The first step to selling your screenplay is crafting a solid log line. If you have a really great log line it will open doors for you no matter what approach you take in trying to sell your screenplay.
In fact, I recommend writing your log line before you even write your screenplay. It can save you a lot of time as you won’t exert yourself writing something that can’t be pitched or sold. In fact, I’m a big fan of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, where he walks you through his writing process. The first part of his writing process is coming up with a solid marketable log line, well before ever actually starting to write the full screenplay. I think this is excellent advice and I see so many new writers spinning their wheels on concepts that simply have no chance of ever selling or even getting read. In fact, I feel like many of my own early efforts suffered from this same problem so it’s something I’ve tried to correct by making sure I have a solid log line before I even start writing the screenplay.
The log line will be a one or two sentence pitch of your film. You will use it in your query letter to agents and producers and you will use it to pitch your script idea to anyone who asks about it. You should practice it out loud so that you can easily recite it. If you live in L.A. being able to recite your logline can be very important as you never know who you might run into.
I often see screenwriting books and websites define the logline as the “short blurb in the T.V. Guide” that describes a film in a sentence or two. I think this is a horrible definition of what you want your log line to be. Just open up any T.V. guide or go to any movie website and you’ll see that their “log lines” are often written by hacks and usually do very little to sell the film. Your log line must be compelling and make people want to read the entire script, practically at all costs.
There are three main questions that you log line must answer.
1.) Who is the protagonist? This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of screenplays where you can’t really tell who the protagonist is. In some cases you might have a dual protagonist (which I don’t recommend for new writers) but even in that case it must be clear who the protagonists are.
2.) What is the central conflict of your story? Drama is conflict and if the conflict isn’t clear in your log line you don’t have a solid concept for your screenplay. A good way to get at the conflict is to mention the antagonist. He’s usually the one who provides conflict for your protagonist.
3.) What is the genre, tone and scope of the screenplay? This is a little harder to define but just as important as the other two elements. I read a lot of log lines where I can’t tell if it’s a drama or comedy. That’s a big problem. It’s going to make it hard to pitch because people won’t know what it is. Producers are typically looking for something specific, like a teen comedy, so your log line must tell them what it is in terms of genre, tone and scope.
If you can accomplish all of these things in your log line you’re doing pretty well.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Here’s the one sentence log line I found for Die Hard on IMDB:
New York cop John McClane gives terrorists a dose of their own medicine as they hold hostages in an LA office building.
I think this log line sums up the story pretty well. After all, Die Hard was about McClane whooping terrorists’ asses in an LA office building.
One thing that I hate about this logline, and it’s something I see a lot, is that it uses a clichéd figure of speech (:dose of their own medicine”). I think they’re used often mainly because they can convey a lot of meaning in a relatively short space. Personally I hate them and I think you should avoid them. To me it is a lazy way to describe your script and it makes it seem clichéd and unoriginal – how many movies could you describe as the hero giving the bad guys a “dose of their own medicine”? If you find a more original way to describe your script it will sound more original.
Here’s how I might have written the log line if I had written the script for Die Hard:
When a NYC cop gets trapped in an LA office building taken over by terrorists, he kicks the shit out of them one terrorist at a time.
In Die Hard John McClane is the hero which is in the logline. The terrorists are the antagonist and they supply the conflict, which is also in the logline. It’s a tongue-in-cheek action movie (genre, tone and genre) which I think “he kicks the shit out of them one terrorist at a time” makes clear. So I think I’ve hit all the needed elements for a solid log line.
IMDB might not want to use the word “shit” on their website for their official log line. But that’s the great thing about what you’re writing, it doesn’t have to meet any editorial standards. It’s a one sentence pitch of your movie and you can use whatever language you need to sell your script.
Notice, too, that I removed the actual name, “John McClane.” You want to eliminate every single word that’s not absolutely necessary. For the purposes of a log line the protagonist’s name isn’t nearly as important as knowing that he’s a NYC cop. There is never any call back to a specific person in a log line since it’s so short, so an actual name is rarely needed,
Here’s the logline I found on IMDB for Easy Rider:
Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America.
Are you kidding me? I love this movie but would this pitch really get me to read the script? Only if I knew that Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson were in the film! So if you don’t have that level of actor attached to your project you’re going to need a better log line.
To me, this log line is too vague and I don’t see any real conflict in it. Here’s how I might re-write the log line for Easy Rider:
Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in a cocaine funded, LSD fueled road “trip” encountering dirty hippies, a convict lawyer, and eventually murdering bigots.
In Easy Rider Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are the “Two counterculture bikers” that the story revolves around. I think “counterculture bikers” is a good description of the protagonist, as they are bikers but they’re not the typical Hell’s Angels types you see in a lot of films and this description tells us that.
“Murdering bigots” eventually become the antagonists and supply some of the conflict – although the hippies and convict lawyer do also. One of the reasons I choose this log line is because while it’s a classic film it doesn’t have a traditional antagonist as the bigots don’t show up until the end of the film. The entire film is pretty wandering, which can obviously work, but I was still able to pull out the conflict from a film that didn’t have a ton of it. If your film has a more wandering episodic structure it’s still a good idea to try and boil it down to one major point of conflict and highlight that in the log line.
The genre and scope of this film is pretty clear, too, it’s a road buddy movie (Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans). The tone is summed up by bits like “a cocaine funded” trip which seems serious and dangerous. Easy Rider is a gritty look at the counterculture movement in America at the time the movie was made. Other bits like “hippies” and “LSD” hopefully give the reader that sense.
The story for my screenplay Dish Dogs was actually similar to Easy Rider. Here’s the logline I wrote for it:
Dish Dogs is the story of two college graduates, fed up with society and eager to gain some measure of free will; so they drive around the country in a 1958 Ford pick-up truck washing dishes.
For my script Dish Dogs the two main characters are the “two college graduates.”
The antagonist and conflict comes from society – they’re “fed up” and are eager to push back against it (conflict).
The genre, like Easy Rider, is a road buddy movie but much more lighthearted. The main characters are somewhat sophomoric and using grandiose themes like “free will” against the backdrop of washing dishes and driving around in a 1958 Ford pick-up truck hopefully conveys this lighthearted comedic tone.
One other thing that you might want to think about is using other well known films to draw comparisons to your own film. For instance I would usually use this sentence after the log line:
Dish Dogs is Easy Rider meets The Graduate for a new generation.
I’m hopefully mixing the cool road-trip elements from Easy Rider with the comedic, existential, post-college experience from The Graduate.
This is not a replacement for your real logline but can act as a quick way to sum up your script, especially in a verbal pitch where you tell someone your logline and then follow it up with “it’s like Easy Rider meets The Graduate for a new generation.” If you can come up with a really creative marriage of two well known films to describe your script it can really help as a final beat that helps convince the reader to request your entire screenplay.
As part of my screenwriting tools, I’ve set up a forum where people can post log lines and I’ll give notes on them. To learn more about this program go here:
In this forum I see a lot of log lines from beginning screenwriters and I’ve noticed a few common problems.
Often with people’s first few screenplays the writer tries to write the most brilliant screenplay ever written but ends up writing an amateurish mess. The writer has dozens of unneeded characters, lots of subplots, too many themes, and all sorts of brilliant symbolism. Most of the time these first few efforts at screenwriting are very personal stories (i.e. low concept) which probably won’t resonate with anyone other than the author.
Believe me, there is no shame in this. My first few screenplays were guilty of all of those things and worse. I had been cooking up ideas my entire life and they all exploded onto the page in an undisciplined, unskilled mess. The crime is not in writing these sorts of screenplays, it’s in writing them and not learning from them.
How do you know if your screenplay falls into this category? One way is that you will have an unbelievably hard time writing the log line. You will have trouble deciding who your protagonist is. Or you won’t be able to decide what the central conflict in your story is. Or the tone and genre will be unclear.
I highly recommend that if you find yourself with this type of script you simply put it on your shelf and move on to your next project. Don’t waste your time and money trying to market this screenplay because it’s probably not going to work. And for your next project start out by writing the log line so you know you have a marketable concept before you spend time writing the full screenplay.
If you do decide to push ahead with an unmarketable screenplay (which I have done myself) go back to the top of this article and read it again. You must boil your story down to one clear protagonist. You must boil your story down to one clear major conflict for your protagonist. And you must make it clear what the genre, tone, and scope of this film is.
Another huge problem I see in many log lines, which, again, I feel usually points to serious story issues, is that the author is very vague in describing the meat of the story. I think the IMDB log line for Easy Rider is a victim of this. What does “in search of America” even mean? I really don’t know. Your story isn’t about “finding himself” or “struggling for happiness” or “searching for lost youth.” It’s about people who do stuff. Concentrate on the specific real actions that your characters do in your log line.
Another huge issue I see with log lines from beginners is that their concepts are often too mundane.
Die Hard is considered “high concept.” I’m not going to go into all the advantages of having a high concept story here (it’s a huge advantage in trying to get people to read your screenplay) but notice that it is clearly stated in the log line (“a NYC cop gets trapped in an LA office building taken over by terrorists”). Being high concept makes it much easier to write a concise log line so if your story is high concept make sure that’s the focus of your log line.
If your story isn’t particularly high concept try and figure out an easy to digest angle on your story so that it becomes a little more high concept. If you’re in the beginning stages of writing a screenplay and you’re having a hard time finding that angle for your story, hopefully you will consider this and perhaps decide to work on another concept. It’s really not worth spending time writing a screenplay based on a concept that you can’t pitch.
I know what you’re thinking: what about all the great films that were huge successes that weren’t high concept? They’re fantastic films and are some of my favorites. Usually, however, these types of films are from established filmmakers who are granted a certain amount of leeway because of their track record. Woody Allen comes to mind here.
But you’re right, sometimes a low concept script does appear from a new writer, too, which is great. Juno comes to mind here.
I’m not saying you can’t sell your low concept screenplay. But it’s all about improving your odds. Nothing is written in stone with screenwriting. But there are certain things that will increase your chances of success. And having a solid, marketable, high concept log line is one of those things.
Christopher Lockhart wrote an exhaustive short book on writing log lines. If you have a few hours it’s worth checking out. Notice the examples he gives at the end. I learn by seeing examples so i found this section quite helpful. You can find his article here: http://www.twoadverbs.com/logline.pdf