Jurgen Wolff, instructor, The Script Coach workshops
You know that composing a powerful log line (a sentence that conveys the concept of your script) is useful in pitching and it can also be a good way to helping you stay on track as you work out the plot. These four elements can help you compose a strong log line:
- Wants what?
- But is opposed by whom or what?
- And risks what?
The Who is your protagonist, the Wants is their goal, and the opposition consists of the main people or forces that get in the way. The risk is what’s at stake—what’s the terrible thing that might happen if your protagonist fails?
Note that log lines don’t reveal the ending, they exist in order to make the listener and later the viewer want to find out what happens.
Example 1: Revenge
Who: the teen-age son of a murdered man
Wants what: to avenge his father’s killing
But is opposed by: the murderer and the suspicion that his beloved mother is the murderer.
Risks: his determination to get revenge may be destroyed, and his life is in danger at the hands of whoever killed his father. The people who committed the murder and don’t want the son to find out are the external opposition.
More interesting is his internal conflict when he suspects his mother. In many cases, the character arc (the transformation of the protagonist) is driven by both an external and internal conflict. Often, it’s the internal conflict that is the emotional heart of the story.
The basic log line would read, “The teen-age son of a murdered man vows to avenge his father’s killing but when he begins to suspect that his mother was the murderer, he doesn’t know whether he will be willing to carry out his vow—and whether she may be trying to kill him, too.”
Adding meat to the bones
This construction gives you the bare bones of the story, but it’s good to add some details to help the listener get a strong sense of the characters and the drama.
“A teen-age son vows to avenge the murder of the father he worshipped—but when he begins to suspect that the murderer is his beloved mother he’s not sure he’ll be able to fulfil his vow—nor whether she may be trying to kill him, too.”
The detail that your protagonist worshipped his father and is close to his mother add Impact to his dilemma.
Don’t add too much
It’s tempting to keep adding details in the log line. For instance, maybe the father was mortally wounded and the son made that vow on his father’s deathbed. And maybe the son has had a breakdown in the past and wonders whether his suspicion of his mother is a sign he’s having another. Those are good story elements, but there’s not enough space in a log line to include them. Just be ready to reveal them if your pitch results in someone wanting to know more.
Let’s see how this works with another example, and this time we’ll include a Ticking Clock.
Example 2: Revelation
Who: an autistic young woman working on a presidential campaign
Wants what: to expose that the candidate secretly takes orders from Russia
But is opposed by: the candidate’s campaign manager, who assigns a hit man to kill her.
And risks: that her condition will make her fail to be effective in stopping the candidate’s election—as well as the risk of being killed.
Do you have a ticking clock? Include it.
If your story has a ticking clock—a deadline for achieving the goal before something bad happens—incorporate it in your log line.
In this case, it’s the date of the election. In a different story it might be a bomb set to go off at a particular time or a meteor due to strike earth on a certain day. In a police procedural it could be the date that the suspect is released and could flee. A ticking clock can work in any genre to add urgency and suspense to your plot.
Improving the wording
The structure I’ve suggested reveals the crucial components of a log line, but doesn’t necessarily result in elegant or powerful wording. Let’s see how we can improve the basic version and incorporate the ticking clock.
“When a young autistic woman working on a presidential campaign discovers that the candidate takes orders from Russia, she must expose him before the election–and before the hit man hired by the campaign manager can kill her.”
Not bad, but trying to fit everything into one sentence often makes the log line as unwieldy as this one. When you pack a single sentence with too much information the listener may be unable to keep up.
Sometimes two are better than one
Sometimes the log line works better if you turn it into two shorter sentences. This may also give you the chance to add a word or phrase that helps get across the feel of the story.
“A young autistic woman working for a presidential campaign discovers that the candidate is secretly taking orders from Russia. Her mission to reveal the truth before the election becomes a matter of life and death when the campaign manager orders a hit man to kill her.”
When doing a verbal pitch, leave about a two or three second pause after the first line to give the listener time to digest it. Then go on the second sentence.
Practice makes better
Like anything else, with practice you’ll get better at writing log lines. Here are three sets of the basic elements. See if you can turn each one into a powerful log line of one or two sentences.
First, a romantic comedy:
Who: a young tech entrepreneur who sells her company for a hundred million dollars
Wants what: to share her good fortune and her life with a soulmate
But is opposed by: the two of her three suitors who are just after her money and her own insecurities around relationships.
And risks: choosing the wrong one and being stuck in a loveless marriage, or not having a relationship at all.
Next, a science fiction story:
Who: an alien infected with a disease deadly to humans
Wants what: to spread the disease on earth to pave the way for an invasion by his masters
But is opposed by: a retired scientist who is on to him, and by his dawning awareness that humans are not any more evil than his own masters
And risks: his life at the hands of both humans and his alien masters.
As is often a case, all these protagonist have both an external and internal struggle. Usually it’s the internal one that gives the audience something to relate to, so include it in your pitch.
Finally, a comedy:
Who: A washed-up private detective
Wants what: to get back into business by solving a the kidnapping of a famous actress
But is opposed by: the police and by the actress who initially agreed to go along with a staged kidnapping
And risks: a long prison sentence if the plot is exposed.
A successful log line can be your first step toward a successful script. In my Script Coach workshops you’ll learn more about log lines and how to use them to write and to sell your screenplay.