Writing

Screenwriting Tips: How to Write a Logline

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 6 min read

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A great logline can sell someone in Hollywood on your movie idea and make them want to read your script, while a bad logline can turn away potential script readers and make even the most intriguing premise sound boring. Here’s what you need to know about crafting the perfect logline.

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What Is a Logline?

A logline is a one-sentence summary or description of a movie. Loglines distill the important elements of your screenplay—main character, setup, central conflict, antagonist—into a clear, concise teaser. The goal is to write a logline so enticing that it hooks the listener into reading the entire script.

4 Primary Parts of a Logline

While there is room for creativity in writing a logline, a good logline will always have the following four elements:

[protagonist] + [inciting incident] + [protagonist’s goal] + [central conflict]

It is not necessary that your logline read in this exact order. For instance, you can describe the central conflict before you list your protagonist’s goal, or slot your inciting incident near the end of your logline. However you decide to structure your logline, these four components should be clearly defined.

How Many Words In a Standard Logline?

Common industry practice dictates that loglines are only one sentence long. Some screenwriting gurus even cap loglines at 30 words. That said, an effective logline can be as long as a couple sentences, especially if it’s a complicated film.

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What Is the Difference Between a Logline and a Tagline?

While loglines and taglines are both designed to pique the reader’s interest in a movie, they have different structures and serve two different purposes. A logline is short description of a movie’s premise, used to attract producers or agents to a script. A tagline, meanwhile, is a witty slogan or dramatic statement, used to advertise a finished film to moviegoers. In other words, loglines are descriptive, while taglines are provocative.

To illustrate the difference between a logline and a tagline, consider examples of each for Back to the Future:

  • Logline: “A young man is transported to the past, where he must reunite his parents before he and his future cease to exist.”
  • Tagline: 17-year-old Marty McFly got home early last night—30 years early.

4 Examples of Loglines From Famous Films

The best way to learn how to write a great logline is to get familiar with the loglines of successful films. These logline examples pit strong characters against even stronger antagonists for a compelling one-sentence read.

  1. Little Miss Sunshine: When a wannabe child beauty queen learns that a spot has opened up in the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant, she convinces her dysfunctional family to make the cross-country trek, despite her father’s (and society’s) protestations that she may not have what it takes to win.
  2. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope: When an optimistic farm boy discovers that he has powers, he teams up with other rebel fighters to liberate the galaxy from the sinister forces of the Empire.
  3. Titanic: Two star-crossed lovers fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. Finding Nemo: When his son is swept out to sea, an anxious clownfish embarks on a perilous journey across a treacherous ocean to bring him back.

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3 Tips for Writing the Perfect Logline

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Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting in 35 exclusive video lessons.

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Writing a great logline is a craft in and of itself. Take time to practice multiple variations of your logline, keeping the following tips in mind:

  1. Clearly lay out the narrative (but not the ending!). A good logline clearly and succinctly lays out the dramatic narrative of a screenplay and hooks the reader, enticing them to read the entire script. For this reason, a logline never gives away the ending.
  2. Use active and visual language. Good loglines use active language that articulate the visual possibilities for the film. Words like “struggles,” “journeys,” and “fights” are much more intriguing to read in a logline than “learns, “wonders,” or “comes to find out.”
  3. Hone in on the irony of the premise. The best loglines contain a sense of irony. Irony draws the reader in and tells us that we are in for an unexpected and unconventional story. For example, the logline for Erin Brockovich contains a sense of irony between who the proganoist is and her goal: “An unemployed single mom gets a job as a legal assistant so that she can take down a Californian power company that is polluting a city’s water supply.” If Erin Brockovich was an accomplished attorney and not an unemployed single mother, the story (and logline) would be less compelling.

How To Write a Great Logline in 4 Steps

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Even if nobody reads your logline, writing one is a useful exercise for boiling the core ideas of your story down to their clearest and simplest form. Try writing a logline for your story, then treat it as a guiding light for the rest of the writing and editing process.

  1. Identify the protagonist. List out all of your main character’s biographical and physical information, then select the strongest adjective and proper noun combination that represents who they are. Some examples of strong combinations for your protagonist description include “cheerful school teacher,” “elitist funeral director,” or “depressed cop.”
  2. Describe the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the jolt from the blue that sets your story in motion. This is also sometimes referred to as the “call to adventure” or “catalyst.” Now that you know who your protagonist is, what is the thing that blows your character’s life apart? Is it a death? A promotion at work? A visit from an old friend? Summarize the inciting incident in a few words like “when her mom dies” or “after graduating from college.”
  3. Highlight your protagonist’s goal. The hero's goal is the primary motivation for the rest of the action. In the logline, outline what the hero wants or needs with a few quick words. This aligns the reader with the character's goals, and creates a level of investment and empathy when obstacles stand in the character's way. Goals can range from a character wanting to kill their nemesis to wanting to find her birth father or reversing the zombie outbreak.
  4. Create a compelling central conflict. Write down a list of possible obstacles that will get in the way of your character achieving his or her goal. These antagonistic forces can be people, they can be ideological hurdles, they can be legitimate physical obstacles. Is your character’s journey going to be difficult because there’s a storm out? Select the conflict with the highest stakes (but make sure it still makes sense in your story). Describes this conflict in a few words, like “treacherous journey” or “before the ship sinks.”

3 Ways to Use Your Logline

A logline isn’t just an industry term, or a step in the screenwriting process: a great logline can help propel your career forward. Now that you’ve created your logline, here are three ways to put it to use:

  1. Gain visibility. Loglines are often required for entry into screenplay competitions or film festivals, which offer the opportunity for aspiring screenwriters to showcase their work to a room full of development executives or producers. Writing a great logline can help you get noticed amid a sea of entries.
  2. Nail your pitch. In addition to helping you during the writing process, a logline can help you develop an exciting “soft pitch”—the way you’ll explain your screenplay idea in an informal setting like a cocktail party. Delivering a tight, succinct logline demonstrates creativity and confidence, and could help get you “in the room” for a more formal pitch.
  3. Sell your script idea. When shopping your screenplay around Los Angeles or New York, a gripping logline is one of the best tools for writing a query letter that gets busy producers, agents, or managers interested in reading your script. Producers might use a logline to get a studio, financier, or other type of buyer interested in a script.

Want to Become a Better Screenwriter?

Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your screenplays, navigating the world of scriptwriting can be daunting. No one knows this better than Aaron Sorkin, who wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. In Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass on the art of screenwriting, the Academy Award-winning writer of “The West Wing” shares his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell.

Want to be a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese, Jodie Foster, and more.

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