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Writing Good Log Lines

By Stanley D. Williams

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This is the last article you’ll ever need to read on log lines. Our goal: a strong, pithy pitch for a movie that will keep you focused as a writer and get your audience into the theater.

Because I teach, consult, write, and direct, I am always in desperate need of a good log line. If not for the story I’m currently working on, then to explain to my wife what I did all day long at home while she was off earning money to pay for our groceries. I’m always having to come up with them, or help others figure them out – the log lines, not the groceries.  So, I needed an easy to remember formula that worked. But first, I needed a motivation. Don’t we all?

WHY LOG LINES?

Originally, log lines were long thin ropes on a spool with knots tied in them that mariners unreeled behind their ships to measure their speed – in KNOTS. They counted how many evenly spaced knots passed through their hand as the sand in the hour-glass drained from the top to the bottom. The marina’s log line was a necessity in helping them navigate their journey and not get lost. It told them how far they had gone in a certain direction and when to turn the boat to find their destination.

[The other advantage of the marina’s log line was that if the boat got lost, the sailors simply had to follow the log line back to port. As time went on, and captains become more adventurous sailing to distant lands, the log lines got pretty big. But, after a few ships sank from the enormous weight of the reels, ships never got lost again. Why? They learned their lesson and never ventured far from port.]

Now, if that last part in brackets sounds like a joke, it wasn’t intended as such for the writers reading this. It’s the lie that tells the truth -- about the importance of log lines. Log lines help us navigate our writing. They also help to steer funding and attachments to our projects. And they direct audiences to theaters. Log lines are a necessary tool that keeps us focused in writing our story, and helps convince “names” to spend their time and money to get our story made and distributed. A good log line tells us how far we need to go before we arrive at a turning point in the plot. And, if we get lost, a good log line will lead us back to the beginning where we can start again.

ELEMENTS

Fundamentally, a good log line will be a single sentence that will include five elements.

The subject of the sentence will describe (1) an imperfect but passionate and active PROTAGONIST. The verb will depict (2) the BATTLE. And the direct object will describe (3) an insurmountable ANTAGONIST who tries to stop the protagonist from reaching (4) a physical GOAL on account of (5) the STAKES, if the goal is not reached.

Finally, the log line is even better if the words chosen in its writing can enhance the story's marketability by suggesting the movie’s:

  • Genre
  • Setting
  • Visual Style
  • Ironic hook
  • Emotional context
  • Heartfelt passion, and
  • Visceral action.

VERB

The verb you choose to depict the struggle must be visual and active. After all this is a movie, not a play or a novel. Thus, the log line verb should be one of the following, or one like them that best suits the genre:

struggle, battle, contends, wrestles, grapples, scuffles, fights, wages war, jousts, duels, spars, scraps, opposes, takes on, clashes, quarrels, feuds, or crusades.

STRUCTURE

Now, take all those elements and put them into a compelling sentence in this order:

[protagonist]…[verb]…[antagonist]…[goal]…[stakes].

What it doesn’t sound right? Then, rewrite it. You do know what a rewrite is, don’t you? As formulistic as all this sounds, expect to rewrite your log line many, many times --- not necessarily at first, but over the time that you develop your story and script. 

MORAL PREMISE

Having written the book The Moral Premise, it’s only fitting that I reference it here. While the log line describes the PHYSICAL essence of the story, the moral premise statement describes the inner working, or the PSYCHOLOGICAL essence of the story. If you’re not familiar with the moral premise statement construction, here’s an example. Its purpose is to articulate the arc of the story from psychological value to physical consequence. For instance:

Fear leads to paralysis; but

Courage leads to action.

The log line only hints at the context of the moral premise statement. Both are necessary to write a strong story that touches both physical and psychological beats.

Again, it’s worth repeating, log lines tell us what the movie is about PHYSICALLY; it is why people go to a particular movie. And the moral premise statement (or moral premise line) tells us what the movie is about PSYCHOLOGICALLY; it explains the motivations of the characters the PHYSICAL action they take.

Audiences leave the theater thinking well or ill of a movie based on their subconscious awareness of the moral premise’s truth and consistency. Start with a good log line. Then, establish a true and consistent moral premise statement. With those two tools in hand you’ll be well on your way.

4 QUESTIONS AND 4 ANSWERS

My friend Jeffrey Alan Schechter makes the justifiable claim that a good log line should clearly and unambiguously answer these FOUR QUESTIONS:

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. What is he or she trying to accomplish?
  3. Who is trying to stop him or her?
  4. What happens if he or she fails?

The answers to those questions, which MUST BE embodied in the log line, are:

  1. A sympathetic character, who is
  2. trying to accomplish a compelling goal while being opposed by...
  3. a powerful and committed opponent, over
  4. life and death stakes.

Log lines, as I said above, are the place that writers start. Log lines help to focus the filmmaking team as they moves through the process of writing, development, attachment, production, and then marketing. But the best log lines are usually written AFTER the movie is finished. Why? Because movies are made three times: in the writing, in the shooting, and in the finishing. And it's not until it's all over that we really know what the film is about, and what the characters are REALLY about.  At any rate, log lines are critical to understanding what makes a good story. 

EXAMPLES

Here are a few good log line examples.

  A naïve young man battles heartless authorities to protect the life of his girlfriend when it’s revealed that she’s not human— she’s a mermaid.

  A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.

  A Parisian rat teams up with a man with no talent to battle convention and the critics that anyone can cook and open their own restaurant.

  A lawyer who loses his ability to lie for 24-hours, clashes with his ex-wife for the affection of their son and the healing of their family.

  A young farmer from a distant planet joins the rebellion to save his home planet from the evil empire when he discovers he is a warrior with legendary psychokinesis powers.

GIVE IT TIME – BUT DON’T STOP

Nothing good comes easily. That adage begins and ends with log lines. Their importance in the movie industry cannot be understated. The human mind requires a respite from time-to-time to reach its full potential. Within your mind is the capacity to not only write a good log line, but construct the good story that goes with it. Write hard each day. But then relax and do something that involves physical activity aside from sitting in a chair and bending over a computer. Writing is hard work -- but you need exercise, too. I spend the mornings writing. In the afternoon I chop logs, garden, sail and chase my wife around town. You’ll be surprised how your mind assimilates and solves problems when you’re not trying to force it. As your project develops never stop coming back to your log line and see if you can make it that strong, pithy pitch that will sell your story.

About Stanley D. Williams

Dr. Stan Williams is a story consultant, screenwriter, and director living in Michigan. He travels frequently to Los Angeles as a story consultant and workshop leader. The full explanation of the moral premise is found in his book The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. Learn more by visiting: www.MoralPremise.com

Screenwriting Article by Stanley D. Williams

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