There’s this old cliché that if you found yourself in an elevator with a producer, would you be able to successfully pitch them your screenplay in the time it takes them to reach their destination? Thirty second journey tops – how would you manage to sell your idea, your premise, your plot, your character? The answer would be to share with them your logline – that is, a sentence or two describing just that, designed to quickly express what your screenplay is and could be.
I’ve found that it’s probably best not to bark an out of context storyline at someone in an enclosed space, but next time you find yourself at a networking event in a meeting with someone in the industry you want to impress, write yourself a logline. The likes of BBC Writers Room ask for one during their open submission windows as well, as do a lot of screenwriting competitions – so they’re well worth having.
But how do you create an effective logline and what exactly do you need to get across?
First, let’s take a look at one I wrote earlier.
‘An intrepid farm boy goes on a perilous journey through space to help a daring rebellion overthrow an oppressive empire and bring peace to the galaxy.’
This logline tells the story of Star Wars very simply – it identifies the protagonist (the intrepid farm boy), the key location (space), the call to action/central plot (help overthrow), an antagonist (the oppressive empire) and an ultimate quest (bring peace to the galaxy).
Using this format, you can devise other loglines based on popular films or TV shows. I tend to be able to do it in a single sentence, but two sentences can work too – the rule of thumb is, just don’t ramble on. Less is more in this situation. Using my format, your story can easily be condensed.
Even a programme as complex as Doctor Who can be given an interesting and engaging logline without going into so much detail you couldn’t express in your elevator journey.
‘An enigmatic traveller (protagonist) journeys in an old police box through time and space (call to action/key location), battling monsters and outsmarting aliens (antagonist) in order to save lives and help those in need (ultimate quest).’
However, you can still use detail, despite condensing. You can pick your descriptions; you can add your texture. I recommend selecting your adjectives carefully – what sounds interesting? What will have whoever you pitch to wanting to know more? What makes the farm boy ‘intrepid’? What makes the empire ‘oppressive’? Why is the traveller ‘enigmatic’? Travelling in an old police box? What’s that about?
A great place to look for examples of loglines is Netflix – when you’re scrolling through the rows of films and TV, stop and take a look at the tiny line of description beside your choice.
‘I wonder what No Country For Old Men is about?’
According to Netflix’s logline: ‘A drug deal gone bad and a bag full of cash entwine an unsuspecting hunter, a veteran sheriff and a murderous hit man in the stark West Texas desert.’
You’ve got your story without spoiling it. You’ve got your characters without going into huge amounts of details – just an enticing adjective for each of them. You’ve got your key location. You’ve got an excellent logline, and I want to watch that. I want to find out about that drug deal – I want to know why the hunter is unsuspecting – and what he’s unsuspecting of.
If your story is airtight and interesting enough to compress into a sentence, I think you’ve got something there. I honestly believe if you’re having difficulty selling it in one sentence, your idea is too complex, or you don’t know it well enough yourself. Star Wars is hugely complex, but the story is still straightforward enough to sell in the single sentence I wrote above, as is Doctor Who and No Country.
A logline, however, is not to be confused with a tagline.
A tagline, such as ‘In space, no one can hear you scream,’ from Alien, is often used to sell tone and is usually devised by advertising companies to incite a reaction on posters and merchandise i.e. horror film advertising may feature a line like that above, or a comedy may feature a funny quotation.
When writing your script, I would recommend not worrying about a tagline and instead focus on your logline and communicating what’s really important – your story. Alien’s tagline doesn’t express story – it presents an idea and hooks you, but it isn’t enough to actually tell your audience, or your producer, what your screenplay is.
I had an elevator moment fairly recently, but it wasn’t in an elevator, nor at a networking event. It was in a queue for coffee where I bumped into a producer I’d met a while before. They asked me what I’d been working on – in that second, I didn’t rattle out a synopsis or a tagline-style quotation, because I had a logline to hand.
Once they like what they hear, that’s when you can go into detail.
So, take a look at your script and with the format above, it’s possible to write a convincing, intriguing and presentable logline. Identify the protagonist. Let me know where they are and what they’re doing. Give me their end goal and tell me who or what wants to stop them. Colour your logline in with descriptive words which ask questions, cast intrigue and create subtext, and articulate the world you’re so enthusiastic about.
With that sentence or two, perhaps your elevator ride might take you further than you think.
Eden Luke McIntyre is a Scottish writer, editor and script consultant. His qualifications include a Master’s Degree in TV Fiction Writing and Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degrees in Film & Media Studies and English Studies, specialising in Scriptwriting, Creative Writing and Researching the Media. Beyond consulting on scripts, Eden writes original content for radio, stage and online and was appointed as a BBC Writers Room Scottish Voice in early 2020.