The Killer Tool That Can Help You Sell Your Book
Let’s say you and I get onto an elevator together and I ask what your book is about. You could do one of two things.
You could start from the beginning and try to pitch me your entire 300-page novel in the brief elevator ride. If you take this approach, you’ll probably be eyeing the emergency stop button as the elevator gets closer and closer to my floor while you haven’t even gotten to the story’s hook yet. But, alas, you’re too late. We arrive at my floor and I get off rolling my eyes and wondering why I asked.
Or, instead of trying to pitch your entire book in such a short time, you could give me one sentence that summarizes your story’s hook and key elements. In the time that it takes to ride an elevator, you’ve hopefully tickled my fancy enough for me to give you my e-mail address and say, “I’ve gotta run now, but tell me more about this!”
That one-sentence pitch you gave me is called a logline. It’s a tool that originated in Hollywood and is used by screenwriters to pitch their screenplays to movie producers. Basically, it’s a one-sentence summary of a story.
Loglines aren’t exclusively for screenwriters, though. Every storyteller should be able to say in one sentence what his or her story is about. And so, let’s take a crash course in the art of crafting a great logline for your book.
Why Do I Need a Logline?
You might still be wondering why you need to be able to write a logline. Well, a logline is a way for you to do a few things:
- You’ll be able to pitch your book quickly and compellingly. No more fumbling for words when somebody asks you what your story is about!
- You’ll have a guide to make sure your story is on the right track. Handy for shaping the next revision, whether it’s draft 2 or draft 17.
- You’ll even be able to solve story issues before they start if you write a logline before you get too far into the writing process. Solve your story issues in draft 1 and save yourself some trouble later.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? A logline is a very valuable tool, and you can get off and running with these little gems by simply continuing to read this article.
What I’m going to do is show you a couple of logline templates and then go over what I consider to be the fundamental logline rules. That should be enough to get you off and running.
The First Logline Template
If you were to write a logline with placeholders for each of the story elements, the most basic logline might look something like this:
Logline Template 1
An adjective protagonist must do something that will set up a climactic encounter with an adjective antagonist/antagonistic force.
Some loglines are a bit more complicated than that, and we’ll get there in a minute, but let’s break this one down for now.
Every logline should contain four things:
- A protagonist
- The situation
- The protagonist’s goal
- An antagonist
(In case you were sleeping during vocabulary class, the protagonist is your main character, and the antagonist is the person or force that opposes him.)
Those are the most basic elements of every story, and you’ll see all of those in every good story (and most halfway-decent ones) you come across. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s blatant, but those elements are always there. If you’re missing one… Well, you don’t have a story yet. But that’s where a logline can help you diagnose problems.
Let’s move on to the fundamental rules for building a logline.
The Four Fundamental Logline Rules
As I’ve helped people write loglines, I’ve run into some common errors. So you can avoid the usual mistakes, I’ve put together four fundamental logline rules for you to follow.
Fundamental Logline Rule #1: Always tell us about your main characters in a simple adjective-noun pair.
It’s really easy to do this part. Take your protagonist and come up with a noun for him, like one of these:
Then brainstorm some adjectives that describe him, like this:
Put those together and you get your adjective-noun pair, like this:
- Happy-go-lucky policeman
- Ginormous teenager
- Crafty chef
You can do the same thing for the antagonist or antagonistic force. Show us who he is and why he’s bad in that little pair. And yes, you should probably stay away from clichés like “world-dominating overlord.”
By the way, in case you’re wondering, an antagonistic force is a non-personal source of antagonism. In stories where you don’t have a person playing the role of the villain, something else takes his place. It could be a force of nature or some other life problem, such as going into debt or the threat of starvation.
The second rule goes with the protagonist and antagonist, so let’s cover that now.
Fundamental Logline Rule #2: Don’t name names.
We’re interested in the essence of your story, not the names of your characters. Your character’s name doesn’t tell us anything about him, so don’t use it. Same with made-up cities, countries, etc.
There’s one exception to this, and that’s actual historical figures or people from existing works of fiction. Ulysses S. Grant, Robin Hood, the Wizard of Oz. If you’re writing a logline for Wicked, you definitely need to mention the Wicked Witch of the West.
Fundamental Logline Rule #3: Keep it simple.
This means that we’re looking for the very core of the story, so anything not important to the main thread of your story should be saved for your summary, where you have more room to flesh things out. Subplots and extraneous phrasing must all be chopped out without mercy.
A quick word on extraneous phrases. There are many sorts of these things, so I’ll give a couple of examples just to get your wheels turning in the right direction.
First, I once told someone that the phrase “sets off in the dark of night” was too pretty for a logline. Why? We’re trying to get the essence here. You can use those pretty phrases in the back copy. For now, just tell us the main event.
Second, there are phrases like “in order to” and “so that he can” that can easily be trimmed down to “to” and “so he can,” respectively. Break out those scissors and cut those large phrases down to size.
Fundamental Logline Rule #4: Show us the conflict.
Notice our logline structure: Something is opposing our protagonist. This is conflict.
If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have story. Every good logline shows compelling conflict, whether internal or external. Get it in there.
And there you have the four fundamental logline rules. Now, let’s look at that second logline template I promised you.
The Second Logline Template
Sometimes, your story needs some setup to logline nicely. When you have a story like that, you might need a slightly different version of the logline template. Something more like this:
Logline Template 2
After something happens to set things up, an adjective protagonist must do something that will set up a climactic encounter with an adjective antagonist/antagonistic force.
I call that opening part “the setup clause.” Basically, you include a phrase that will set up the rest of the logline with some key information. I’ll give you an example in just a minute.
You’re pretty much all set to write your own logline! But first, because it often helps to see things in practice, here are example loglines I’ve written for two movies that you might have seen.
National Treasure: A daring treasure hunter’s next clue is on the back of the Declaration of Independence, which he must steal to keep it safe from a ruthless rival.
This one uses Logline Template 1. We have a protagonist (a daring treasure hunter), who must do something (steal the Declaration of Independence), which sets up a climactic encounter with an antagonist (he’ll have to meet and overcome the ruthless rival before the movie ends).
Bolt: After he is mistakenly shipped to New York, a TV-star dog who thinks he’s a superhero must survive the real world to get back to his owner in Hollywood.
This one uses Logline Template 2. We have a setup clause (after he is mistakenly shipped to New York), a protagonist (a TV-star dog), who must do something (survive the real world), which sets up a climactic encounter with an antagonist (the real world is the antagonist, which must be survived to get to the climax of a reunion with his owner).
The logline templates are very loose and flexible. I really hope you don’t try to write a logline that fits one of them exactly, because these are not formulas to be followed strictly. Instead, flex the templates and use them as a reminder of the components of a logline. The goal here is for you to understand what you need to tell your reader enough about your story for that person to get the idea. Once you have those elements down, you can play with the format all you like. Don’t let the tools be your master; master the tools.
Try It Yourself!
In case you need a boost to get started in logline craft, here are a couple of exercises:
- Pick a book or movie that you really like. Write a logline for it using the templates from this chapter.
- Now that you have a basic idea of logline structure, take a story you’re working on and write a logline for it.