‘Tis the holiday season, which means you will probably find yourself at lots of social functions making small talk. This will inevitably lead to someone asking what your book is about. And you’ll hesitate, wondering how to sum up the intricate plot, the fantastical world, and the character’s monumental journey in less than an hour, because you know that curious stranger doesn’t want the whole story. They just want a logline, one sentence that describes your novel, like if they were skimming the movie listings. This is a daunting request. After all, a novel is hundreds of pages long. How can that be condensed down to one line? Well, lucky for you guys, I’ve got the answer!
This is a simple equation to get all the pertinent story information into one sentence.
PROTAGONIST. Describe the hero in a couple words, not using his/her name, unless the name is descriptive. One word should describe who the protagonist is, and the other word should define the protagonist’s flaw. Why? Because flawed characters are inherently more interesting, and if your character doesn’t have a flaw, they have nowhere to grow. Examples: uptight executive, repressed nerd, rebellious angel.
GOAL. What is the protagonist’s goal? This seems like an easy thing to define, after all, every character wants something, but it’s a common mistake for writers to confuse “goal” with “desire”. Desire is feeling; goal is action. So it’s not just what the protagonist wants, but what they are doing to get what they want. Also note, sometimes the protagonist’s goal comes before the problem; sometimes the problem creates the goal. So the order of the equation can be changed.
PROBLEM. This is what is preventing the protagonist from achieving their goal. Sometimes the problem is a person (ANTAGONIST); sometimes it’s a situation.
Put these elements together and you get loglines like these (examples from http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting-101/screenwriting/logline-library):
Charlotte’s Web is about a kindly spider who helps a lone pig (PROTAGONIST) from being sent to the slaughter (PROBLEM) by turning him into a celebrity (GOAL).
Erin Brockovich is about a single mom from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks (PROTAGONIST) who stumbles upon an environmental cover-up by a public utility (PROBLEM) and sets out to hold them accountable (GOAL).
Frost/Nixon is about an intrepid British talk-show host (PROTAGONIST) who struggles to get a tell-all interview (GOAL) with recently disgraced American President Richard M. Nixon (PROBLEM/ANTAGONIST).
Laws of Attraction is about two competing divorce attorneys (PROTAGONISTS) who make their big case (GOAL) more difficult by falling in love with each other (PROBLEM).
Memento is about an insurance investigator (PROTAGONIST) suffering from a disorder that erases all short-term memory (PROBLEM) while trying to find his wife’s killer (GOAL).
If you check out the other loglines on the Script Lab website you’ll notice not all state the problem and goal, but most of them do. This equation is simply a guideline to help you construct a logline. If the snappy sentence you create to hook people into your story doesn’t follow it to the letter, that’s okay, but using this equation is still a good exercise to clarify the basics of your story.
I put myself through this exercise just this week, and realized the story I’d been working on wasn’t clicking because my character’s goal and problem didn’t connect (in other words, the main problem did not directly affect my hero’s goal). And I noticed that because I tried to write a logline using the equation. Good thing I figured this out before all the parties!
For more information about loglines, especially the difference between a logline and a tagline, read this.
Now that you have a handy little logline, go mingle! Happy Holidays!
Next Up from Heather… what book jackets can teach about a story’s “hook”.