEM, CONFLICT and GOAL that makes your story unique.
- What was it about the story that made you excited to write it?
- The Killogator formula and logline process are a guide. They’re not for blind obedience.
- Use the formula to get your first draft logline.
- But it’s identifying the archetypes that’s crucial.
- So, if the first draft logline sounds clunky, rephrase it.
- Remember the rule: sell don’t tell. If there’s a conflict between accuracy and grabbing the reader, chose grabbing the reader.
- Remember the rule: simplicity sells. Don’t add anything to your logline that isn’t absolutely vital.
- But also remember grabbing the reader is absolutely vital.
- Trial half a dozen loglines for your story and see which one makes people go “Wow!”.
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, conflict is not necessarily melodrama, Antagonists don’t have to be a moustachio-twirling villains and Protagonists don’t have to be a square-jawed heroes.
Some things to consider when writing a logline for a literary 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
- The Antagonist doesn’t have to be a person—it could be some facet of society.
And something to consider: if your writing really doesn’t have a Setting, Protagonist, Antagonist, Problem, Conflict and Goal, then however beautifully written it is, it’s not a story.
I heard that Loglines Have to Be Tiny!
First, you might be thinking of High Concepts, which do have to be 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 handful of words that capture the essence of each archetype.
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.
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 major publishers Transworld.
Read the opening of A Kill in the Morning by clicking here or on the cover:
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.
And, of course, if you sell your story using a Killogator logline I’d love to hear about it. I might even feature it here!
If you need help with your logline, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share this article using the buttons below.