By Eva L. Weiss
What is the first hurdle confronted by scriptwriters with stars in their eyes?
If their dream is to convince a Hollywood movie producer to make a film out of the story they imagined, the first step forward is to write what is known as a logline: that is, a one-sentence description that conveys the essence of the film. At the turn of the 20th century, that line would have been handwritten into the producer’s thick book, or log. The log, often filled to overflowing, would contain loglines painstakingly crafted by competing scriptwriters. Each one of those sentences, or loglines, was written to entice the producer to read the entire script — and convince him (it was always him) to make the fateful decision to invest the small fortune needed to transform that script into a feature film.
Contemporary film culture in the United States, and for that matter, in many parts of the world, has its roots in those loglines conceived in the early days of Hollywood. Unlocking the magic of a compelling logline reveals the universal power of a story well-told—then and now.
Would you be beguiled by, say, the logline for Rear Window (1954)? A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. The logline distills the plot, presents the protagonist, and hints at the obstacles faced by the protagonist and what might go wrong. A good logline fuels the imagination of the reader, but does not necessarily give away the entire story, or even reveal the ending.
Fuels the Imagination
After the film is made, it is often given a tagline. While loglines were traditionally written to sell movie scripts to producers, taglines are written to “brand” the film for the audience just before its release. A tagline is not obligated to relate to the plot (although it may), and it can give more attention to the audience’s experience of the film and contain intriguing turns of phrase, and sometimes puns. The memorable tagline for Finding Nemo (2003) was: There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They’re looking for one.”
It could be argued that the logline for 1987 film Blind Date (fewer than ten words) might better fit the category of a tagline: “She’s the perfect woman—until she’s had a drink.”
Filmmaker and teacher Timothy Cooper in Seven Crucial Logline Mistakes and How to Fix Them, points out varied ways in which a logline can fail. This sentence could have been the logline for the thriller In the Line of Fire (1999): A Secret Service agent must risk everything to save the U.S. president he’s sworn to protect. Why does that fall flat? Because it states the obvious. Secret Service agent is a rather cardboard description of the protagonist. (loglines need adjectives.) And of course, it is the job of the Secret Service to protect the president. The logline provides no hint of out-of-the-ordinary peril, a major conflict, or a surprising juxtaposition.
But what if the logline were: The secret Service agent who couldn’t save John F. Kennedy is determined not to let a clever assassin take out this president. That gives us a man with a mission, dramatic irony, and heart-pounding suspense, all restored to that single sentence.
The Soul of the Story
In order to revise a logline, an editor must understand—and slyly convey—the soul of the story. That was the premise for inviting editing students to revise one possible logline for The Graduate, the iconic 1967 film nominated for seven Oscar awards. That American film, deeply admired by many, though reviled by some, tells a story that has become inseparable from its music. And today, more than fifty years after its making, the movie is still being deciphered by culture critics for the way in which it represents, or possibly betrays, the ethos of its era.
Here is the bland logline for The Graduate that students were invited to revise as a class assignment: A college graduate, home for the summer, has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, then falls in love with her daughter.
The deficits are obvious: Where is the hook and the promise? Where are those adjectives? And does it even fit into a standard formula for a logline: When [INCITING INCIDENT] happens, [OUR PROTAGONIST] decides [TO DO ACTION] against [ANTAGONIST].
Of course, the original purpose of the logline was to tell the story of a film before it would be made. As noted, its entire purpose was to convince a producer it was worthy of the investment. But there is also value in crafting a logline that describes the film from a retroactive point of view. It is not just a matter of clueing in a new generation of Netflix viewers, but it is an opportunity to present a discerning summary from a twenty-first century perch.
Two sturdy revisions by students brought life to The Graduate’s logline and gave expression to its core story:
A naive and aimless college graduate is seduced by a powerful woman, and confronts the consequences when he falls in love with her daughter.
One question: Is Mrs. Robinson powerful? Or would she better be described as restless, or even dissolute? I believe the student originally chose the word manipulative, and then back-walked it because it may have seemed too judgmental.
The second revision is lighter (though note that adjectives are mostly missing):
A college graduate and the wife of his father’s business partner enjoy a wild affair – until he falls in love with her daughter.
Below, a third student’s assignment revealed a personal interpretation of the story. Is the purpose of the affair indeed an effort to “get ahead in life”? I am not sure. This logline was two sentences rather than one and that is acceptable, but one of the rules of a logline was overlooked by disclosing the ending. Perhaps an allusion could have been made to the fairy tale conclusion, without the spoiler?
A naïve college graduate, home for the summer, tries to get ahead in life by having an affair with the bored wife of his father’s business partner, and then complicates matters by falling in love with their daughter. This ends in typical fairytale-like fashion as the two run off together and marry, as tensions run amuck with the in-laws.
The challenge of revising a logline is the essence of an editor’s work. One must dig in and gain insight into the heart of the story. That is the secret of enabling authors to tell their stories—and sell them. And the best way to gain mastery of a story is to distill it into just one or two sentences.