Writing

Screenwriting Tips: How to Write a Logline

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 5 min read

A great logline can sell someone on your movie idea and make them want to read your script, but a bad logline will do you a disservice and turn away potential script readers. 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, set-up, and central conflict—into a clear, concise teaser. The goal is to write such an enticing logline that it hooks the listener into requesting to read the entire script.

The 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. You can mention the central conflict before you list your protagonist’s goal or you can slot your inciting incident near the end of your logline, but these four components should be clearly defined in your logline.

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. Some loglines can be a couple sentences, especially if it’s a complicated film.

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 loglines pit strong characters against even stronger forces of antagonism for a compelling 1-2 sentence read:

  1. Little Miss Sunshine: When an enthusiastic wannabee beauty queen learns that a spot has opened up in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, she convinces her entire family to make the cross-country trek to the pageant despite her father (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 rebellion fighters to save the galaxy from a sinister force.
  3. Titanic: Two star-crossed lovers fall in love aboard the R.M.S. Titanic and struggle to keep their relationship afloat as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. Finding Nemo: An anxious clown fish goes on a journey through the treacherous ocean to find his missing son after he was swept out to sea.

3 Tips for Writing the Perfect Logline

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:

  • Clearly lays 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.
  • Uses 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.”
  • Hones 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.

A Step by Step Guide to Writing a Great Logline

Even if nobody read your logline, writing one is a useful exercise in distilling the core ideas of your story to the clearest elements. Treat your logline as a guiding light for the rest of the writing and editing process.

  1. Identify the protagonist. List out all their biographical and physical information, then select the strongest adjective and proper noun combination that accurately represents who they are. “Cheerful schoolteacher” or “elitist funeral director” are great ways to describe a protagonist, as are “depressed cop” or “enthusiastic law student.”
  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.”

4 Ways to Use Your Logline

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

  • 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.
  • Nail your pitch. A logline can help you nail your soft pitch. Delivering a tight, succinct logline demonstrates creativity and confidence.
  • Sell your script idea. Use your logline to query 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.