OMG, we only have a WEEK before we have to start writing our script! And most of you still haven’t come up with an idea that’s even close to being script-worthy. So today’s post is dedicated to supercharging your concept and coming up with a great logline.
The biggest problem I seem to be running into is writers who think splashy movie-friendly elements on their own equal a good idea. So by merely saying, “Five aliens arrive on earth and search for a vampire who they believe possesses the key to saving their planet,” that they’ve come up with a good idea. And why not? Hollywood loves aliens. They love vampires. Do you really need anything else?
Well, yes. Coming up with buzzwords (aliens, zombies, sharks, time-travel) isn’t difficult. Nor is placing two of them in the same sentence. I’m pretty sure all you have to know is how to type to pull that off. A good concept consists of manipulating elements into a storyline that sounds intriguing. “A professor who moonlights as an archaeologist must beat a determined Hitler to one of the most elusive and mysterious artifacts in history, the powerful Ark of the Covenant.”
The second biggest mistake is loglines that have way too much going on in them. The number of elements is endless, and the point of the movie seems to change several times during the logline. “A young wannabe ninja joins “Hitman Incorporated,” a school that teaches young men and women how to be hit men, but when he gets his first assignment, it ends up being a circus performer who used to be his best friend, so he will have to seduce the performer’s boss, who also happens to be the Hairy Woman, to help him pull off a fake hit, which ends up saving the circus in the process.” The scariest thing about this logline is that everyone is thinking how ridiculous it is, and yet at least 60% of you have sent me a logline similar to it. Loglines need to be simple. Loglines need to be focused. This is neither.
The third biggest mistake is, strangely, the opposite of the second. The logline is too simplistic and has NO HOOK, so it ends up reading like a bland TV episode. “When new evidence emerges in the death of an NYPD cop, his son plots revenge on the gangsters responsible, against the wishes of his fiancée and his father’s ex-partner.” Cops, revenge, gangsters? Gee, I haven’t seen that before. Where is the hook? Where’s the “strange attractor?”
The biggest violator of this tends to come from road trip ideas for whatever reason. I get a lot of stuff like, “A young man, still recovering from his mother’s death, takes a cross-country trip with his brother to heal.” Uhhhhhh, I’d volunteer to join that mother in her coffin before reading this script. Come on, guys. There isn’t a single original element or hook in this concept!
Remember, movies have to be bigger than life. There’s got to be something unique there, either in the concept itself or in the execution of the concept. For example, let’s rework the road trip logline. “A young man, grieving from his alcoholic mother’s death, must pick up his troubled sister from an addiction program and drive her cross-country to the funeral.” Conceptually, it’s no Jurassic Park. But now we can see a bit of a movie here, right? Obviously, the younger sister suffers from the same issues the mom had, so this trip becomes about saving the sister before she ends up like her mom. There’s more MEAT there to work with.
Next up are re-dos of past movies. While I kind of understand how this mistake can be made (writers are told to come up with ideas that are “familiar but different”), I’d advise against ideas that sound, in any way, similar to past movies, or similar to past movie types. It’s always better to be more unique than more similar. Let me explain that in more detail. Let’s say you come up with an idea about a shark that terrorizes a small Italian town. You’ve just written Jaws in Italy. Is that unique enough? No. Or I’ll get stuff like, “A group of space explorers crash-lands on an icy planet where a local alien species starts hunting them.” Come on! That’s Alien or The Thing.
You also want to steer clear of common movie TYPES unless you’ve found a fresh element to add. For example, do you really want to write another “group of people stuck in a log cabin with zombies movie?” Even if you tweak something here or there (maybe the occupants are trained hunters!), it still feels similar enough that people are going to go, “Eh, I’ve seen that before.”
Okay, so now that we’ve established what you SHOULDN’T be doing, let’s focus on what you should. Here’s a quick cheat sheet for your next logline.
1) An idea that feels simple and easy-to-grasp.
2) Some sort of unique element must be involved.
3) The story must feel big and important.
1) An idea that feels simple and easy-to-grasp – So many of the loglines I’ve received are agonizingly complex. Guys, you need to find that simple idea that people are able to grasp immediately. Here’s a recent Black List entry: “An underwater earthquake decimates a research crew at the bottom of the ocean, leaving two survivors with limited resources to ascend 35,000 feet before their life support runs out.” We all know what that movie is about at the snap of a finger.
2) Some sort of unique element – “Unique” is subjective, which is where this tip runs into trouble. What’s unique to you may not be unique to me. But the idea is, as an aspiring screenwriter in this business, you watch every movie and keep tabs on every script that sells so that you know, better than the average schmuck, when you’re introducing a truly unique element into the mix. That element can be the main idea – bringing dinosaurs back to life in modern society. Or it can be the way the idea is executed. Memento is a whodunnit detective caper. We’ve seen that a million times. But it’s executed in reverse. That’s a unique element.
3) The story must feel big and important – I’m not saying you can’t write that lesbian coming-of-age movie. What am I saying is that you better know someone with a million bucks in their bank account because that’s the only way that script is getting made. If you barely have enough money to pay your rent each month like the rest of us, think bigger. Think larger than everyday life. The absolute lowest level of “big” is a dead body. You can tell a small town tale if there’s a dead body involved. But I’d think bigger. I’d think high stakes. Give me the kind of thing I can’t get anywhere else but in the movies.
Okay, with that in mind, here are five common loglines that always seem to do well. If you’re writing one of these guys, you’re in good shape.
1) The mega-hook – Think Steven Spielberg for the mega-hook (or, the lower rent versions, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich). The kind of idea that feels like a Friday night crowd-pleaser. Give me your Nazi-fighting archeologists, your modern-day dinosaurs, your Roboapocalypses, your Ready Player Ones, even your children befriending aliens.
2) The unique horror hook – Give us a unique setting or a unique setup for your horror film and these specs sell like hotcakes because the budgets are so low. “A woman revisiting the old orphanage she grew up in loses her child, and begins to suspect that he may have been taken by the souls of the children still living there.” (The Orphanage).
3) Larger than life real-world people – We all know that biopics are hot, but even when they inevitably calm down, larger than life figures will always be intriguing to the movie-going public. Think Wolf of Wall Street. Somebody who either has a lot of personality, a lot of character, or who has a lot of shit going on. Also big right now are REAL LIFE EVENTS. How the big crash went down (“The Big Short”) or how an astronaut drove halfway across the country in diapers to kill her boyfriend’s wife (the upcoming “Pale Blue Dot”).
4) Overtly zany dark comedies – The Black List has ensured that these scripts will always be celebrated, will always be seen as cool by the reader crowd, and therefore are always solid picks from a conceptual standpoint. But you have to be weird to pull them off. Living inside John Malkovich’s head. A puppet serial killer. A therapist who manipulates his patients to commit suicide. Weird, twisted, and funny is the key to doing these well.
5) A well executed ironic logline – Guys, this is the EASIEST way to make your logline stand out from the rest. Place your main character in an ironic situation and you have invented logline nirvana. Look, I’ll just come up with one off the top of my head: “The world’s greatest shark hunter finds his boat slowly sinking inside the most shark-infested waters in the ocean.” The un-ironic version of this would be, “An opera singer finds his boat slowly sinking inside the most shark-infested waters in the ocean.” Reads a bit different, no? Yet I see SO MANY SIMILAR UN-IRONIC loglines that would’ve been so much better had the writer used irony.
HOW TO ACTUALLY WRITE THE LOGLINE
Okay, now that you’ve got your idea, you have to write your actual logline. And this is where everyone freaks out. But I’ll save you some anxiety. If you can’t come up with a well-written logline, chances are you don’t have your idea yet. In other words, it means you have to go back to the drawing board. A good idea should be easy to convey. Because all good ideas are. Think about it. When was the last time a good movie idea took 20 minutes to explain?
So I’m going to give you two basic tips to help you turn your golden idea into a golden logline…
1) KEEP IT FUCKING SIMPLE – The more words you add to your logline, the bigger the hole you’re digging for yourself. A logline is like a mini-script, where all the fat needs to be cut out. Only tell us what we need to know. And what we need to know is the main character, the hook, and what’s in his way (the major source of conflict). Mileage may vary with unconventional ideas (Pulp Fiction, for example), but that’s where you start.
2) KEEP IT FUCKING PERSONAL – I prefer loglines that center around the main character. We’re human beings. So we identify with other human beings. The more impersonal your logline is (if it focuses on things as opposed to people), the less connected I am to it. So yes, that submarine logline I included above, while solid, doesn’t meet this criteria. To this end, find that preceding adjective or descriptive phrase that sells the emotion of the hero. For example, with E.T., I could start my logline, “A boy befriends an alien…” or I could say, “A lonely boy befriends an alien…” You see the difference? We feel more of an emotional connection to a lonely boy than we do to a generic boy.
With all of this in mind, here are few loglines to inspire you:
When a refined man of science is recruited to investigate a recent spat of killings in the recovering town of Salem, he must fend off growing resistance from the intensely religious locals.
When the president of the United States and his immediate chain-of-command are killed in a terrorist attack, the cabinet’s weakest member is vaulted into the highest office in the world to take his place.
When his survivalist father is sent to prison, a militant teenager raised in seclusion must enter society for the first time, where his father instructs him to plot an attack against the government.
A woman being kept in an underground shelter by men claiming the outside world is infected, must figure out a way to escape when she discovers evidence that the men may be lying.