Issue 11: Lesson 11—Writing the Screenplay (Loglines)

As we’ve discussed in previous lessons, writing a film is a process that can be broken down into stages, each building on the last. One of the shortest and trickiest, but also most important of these stages is the logline. So, what exactly is a logline and why is it a crucial step in the screenwriting process?

Essentially, a logline is your film encapsulated in one sentence. Think about that for a moment. One sentence that takes your multi-layered story that will eventually fill 120 pages (or two hours of screen time) and distils it to around 25 words.

Are you starting to see why it’s so tricky to write? No? OK, here’s a quick exercise for you. Here are three fact-based films. Try to write loglines for each. We’ve put some model answers at the bottom (of course, there’s no one ‘right’ answer).

1. Raging Bull (1980)
2. The Theory of Everything (2014)
3. Nixon (1995)

One word of warning at this stage – Don’t confuse the logline with the movie poster tagline, which is there simply as a marketing hook.

The logline is much more functional, giving you (the writer) focus and telling other people what your story is about in simple terms. As such, when writing the logline, it’s important to include the basic dynamics of the story – such as the who, what, why and where.

Not all of these will be relevant to every logline, but elements that are common are:

a) The protagonist
b) Their goal
c) The forces stopping them achieving their goal

Now, can you see why the logline is so important to develop at the beginning of the writing process?

If have a solid idea of who your film’s about, what they want and what’s preventing them getting it, you’re well on your way to a workable script. If, however, any of these elements are missing or aren’t strong enough to sustain a two hour film, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.

Remember that the logline only deals with the central storyline, not subplots and secondary characters.

Let’s look at a couple of well-known examples.

Titanic (1997): A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an infamous ill-fated ocean liner during its maiden voyage.

This logline clearly states who the film is about, and the various struggles they face in order to stay together – the class conflict and the sinking ship.

Jaws (1975): Following series of deadly shark attacks, a police chief with a phobia of open water battles to protect his small beach community from the monster, amid pressure from the town council to keep the beach open.

Again, this simple sentence tells us who the film is about and the conflicts inherent in the story – his phobia, the town council and, of course, the mighty beast. It also highlights the peril inherent in the plot – i.e. there’s a good chance more people will be eaten if the hero doesn’t act quickly and decisively to stop it.

So, what about those three films we mentioned earlier?

1. Raging Bull: A gifted fighter’s jealous and self-destructive nature leads to his personal and professional downfall.

2. The Theory of Everything: A brilliant young physicist struggles to sustain his personal and professional lives as he slowly succumbs to an incurable, degenerative disease.

3. Nixon: A controversial and increasingly beleaguered US president takes a subjective look back at his life and achievements as he fights to stay in office.

Notice how each logline hones in on the key overriding theme and alludes to the main challenges facing the protagonist. It also offers a ‘hook’, an original slant that sets your film apart and makes it unique.

Don’t forget that it is conflict that drives a film and keeps people interested.

This can be conflict from within the protagonist (such as the police chief’s water phobia in Jaws and the fighter’s jealousy and self-destruction in Raging Bull).

It can be conflict from other characters (such as social pressures facing the lovers in Titanic).

It can also be conflict from nature or other external forces (such as the Titanic sinking).

Ideally, it should be a combination of two or three of these. And they should all be hinted at in the logline.

Think of the logline as a lit fuse that starts the whole process. You want to spark people’s interest and get their imagination rushing towards the raging inferno that will be the finished script/film. You want them imagining the exciting, dramatic and emotionally-charged scenes that spring from this simple logline.

For example, in Titanic, the logline hints at two people rebelling against society’s mores by falling passionately in love, leading to anger and longing, before their world literally falls apart, all on-board a grand but doomed ocean liner.

In Jaws, we imagine bloody and visceral shark attacks, passionate pleas to close the beach before more people die falling on deaf ears, and a police chief who has to battle his own deep-seated fears to save the townspeople against all the odds.

To use another analogy, if writing a film is a banquet, the logline is the canapé, the small offering that hints at the great feast to follow.

As such, it’s important to take the time to craft one that best encapsulates your story.

To help you get started, try getting into the habit of writing loglines for the films you watch.

Next lesson, we move on to writing the step outline.

Issue 12 of RSL is out on 30 November.

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