Logline Lessons from the Movies

In The Novel Project, Graeme Simsion, who started out writing screenplays, recommends authors look to the movies for inspiration in summarizing their books.

While a tagline is a sort of punchline or pithy statement which can be used at the end of an advertisement, like on the back of a book or in a Smashwords or Amazon description, loglines are defined as “a very short summary of a script or screenplay”, and were originally designed more for busy Hollywood executives a writer might be pitching to than the final audience.

With the advent of streaming services and increased use of platforms like IMDB and JustWatch, however, one-line summaries which encapsulate a story’s central conflict, summarizing the plot and providing an emotional “hook” are becoming more visible to movie lovers.

So, why would an indie author want a logline?

Stick with it

Back when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I read a piece of advice that literally stuck with me: write the key things you are trying to investigate (no more than three) on a post-it note, and stick it on the wall above your desk.

Writing a thesis is a huge undertaking, one which, for me, involved reading hundreds of books, interviewing dozens of people, and writing over 100,000 words (which I then had to cull!) In such a multi-year project, it is easy to veer off course, to get interested in some topic which ultimately, won’t make the cut, and which will waste your precious time.

Novelists aren’t immune to such rabbit holes either. In fact, they have a special name – plot bunnies.

Even if you never show it to another living soul, a single line written on a post-it can keep your writing on track.

So, following Simsion’s suggestion, I decided to take a look at some loglines on IMDB – specifically, the 10 highest-rated movies, and the 10 lowest-rated movies.

The Good…

The ten highest-rated movies (as of June 2022) had average audience scores of 8.8 (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to 9.2 (The Shawshank Redemption). The Godfather I and II were both in the top 10, as were both Lord of The Rings Fellowship and Return. The Dark Knight, at the #3 position, is part of the Batman franchise.

Somewhat surprisingly, eight of the top 10 movies were based on novels or comics. One was based on a television series, and only one (Pulp Fiction) was an original screenplay. This suggests to me that authors can certainly apply lessons from movie loglines to their own plots – because 80% of the plots of top movies were originally the plots of books!

Character First

Most (7/10) of the loglines began with a description + person (usually generic) e.g. “Two imprisoned men” (The Shawshank Redemption) or “The aging patriarch” (The Godfather).

Only in three loglines was this pattern broken, all of which were sequels. In the loglines for The Dark Knight, The Godfather Part II, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, it is assumed that the audience already knows who Batman and the Joker, Vito Corleone, and Gandalf and Aragorn are.

RULE #1: Use a generic description rather than your character’s name, unless readers will already be familiar with them. Even if your logline is only for your own personal reference, it’s a good exercise to write a short description of your protagonist.

Action Focus

All of the top 10 loglines, except for the avant-garde Pulp Fiction (which consists of four tales) involve verbs that sum up the action of the plot: transferring control, wreaking havoc, fighting injustice, jumping to a verdict, witnessing persecution.

RULE #2: Sum up the main action of your plot.

New York, New York

Six of the top ten mentioned the film’s setting. Two referred to fictitious locations – Gotham and Middle Earth – while three of the four real-life places mentioned were all New York. (And of course, Gotham is loosely based on New York…) As the authors of the Bestseller Code note, many mega-hit novels are set in New York (though a New York setting alone is not sufficient to make your book a bestseller!) The only other real-life place mentioned was German-Occupied Poland (Schindler’s List).

RULE #3: Unless your novel’s setting is important (or it happens to be New York!) don’t waste space mentioning it.

Optional Extras

Although six loglines mentioned secondary characters, usually a nemesis or sidekick, only four were named.

RULE #4: Other characters are optional, depending on your genre (note that most of the films in the top 10 are, broadly speaking, action movies).

The Bad…

The ten lowest-ranked movies had average audience scores of 1.3 (Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas) to 2.5 (Battlefield Earth).

While the top ten was dominated by action movies, the bottom ten was mainly populated by comedy sequels, religious propaganda, and cheap horror. (And we must remember that some cheap horror films are deliberately bad). Somewhat surprisingly though, only three of the bottom ten movies were low budget films, with the majority having budgets in the tens of millions.

Both the aptly titled Disaster Movie and the previous installation in the series Epic Movie are parodies panned by audiences and critics alike for their forced crass humor and pop references. Both had budgets of $20 million, as did Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, the sequel to the almost equally reviled Baby Geniuses. The sequel to The Mask, Son of the Mask had the largest budget of them all (approx. $100 million). Meanwhile, romantic comedy The Hottie and the Nottie made up for its relatively small budget of $9 million with the star power of Paris Hilton.

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (yes, that is the title) is also described as a comedy, but is perhaps best known as a religious film which received terrible reviews after Cameron urged audiences to respond to the critics who had panned his work. In spite of the low score which may have been manipulated by angry masses who didn’t even watch the film, and the poor reviews from even some Christian news outlets, the movie was a commercial success, making $2.8 million at the box office on a budget of just $500,000.

Battlefield Earth is also bit of a rule-breaker in the set, being an action film which is, unlike the other bottom 10 movies, based on a book. However, the book this big-budget ($78 million) film was based on was written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The movie stars prominent Scientologists, and has been described by commentators as both a way for Scientology to insinuate itself into mainstream culture, and as a “recruitment tactic” for the church.

On the other hand (pun intended), Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Birddemic: Shock and Terror are ultra-low budget (<$20,000) horror films, so low in fact, they have been called “no budget” movies. House of the Dead, while not low-budget, is based on the Sega video game franchise, and received similarly poor reviews.

It’s a log line, not a log paragraph

One of the most noticeable differences between the loglines for the top and bottom 10 is that while none of the top ten exceeded a single sentence, four of the bottom ten did. Additionally, while all of the top ten took up two lines when pasted into a standard A4 document with size 12 font, three of the bottom ten were three lines long, and one was just a single line. In fact, while the top ten ranged between 19 to 33 words (27.2 words average), the range was much larger for the bottom ten (22-40, with an average of 30.7 words).

Even if you intend your logline for your eyes only, it is still beneficial to have one that really can be read at a glance.

RULE #5: Stick to one sentence

Get the balance right

In contrast with the top 10 movie loglines, which almost always used the adjective + noun format “A meek Hobbit” or “Two mob hitmen” to generically introduce characters, the loglines for the bottom 10 were either completely lacking description (“A family”, “Two citizens”, or my personal favourite, the romantic leads in The Hottie and the Nottie are introduced as “A woman” and “a man”) or had too much description which added too little (“an unsuspecting group of twenty-somethings”, or in the case of Kirk Cameron’s self-titled film, we learn more about his brother-in-law’s character than the titular character’s “His annual Christmas party faltering thanks to his cynical brother-in-law, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron attempts to save the day…”). In Battlefield Earth, we are not introduced to any specific characters, just the “alien race” Psycholos and, Humanity, and the description for Epic Movie is just a list of the movies it’s spoofing.

RULE #6: Choose a single descriptor for your main character

Give your characters agency

Perhaps the most prevalent feature of the bottom 10 films’ loglines was the extent to which characters seemed to have things happen to them, as opposed to doing things. While there was a rich variety of action-oriented verbs in the loglines of the top 10, three of the bottom 10 described their characters “finding themselves” in various predicaments. Just as Kirk Cameron highlights his cynical brother-in-law first and foremost, Birdemic describes the birds descending upon the town before introducing the characters, who are only described as “citizens”, House of the Dead describes an island being taken over by bloodthirsty zombies, with no indication of the group of college students being in danger, fighting back, or trying to escape. And similarly, in Manos, the family “gets lost” and “stumbles upon” a hidden cult. Such bumbling may be fairly typical horror movie fare, but again, there is no indication that they are in danger, need to fight back, or must escape.

RULE #7: Have your characters decide and do things

Evoke emotions

Although the top 10 loglines were full of evocative phrasing and even named emotions – “reluctant”, “frustrated”, “concerned”, “uneasy”, all of which evoke tension, aside from Kirk Cameron’s “cynical” brother-in-law, such language is starkly absent from the bottom 10. And even in this example, we have little sense of interpersonal issues brewing between Cameron and his brother-in-law. Rather, his cynicism is only important because it is in relation to Christmas, and it gives Cameron the opportunity “to save the day by showing him that Jesus Christ remains a crucial component of the over-commercialized holiday.” Were his brother-in-law cynical about a less religiously-charged topic, it is unlikely that Cameron’s character would have cared. In any case, we only learn about how the secondary character feels: the titular protagonist’s emotions are once again absent.

RULE #8: Have your characters feel things, and make your reader feel things too

Proofread!

If you’re planning on sharing your logline with others, make sure it’s tidy. Professionalism goes a long way. While none of the top 10 loglines had grammatical or punctuation errors, two of the bottom 10 did (notably, both were low-budget/propaganda films).

RULE #9: Check your grammar and punctuation

While a “good” or “bad” logline does not necessarily make a “good” or “bad” film, or vice-versa, it is reasonable to assume that these things will be correlated to some degree.

Now, it is certainly the case that the loglines publicly available on IMDB may be quite different to those originally used to pitch these movies. For some, the loglines on IMDB may not even have been written by anyone connected to the production of the film. However, I think it is safe to make a couple of assumptions about the top-rated movies: these jewels in a studio’s crown are likely to have their pages meticulously maintained by those who own the properties, and hence, the loglines may be considered more or less “official” descriptions of these films (and certainly, the higher quality of proofreading and high consistency of style suggests this to be true), and movies which are well-rated are likely to have a clear plot, protagonists, and setting, which anyone could assemble into a description which would mimic those written by the pros, and approximate the sort of pitch that might be made to an executive.

Conversely, bottom-ranked movies may be more likely to be abandoned by their studios, and to have confusing or ill-defined storylines, characters, and locales that others may struggle to summarise. Still, big-budget flops are likely to have an official description produced by their studios. And low-budget movies are likely to be passion projects pursued by their creators with self-written loglines.

And this is where we can make one more important comparison: between big-budget and small-budget unsuccessful movies.

Stay tuned for my next post, where we’ll uncover even more lessons from the movies!

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