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Writing Loglines that Sell

By Jonathan Treisman

Have you ever been stuck listening to a friend tell you a joke that seems to go on without ever reaching the punch line? Your mind starts wandering and you stop paying attention as the joke painfully loses its momentum.

Pitching your ideas effectively, whether from a script, novel or even your own mind, does not come naturally for most of us. But with a little practice, it can. Once you learn what a "High Concept Idea" is and how to create exciting story "Loglines" for your work.


Recommended Logline Writing Resources

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Why do Writers Need to Learn How to Pitch?

In Hollywood, every movie starts out in the form of underlying material, such as a novel, a screenplay, a comic book or even a great idea. The next step is to convey your idea clearly and succinctly to those who are in a position to buy it. This is an essential tool for any writer working in Hollywood today.

We all know that Hollywood is not a meritocracy where only the best scripts, books or ideas get made into films. You have to learn how to pitch effectively to get your projects purchased in this very competitive marketplace.

What Hollywood Is Looking For?

Let's look at the types of films that the major Studios are buying these days.

Beyond some of the wonderful independent films that are being made within and outside of the Studio system, Hollywood primarily wants to acquire what they call, "High Concept Ideas". In layman's terms, we're talking about stories that put butts in the seats on a Saturday night.

Stories that are labeled as "High Concept" can certainly be subjective, but we're not necessarily talking about the crazy, Psycho Ninjas from Mars-type movies. My definition of "High Concept" simply refers to: Stories that all of us can relate to on some tangible and emotional level.

For example, we all want to fall in love; we all share a thirst for adventure; we all deal with difficult moral dilemmas; we all have similar family issues and we all like to watch people make fools out of themselves. That's an easy concept to relate to, because let's face it, we've all made fools out of ourselves at some point.

Creating Loglines For Your Work

"What's your screenplay about?" "Tell me a little bit about your novel?" We've all heard these questions before. But what is that person really asking you about your work?

What they're looking for, in Hollywood-speak, is what's called a "Logline." My definition of a logline is this: It's a one- or two-sentence description of the overall idea of the story. It's the main goal of the story that you want to convey to your audience.

Every year, agents, Studio Executives and Producers receive hundreds of scripts, books and query letters from writers wanting to submit their work, so they have to filter those down into only pursuing the projects that they think would make great films. The clear and concise logline you present to someone, is what will get them excited about reading your work.

For this article, I've put together a pitching exercise to get you thinking about how to describe your own work using simple loglines. We will look at five examples of well-known, memorable films and see if their loglines can give us the big idea of the movie.

Pretend for a moment that you're in your living room with your feet up getting ready to watch a movie. You open up your TV guide and you're deciding what to watch based on the description or logline of the film. Those TV magazines always do a nice job of breaking down a film into one or two sentences.

In this exercise, first I'll give you the logline, and then provide the answers at the end.

Logline #1 - The extraordinary story of a thoroughbred racehorse - from his humble beginnings as an under-fed workhorse to his unlikely rise and triumphant victory over the Triple Crown winner, War Admiral.

Logline #2 - A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship.

Are you getting the hang of it so far? Here's a few more:

Logline #3 - After segueing from a life of espionage to raising a family, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are called back into action. But when they are kidnapped by their evil nemesis, there are only two people in the world who can rescue them... their kids!

Logline #4 - Toula's family has exactly three traditional values - "Marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone." When she falls in love with a sweet, but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée, while she comes to terms with her own heritage.

Logline #5 - A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

Answers:

1. Seabiscuit
2. Pirates of the Caribbean
3. Spy Kids
4. My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding
5. Titanic

Make Your Logline Memorable

The main point to remember about this exercise is that you have to try to boil down your own high concept ideas into something that's easy for people to understand. If you can't relate to an agent, a publisher, a producer or even a studio executive what your story is about in one or two sentences, then it will be difficult to get them interested in reading your work, and more importantly, wanting to buy it.

Keep in mind however, that a good logline doesn't tell someone too much. It's always good to leave a little something to the imagination. In the case of Spy Kids, you want the person you're pitching, to ask you, "Hey, what does happen when the kids have to save their parents?" And that's when you can say, "Well, you'll have to read my screenplay to find out."

Additionally, when you're pitching your story logline, you don't want to sound like a snake-oil salesman by telling someone: "It's like Die Hard on a bus" or "It's like The Firm meets The Fugitive." What does that even mean? However, if you told me that your script was about "A man who is bitten by a genetically-altered spider, and soon discovers that he has unusual powers and the strength and agility of a spider." Well, I'd say, that's definitely a movie I'd want to see.

Some may ask, why is the Spiderman logline a high-concept idea? It's high concept because, while we all can't relate to what it would be like to be Spiderman, the film has many high-concept themes that we can all relate to such as: unrequited love, parental approval and of course, wish fulfillment as a superhero.

Let Your Passion Rule Your Writing

As you work on your own projects, it's important to remember that as a screenwriter or a novelist, you should always write what you are passionate about. Do not let people try to pigeonhole your writing and likewise, do not attempt to get into the mindset of writing only what you think may sell as a film. That's like asking Picasso to use a little more green in his paintings so that they'll match your couch. You simply cannot infringe on someone's creativity!

Take Your Pitching to the Next Level

Oftentimes the best films and the ones that consistently win Academy Awards each year, come from the most interesting, emotional and historical backgrounds. But you must still be able to convey the high concept or main idea of these stories effectively to whomever you're pitching.

Now that you understand how loglines work and what an important tool they can be, let's take your pitching skills to the next level.

It's great when writers tell me that their story is too complex to boil down into one or two simple sentences. Here are a five more examples of loglines from great, Academy Award nominated films, that may help you pitch your ideas that you feel are a little more complicated and multi-layered.

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Logline #1 - When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek his revenge.

Logline #2 - An older man is forced to deal with an ambiguous future after he enters retirement and his wife passes away. Ultimately, he finds hope as he comes to terms with his daughter's marriage and his own life.

Logline #3 - A comedic portrayal of a young and broke Shakespeare who falls in love with a woman, inspiring him to write "Romeo and Juliet."

Can you see how even these multi-layered stories, whether they are dramas or historical films, can be broken down into simple loglines that are easy to pitch?

Here are just a couple more:

Logline #4 - A journey of self-discovery by a brilliant mathematician once he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He eventually triumphs over tragedy and receives the Nobel Prize.

Logline #5 - An Epic tale of a 1940s New York Mafia family and their struggle to protect their empire, as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son.

Answers:

1. Gladiator
2. About Schmidt
3. Shakespeare in Love
4. A Beautiful Mind
5. The Godfather

In conclusion, developing the ability to create powerful loglines for your work is an invaluable skill that all writers should have in their toolkit! As you learn how to pitch your ideas effectively, you will be one step ahead of your peers and on your way to having your material read faster by those who are in the position to buy it.

Meet the Author: Jonathan Treisman