Saturday, June 5, 2010

Minimalism in Loglines - Summarizing your story in as few words as possible

I write too long. I know it. My descriptions are too lengthy, my characters talk too much and explain things that don't need to be explained. And don't even get me started on inner monologue. As Emperor Joseph II might say, "too many words!"

I'm working on it. Really, I am.

The area I've been focusing on lately is the dreaded LOGLINE (half-cousin to the dreaded synopsis, niece of the terrifying elevator speech, and ugly step-sister of the panic-inducing conference pitch).

First Try

A logline is a short, one line summary of your story. I hate summaries, if you haven't guessed. But they have to be done, so I dug up one from the manuscript I'm about to market, called Chicago Cop.

It was 144 words. 3 paragraphs. Not what you'd call pithy. Sigh.

That's not a Logline

Some people say your logline should be one sentence and under 25 words. Ugh. I've never been able to do that. Until... one night recently I was searching AMC's TV schedule and I found this blurb for, of all things, The Matrix:

A computer hacker learns his world is a computer simulation.

Could you get more minimal than that? Yes, it's missing all the cool stuff. No mention of the wonderful special effects in the film, its philosophical undertones, or even how cute Keanu Reeves is. BUT it hints at a lot and that IS what the story is about at it's core. It's an anchor. And that's what I need when I write. Something to remind me what the central, core idea of my story. Something to pull in my wandering mind and make it stick to the point.

So I decided to forget all about characterization, conflict, GMC, etc. etc and just write one sentence about my story. Instead of shooting for the moon, I just kind of freewrote it. Here's what I came up with:

Chicago detective discovers the Mob is after her for revenge.

Of course, you don't know this story, but for me, this does hit the nail on the head. It's what this story is all about.

This was a very liberating process. Writing that sentence was kind of a revelation. If I'd written it beforehand, it would have kept me centered as I wrote the manuscript and might have made the book easier to write.

Good enough?

The sentence above is a terrific anchor for writing the book. But is it good enough for selling it? Probably not.

In his wonderfully entertaining book Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder contends, "A good logline is the coin of the realm in Hollywood and can be traded like currency with those who appreciate it."

In his brilliant work Emotional Structure, Peter Dunne says, "If you know your idea as if it were second nature they [the studios] will trust you to stay on point with it and deliver what they're buying. Studios will invest a lot of money in you and your idea, and having confidence in your concise thinking is critical to their comfort in making that investment."

How to spice things up?

Second Try

In her online article , How to write a logline E Hughes mentions that movie posters advertised the Matrix this way: "The fight for the future begins." (The poster is way cool. Even though it's an old movie, it gives me chill bumps).

Hughs embellishes the poster line this way:

"The fight for the future begins when a computer hacker learns the world exists in the sophisticated alternate reality of a computer program called 'The Matrix'".

Hmm. Not that far from:

A computer hacker learns his world is a computer simulation.

It's that sentence on steroids. The main punch comes from the keyword "fight." Not surprising. "Fight" equals conflict. And conflict equals story. Could I get "fight" into my logline? I gave it another try.

Chicago police detective Maggie Delaney fights an unknown killer bent on revenge.

Fight" doesn't work so well in this sentence. How about this?

Chicago police detective Maggie Delaney tracks down a Mob hit man who is after her for revenge.

Better, but it lacks urgency. Here's another try:

In Chicago Cop, police detective Maggie Delaney must track down a Mob hit man bent on revenge before he strikes again.

Okay, but it doesn't have the uniqueness of the story, especially not the way the Matrix logline does. Once more with feeling:

In Chicago Cop, police detective Maggie Delaney must track down a Mob hit man bent on revenge against her for putting away his boss.

Eureka! That's it. Chicago Cop is a detective thriller, so "tracks down" seemed to work better than "fight" in my last sentence above. And that sentence? 21 words! Now that's a logline.

To Summarize

I've learned a lot from this exercise. Writing a logline not only seems more doable, it's kind of exciting. Here's what I intend to do in the future:

1. Relax, let down my guard and freewrite my single summary sentence.
2. Then find the central conflict in my story and try to use the word "fight" in the sentence.
3. If "fight" doesn't work, use a verb that's central to the core conflict of my genre.

I hope this exploration has inspired you or at least given you some food for thought when you have to write a summary of your next story.

So how about it? Do you struggle with loglines the way I do? Do you write them at the beginning or end of your process? Do you have one you'd like to share? I'd love to see some.