What’s Your Novel’s Log Line?
The term log line (also spelled log-line and logline) is usually associated with movies, but the wise novelist will learn how to write one.
In the context of writing (as opposed to measuring a ship’s rate of speed), a log line is the succinct summary of a story. According to the Wikipedia article,
The log line first came into use and was recognized as a separate form during the old studio days of Hollywood. The studios had script vaults in which they stored screenplays. Readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about either on the cover of the script, on the spine of the script, or both. The log line on the spine of the script allowed people to read the log lines of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.
Some of the examples of log lines given on various sites are “movie tags” rather than true log lines. The difference is that a movie tag is an advertising hook used to intrigue a viewer, while a log line is a selling tool intended to persuade an agent or producer to read a manuscript.
Here are two movie tags I found offered as “good examples of log lines”:
To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman. – The Silence of the Lambs
On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. – Taxi Driver
An effective log line will contain these three essential elements:
the main character
what the main character wants
what must be overcome for the character to succeed
In other words, an effective log line will include protagonist, goal, and antagonistic force
These log lines from the Internet Movie Data Base meet these criteria better than the examples of the same movies given above:
A young FBI cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims. – The Silence of the Lambs
A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as nighttime taxi driver in a city whose perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge to violently lash out, attempting to save a teenage prostitute in the process. –Taxi Driver
But even these log lines are less than effective as selling tools.
Both state the protagonist. The one for The Silence of the Lambs also states the protagonist’s goal, but it fails to include the antagonistic force: the killer’s hypnotic influence on her mind. The one for Taxi Driver states neither the protagonist’s goal nor the antagonistic force.
The most important element of any story is the protagonist’s goal. Once the main character has a goal, the story ensues from the obstacles that come between the protagonist and that goal.
Screenwriters are advised to write the log line before writing the script. That’s probably good advice for the novelist as well.
If you need a log line to serve as a starting point for a novel, or just want a little amusement, check out Brian Stokes’s Random Log-line Generator.