Movie Loglines: 5 Steps To Plot-driven Storytelling
If you’re a marketer using storytelling in your content, you can learn a lot from the logline skills of screenwriters.
For marketers, integrating a storytelling narrative into long-form content seems intuitive and natural; long-form content lends itself to weaving a story. And you might even be doing it right. But it can be challenging to see how storytelling works in short-form content.
What helps is understanding how the causality of “plot” turns a simple series of events into an engaging story that compels the reader to invest. Then it becomes clear how “story” can drive even short-form content like tweets, Facebook posts, and Calls To Action.
Screenwriters have spent decades and tens of thousands of hours learning to distill their stories into succinct, focused loglines that give them greater clarity. Marketers can learn a lot by studying what screenwriters have already learned.
If you’re a screenwriter crafting loglines, you can benefit from understanding the psychology of marketing.
While your 3-act story structure skills may be on point, and you might be a master of developing layered complex characters over the course of a feature-length story, your screenplay is only one of tens of thousands competing for attention from the industry.
For screenwriters, a solid logline is a short-form marketing tool that helps you stand out from the noise, engage your prospect, and compel them to ask for more. Understanding the difference between a person’s “aspirational desires” and what they’re willing to do to achieve them, and how the “curiosity gap” compels the human brain to search for closure, can help you craft that perfect couple of sentences that will compel the listener to desire more.
Marketers have spent tens of thousands of hours researching marketing psychology, learning how to capture attention in a noisy environment by offering messaging that speaks to innate human desires. Screenwriters can benefit from that.
If you understand how to turn a story into a plot, you‘ll write better marketing content.
If you understand the psychology of digital marketing, you’ll write better loglines.
What’s a logline?
A logline is a short one- or two-sentence description that communicates the dramatic story of the screenplay as simply as possible.
Note that this isn’t the same thing as a “tagline” — that’s the short phrase on the poster alongside the title.
Here’s a couple of tagline examples you may have seen on posters back in the day (I’m probably showing my age with these):
- JAWS: “The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying №1 best seller”
- GHOSTBUSTERS: “They’re Here To Save The World”
Now, imagine the conversation if we asked the tagline to communicate the dramatic story…
Q: “What’s ‘Jaws’ about?”
A: “The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying №1 best seller.”
Q: “What’s Ghostbusters about?”
A: “They’re here to save the world.”
Neither tells you the dramatic arc of the story.
Neither illustrates why you’ll care about the characters, their goals, their challenges, or the stakes.
Taglines are short and pithy and memorable, but they don’t explain the story to you. They’re for the poster; for marketing the movie after it’s been made.
A Logline Is A PreSale Tool
Loglines, on the other hand, are for convincing the executive, the producer, the director, that there’s a good story that’s worth investing in, so it will get made.
That’s why they’re so important to screenwriters trying to sell their screenplays… and why understanding how a great logline works is so relevant to marketers.
So how do I write a logline?
Opinions vary (that’s why there are SO MANY articles and guides to writing great loglines.) But pretty much all of them agree that the logline needs to provide a few key elements to succeed.
The 3 Step Logline
Christopher Lockhart, Hollywood executive, filmmaker, and educator, says that a logline must present:
- Who the story is about (protagonist)
- What he strives for (goal)
- What stands in his way (antagonistic force)
The 4 Step Logline
Others, like Jeffrey Schechter (My Story Can Beat Up Your Story,) subscribe to these four points:
- Who is your main character?
- What are they trying to accomplish?
- Who is trying to stop them?
- What happens if they fail?
The 4-step formula is sometimes referred to as a MadLib Logline, because it can be distilled into a plug-n-play format that goes like this:
When [this happens], [this person] must [verb this] [before / or else] [this consequence occurs].
Which of course can be filled in to result in a logline:
When his house comes to life and slowly starts ingesting its contents, an agoraphobic game designer must overcome his own fear of the outdoors, moving walls, and disappearing doors to escape before the house digests him alive.
I’m a big fan of this magical 4th step because it provides that all-important consequence: What happens if they don’t succeed?
That 4th item — the stakes — adds an extra level of urgency to the logline. It provides a consequence for the hero’s actions, and in my opinion does a better job of capturing the reader’s imagination.
Yet I still see something missing in the 4 steps.
The 5-Step Logline
We know who our hero is, we know what their goal is, we know what’s in their way and what’s at stake.
But the missing step is “Solution.” What will they do to achieve their goal?
You see, “what their goal is” and “what they’ll do to get it” are two different things.
There’s “reunite with my estranged wife whom I still love,” and then there’s “stop the terrorists from killing her and everyone else in the building.”
Your customer/hero has an aspirational goal that is served by the actions they’re willing to take; the action may merely be a means to an end, and may even appear to be at odds with the aspirational goal. (That’s where the irony that some say a good logline requires might come from.)
This is absolutely true in marketing, and if you understand backstory and subtext in storytelling you know it’s true in screenwriting and other fiction as well.
So I’ve modified this 4-step structure just a bit.
By adding “Solution.”
- The Hero: Who is your main character?
- The Aspirational Goal: What are they trying to accomplish?
- The Challenge: Who or what is keeping them from succeeding?
- The Solution: What do they need to do to succeed?
- The Result: What’s at stake if they succeed or fail?
[NOTE: If you read enough guides to writing loglines, you’ll hear lots of additional granular “rules”… don’t use your characters’ names, include the moral premise, stylistically communicate the genre, add irony if at all possible, and more. Some of those work some of the time… use them if they help.
But right now, we’re just focusing on the top-level structure of the logline.]
Know Your Hero
You may have noticed that the 3-step, 4-step, and 5-step loglines all start with the same thing: “Who’s your main character/hero.”
Your hero is who the story is about. They’re the one things happen to, and who change as a result.
Screenwriters and marketers have a lot in common here… they both work hard to understand their heroes intimately.
Good screenwriters spend a lot of time creating great characters. They know what their dreams and desires are, what their childhood was like, what they aspire to, and what they fear. A lot of that background never appears in the story itself, but the writer knows it. It informs the actions of the character within the story; it provides subtext to their decisions and makes them organic and believable and human.
Good marketers spend a lot of time getting to know their customers… they understand them demographically and psychographically. They know all the things about their customers that screenwriters know about their characters: Their dreams and desires, their family life, their aspirations, and their fears. It’s what reminds the marketer that their customers are more than data; they’re real human people.
And both screenwriters and marketers often fail to understand their heroes with this intimacy. For screenwriters, that results in cardboard characters who aren’t believable. For marketers, it results in campaigns that don’t speak to the core aspirations of the very real, complex people they’re trying to reach.
Story VS Plot
Don’t confuse story with plot. There’s a difference between the Queen dying, and the Queen dying from grief.
E M Forster (“Howard’s End,” “Room With A View,” “A Passage To India”) gave a series of lectures which were later collected into the volume “Aspects of the Novel.” In this collection, he discusses the difference between a “story” and a “plot,” and it goes like this:
- Here is a story: “The King died and then the Queen died.”
- Here is a plot: “The King died and then the Queen died from grief.”
Sure, this is oversimplified… that second one may be a “plot” for the sake of this thought experiment, but it’s not a terribly compelling one. The point is, “story” is just a series of events one after the other in the order they happened. There’s no causality between the events… they don’t propel the characters, or the reader, or the narrative itself.
A “plot,” on the other hand, is causal. As Forster said;
“This relationship between cause and effect also connects the characters with the plot. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character. People and events are closely connected.”
Did you catch this part? Incident alters character.
The Hero’s Journey
That’s what makes for a great screenplay or movie… characters who “arc” because they’re changed by the events we watch them experience. In fact, this fundamental structure is known as The Hero’s Journey and it drives virtually every story you know.
No Spoilers: The Curiosity Gap
So your logline is going to outline a super-mini-simplified-version of your hero’s journey… up to, but not including, the conclusion.
Leaving them wanting more is your goal... create curiosity by giving your reader enough information to capture their imagination, get them invested, and compel them to ask for more.
It’s true in storytelling for screenplays and storytelling for marketers.
The Curiosity Gap
The Curiosity Gap, if you don’t know (and you should, and probably do because you’ve probably been motivated by it just today) is not a new thing.
Essentially, The Curiosity Gap happens when we sense a gap between “what we know” and “what we want to know.”
It’s part of that hard-wired storytelling gene we seem to have as humans, that literally fires off hormones in the brain that rewards us with warm fuzzies when we complete the story; and it’s become critical to marketing in recent years, as we’ve moved from “selling stuff” to “generating curiosity and trust.”
In fact, marketers have spent a lot of time discussing, experimenting with, and perfecting The Curiosity Gap… much to the dismay of many of us who frequent the interwebs amid a sea of click-bait advertisements.
This Wired article from 2010 gives a great primer on the psychology and history behind the phenomenon. It goes back to George Loewenstein’s work on what he called “The Information Gap” at Carnegie-Melon in the 1990s.
We associate The Curiosity Gap with click-bait headlines now… and there were even unfounded rumors of its death (clearly not the case, if you’ve looked at your Facebook feed lately.)
This Atlantic article from 2014 talked about how UpWorthy had essentially perfected The Curiosity Gap as click-bait content marketing, and that maybe it had run its course.
“…descriptive headlines — ones that tell you exactly what the content is — are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature “curiosity gap” headlines, which tease you by withholding details. (‘She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.’)”
So no, curiosity is not dead. Not at all.
It still works. It’s still legit. It’s a tool of the click-bait marketer, but it’s not merely a click-bait tactic.
It’s a storytelling tool.
And as long as the stakes are compelling enough, that’s what’s going to compel people to want to close the loop and learn more.
The Curiosity Gap leverages our inherent human desire for closure, completion, or “story.” If a piece of content starts the story — presents act one and act two — we’re unconsciously driven to complete the story; to provide “closure.”
What’s All This Mean For Screenwriters?
Events change people.
That’s what makes a story a plot.
If a logline was simply a “story” — a sequence of events in a row — the logline for Jaws would just be:
“A shark is killing people. Someone hunts the shark. Someone kills the shark.”
And Jaws is so much more than that.
A good logline goes beyond “beginning, middle, end” and builds a dramatic arc that explains how events change people… It tells us who the hero is and what she wants, what’s keeping her from getting what she wants, what she needs to do to overcome the challenge and get what she wants, and what’s at stake if she succeeds or fails.
It shows us how the events might change the person.
Don’t Just Provide Story; Provide A Plot.
Let’s look at Jaws and Ghostbusters again as loglines. See if you can identify the “character/goal/challenge/solution/result” in the structure, and see how the events bring change to the characters.
Q: “What’s Jaws about?”
A: “When a giant great white shark terrorizes a crowded island beach resort, the landlubber Sheriff has to overcome his fear of the water to stop the beast before it kills again.”
Q: “What’s Ghostbusters about?”
A: “When a doorway to the underworld is opened in Manhattan, a dysfunctional team of paranormal investigators must learn to work together to stop the otherworldly threat before pure evil is unleashed on mankind.”
What’s Missing? Spoilers.
All of these share one missing element: We don’t know if the hero succeeds or fails.
We’ve established the curiosity gap by withholding the resolution.
With luck, we’ve captured our reader’s imagination by providing a compelling hero with a human goal, setting dramatic obstacles in her way, laying out her plan to overcome the obstacles, and offering consequences — the stakes — for her success or failure.
All in a couple of incredibly challenging sentences that probably took weeks or months to perfect.
What’s All This Mean For Marketers?
Events change people.
Yep, I said that’s what it all means for screenwriters, and it’s what it all means for marketers too.
Remember earlier when we discovered that “what the hero’s goal is” and “what they’ll do to get it” are two different things? If you don’t understand that about your customers, you’re missing something critical.
Go Beyond Storytelling: Sell With Plot-driven Content
There’s a lot of talk about “storytelling” in marketing. But I think what we need is to embrace plot, and use it to explain how your solution is going to change the lives of your customer/hero.
Your customers aren’t just data. They’re real people, and believe it or not, they don’t want a thing for the sake of the thing.
They have an aspirational outcome in mind, and the thing is how they’re going to get there.
Maybe your target customer is someone who wants a new car, and you’ve determined that they’re looking for something reliable.
So your campaign might say something like:
“The new Zeno: Five year bumper-to-bumper warranty, and free maintenance.”
But why do they want “reliability?” How does “reliability” change their lives?
Maybe it means being able to handle a tougher commute, which means a better job, which means more income, which means the ability to help a child attend college.
Your customer may not be trying to solve for a “more reliable car.” They may be trying to solve for “college education for my kid.”
A new car means my kid earns a degree and has a better life and more opportunity than I did.
Understanding your customer’s goal, rather than the path they’ll take to attain it, will change the way you present your solution.
Your product or service should provide your customer with the solution that helps them overcome the challenges that stand between them and the things they truly desire.
5 Steps: Hero, goal, challenge, solution, result.
Using plot in marketing isn’t always necessarily about creating complex “literary narratives.” Even a short tripwire funnel, an automated drip email campaign, or a focused squeeze page with a big orange CTA can benefit from understanding plot-driven storytelling.
It’s really about embracing this simple, 5-step causal framework of plot-based storytelling to guide your audience along a structured path toward their underlying goals; leveraging the magic of story structure that our pattern-seeking brains impress on all the information we take in is the secret sauce to structured communication that transcends story and becomes plot.
First, Define These Things
- Character: Your customer is your hero. Know who they are, demographically and psychographically. (If you don’t know, stop what you’re doing until you do.) Since your readership is likely your “character” you don’t necessarily need to define them in your content; you've probably defined them in your targeting.
- Goal: What is your hero’s “aspirational outcome?” Avoid “they want the thing,” and try to identify and empathize with their more personal underlying goal; how will their life change for the better if they “get the thing?”
- Challenge: What’s keeping them from being able to achieve their goal? Steer clear of “money,” because competing on price is a race to the bottom where margins are slim and transactional costs multiply exponentially. Instead, get to know the more personal challenges that are interfering with your prospect’s success: Lack of confidence, fear of failure, no personal or professional support, or no clear understanding of the best first step.
- Solution: What solution are you offering? Think about how the unique features of your solution will help them solve for the “challenge,” so that they can achieve their personal goal.
- Result: What will the reader’s life or career be like after the solution? Help them visualize how it feels to achieve their goal and to see themselves in that new and better place.
Now, Apply Them To Your Content
In marketing content, unlike a logline, you may not need to integrate all five elements. But you should understand all five elements as they relate to your customer/hero.
Whether you’re crafting a landing page, a social posting, a drip-email campaign, or a Call To Action, think in “Story Order” — Character, Goal, Challenge, Solution, Result — relative to what you know about the desires of your target audience in that moment of decision.
Frame your solution in the context of how it can help your client overcome obstacles to achieving their aspirational goal.
Name CTAs in a way that creates a “curiosity gap,” and promises more information that might help them solve the problem that keeps them from achieving their aspirational goal.
Deliver content after the click that fulfills the promise of the click… provide, if not the “final solution,” a meaningful “plot-point” that causally moves them along the path toward a satisfying resolution.
Does That Come With A Happy Ending?
Movie plots often hinge on “fate worse than death” stakes… it’s a big part of dramatic storytelling, and that’s why so many of these logline formulas focus on “what happens if they fail.”
In marketing, we call that FOMO… “Fear Of Missing Out.” It’s what makes so much of marketing look manipulative and negative. “Don’t be a loser, buy this stuff.” “Don’t fail your family, buy this stuff.” “Don’t be the only one without stuff, buy this stuff.”
But I’m a believer in No Mo’ FOMO… I think the world has enough negativity and stress, especially on the interweb, and I personally focus on marketing that’s uplifting and aspirational… I like writing marketing that paints a picture of how my client’s solution will help make the customer’s life better.
That’s why, in my 5-step logline formula, my 5th step reads: What’s at stake if they succeed or fail? Sometimes our heroes can be driven by positive consequence alone.
And in marketing, rather than leveraging FOMO to paint a picture of what “failure to buy” will look like, we can focus on what our customer’s lives will look like when they achieve their goals.
Because everyone is the hero of their own story… and their happy ending lies in success, not failure.
A Short Form Example
Here’s an example of a Tweet from a campaign I refined for a client a few years ago.
While we don’t define the hero within this content, we understand who they are and what they desire before we write; we’ve built an “avatar” or “persona” and we target that persona through an advertising platform or SEO.
The client wanted to capture the attention of that targeted audience — people who needed training but avoided it because it’s hard to make time to study — and get them to click to a downloadable PDF of expert advice that would give them the time-management skills they need to study effectively.
“Struggling with #StudyHabits? Experts give advice on staying focused. [CLICK HERE]”
My first pass at refining it went like this:
“Studying is hard. Time is tight. Good #StudyHabits will help: [LEARN MORE]”
That’s a little better. This second version tells a little story… it acknowledges a problem (studying is hard,) explains the challenge that contributes to the problem (time is tight,) and ends with a solution (good study habits.)
But I also want to be sure it was clear that I was offering value, something actionable. So I added the word “These” to change the sentence from a generic statement of fact to a reference to a specific solution.
That makes the entire Tweet read like this:
“Studying is hard. Time is tight. These good #StudyHabits will help: [STUDY BETTER]”
We went from “Good study habits will help” to “These good study habits will help.”
Now we’re offering a solution behind the click — “These good study habits” — which may be an article, or a white paper, or a checklist.
I also could have ended on a statement, with a period after “These good #StudyHabits will help.”
But the colon indicates that the destination behind the link will complete the story, delivering some kind of relevant, valuable information about a set of good study habits, which by inference will address the challenge of limited time and ultimately make studying easier.
The colon is essentially shorthand for “and something relevant and valuable is behind this link.”
And of course, a CTA that demands an action (“CLICK HERE”) is less compelling than one that promises the next step, or a solution, or an outcome.
Is it perfect? No. Could I have gone further? Sure. But keeping those 5 critical steps in mind may just be the path to telling the story your customer needs to hear.
Your customer is your hero.
When you not only recognize the true core challenge your customer faces, but provide an empathetic, accessible solution to the challenge, and can provide a path to their desired result — their “aspirational outcome” — you’re doing more than just selling them a thing.
You’re helping them on their personal Hero’s Journey.
This article references an earlier blog post on my website, as well as excerpts from an upcoming book I’m working on (as yet untitled.)
WIRED: The Itch Of Curiosity
THE ATLANTIC: The Curiosity Gap Is Closing, Says Upworthy
CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART: I Wrote A 120 Page Script But Can’t Write A Logline
SCREENWRITING FROM IOWA: The Perfect Logline
INKTIP: Logline Cliches to Avoid
INKTIP: Logline Cliches to Avoid Part II
GOOGLE: How To Write A Logline