Loglines. They strike fear in the hearts of writers. If you’ve tried to write them, you know: sometimes it feels nearly impossible to distill an entire movie into one pithy sentence.

Yet you keep at it. Because one great sentence can pitch your project, hook a reader, and open the right door.

Why Do We Write Loglines?

As Blake Snyder writes in Save the Cat!®:

“What is it?” is the movie. A good “What is it?” is the coin of the realm. Everyone, all across town, in a position to buy or in the effort to sell, is trying to wrap their brains around the same question your friends were asking on Saturday night: “What is it?”

A good logline tells enough to convey a solid sense of the movie, but is succinct enough that the listener doesn’t get bored or confused. It answers the “what is it” question, clearly and enticingly.

But loglines aren’t only for pitching your finished screenplay. Working out your story idea in one sentence is also a valuable part of the development process. That’s why, in the online Save the Cat!® Beat Sheet Workshops (shameless plug), we hit the ground running in Week 1 by working on loglines for the ideas that students are thinking about writing.

Playing around with loglines is a quick and easy way to begin to make choices about your story, to test different versions, and to see if there’s a movie there. To answer “What is it?” for yourself.

What’s in a Logline?

The essentials of a logline are simply the fundamental elements of your story:

Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).

But even though the components of a logline are straightforward, writing a good one is surprisingly difficult.

(And now I’ll stop reminding you how hard it is and let you in on a few logline-writing tips.)

Here are three of the most common stumbles I see with loglines, and my advice on how you can avoid them:

1. Stopping at the Set-Up

Above I pointed out the essential elements of a logline as: “Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).”

The “goes after it against great odds” portion is vital to a good logline, and the most often overlooked.

What does “goes after it against great odds” give us? Act 2.

Act 2 is where we show off the Fun and Games of this particular story, a.k.a. the promise of the premise. It’s the main action. The adventure. The meat of the movie.

If you’re describing a sandwich, you don’t stop after what kind of bread it’s on, right? So if you’re describing a movie, give us an idea of what we’re going to bite into.

Often writers think a logline is more enticing if it’s mysterious – and that can be the case. But a logline’s function is to give us a true sense of the movie. It doesn’t have to give away the ending, but it also shouldn’t stop after the Set-Up. We should have an idea what we’ll be watching on screen for the bulk of our time in the theater.

Get Out isn’t about Chris getting to Rose’s family’s house. It’s about what happens once he’s there – figuring out what’s really going on, and trying to get away intact. Trying to get out.

Hell or High Water isn’t just about the brothers’ plan to rob those banks. It’s about them trying to keep it together long enough to execute that plan, before they’re caught by the lawmen on their tail – to get the stolen money to their bank before the foreclosure deadline, come hell or high water.

Although it is necessary in a logline to include the Set-Up for context, don’t stop there. Remember to include a description of what’s happening in Act 2. That’s what tells us what kind of movie we’re buying.

And for you, the writer developing the story, it helps you to gauge whether you know what kind of movie you’re writing.

2. No Act 2

“Wait,” you’re saying. “Isn’t this the same as #1?” Though there may be some overlap, they’re worth looking at separately because this is a sneaky pitfall all its own, which can easily happen to anyone.

Leaving out a description of Act 2 is a different thing than not having an Act 2 at all. Thinking you have an Act 2 when you don’t is what we’re talking about here.

If Act 2 is all about pursuing the story goal, then that goal must be something that’s difficult to achieve in order for the pursuit of it to sustain an entire screenplay. Forces of antagonism and other obstacles get in the way, but the goal itself should have an intrinsic degree of difficulty relative to the circumstances of your story.

Goals that can be achieved very quickly or easily are not going to be enough to write 100 pages about. And this is the problem we see in some loglines.

Loglines that hinge on a main action of “decide,” or “choose,” or “realize,” or (sometimes) “discover,” just might have a “No Act 2” problem. Not always, but often enough to double-check your work.

These are things that sound dramatic in a logline, but when you think about what they really mean – what they really look like on screen – you can see that they don’t bring much story stuff to the table.

A decision takes a second to make. Could coming to a very difficult decision be drawn out over a movie? Sure. But that’s something you’ll want to identify and begin to plan for early on, so you can find ways to dramatize it – and justify why the character isn’t just flipping a coin so we can all go home.

So keep an eye on your logline for those sneaky phrases that seem more dramatic than they are. If the goal is something that can be done in a moment, you — the writer — may find yourself running out of scenes to write.

3. Detail Overload

At the other end of the spectrum is our final common logline stumble: including too many story details.

It’s an understandable instinct. You want to put ALL your movie’s cool stuff in, and for good reason. You love the details of your story, and you’re sure other people will too. Why wouldn’t you include every last one in the logline?

When it comes to loglines, brevity and clarity are your friends. A logline’s first priority is to present the essential core of the story. Loglines can often support a few additional details, but not many. More than either of the first two things I’ve pointed out, this is the primary challenge when writing your logline.

Because the truth is, when you’re still developing a story it’s often not completely solid in your mind – and that can make it tough to identify the essential core. And when you’ve written an entire screenplay, you know everything about your story – again making it tough to narrow in on the core amidst all the cool details.

But aiming for clarity and brevity will serve you well. When you’re developing an idea, writing a clear, straightforward logline can help you gain that solid grasp of the story that you need in order to flesh it out. And when you’re pitching, a logline that’s too full of non-essential details hints at a writer who may not have a good grasp on his or her own story, when we always want to feel like the storyteller is in command of the story.

So how do you tackle a too-detailed logline? Identify the essentials:

Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).

Make it clear first… and pretty later.

My Logline Challenge to You!

If you’re working on a logline for your screenplay – whether to help with your own development, or because you’re ready to pitch – remember the essentials. Identify the core of the story and describe it in one sentence.

Just as those elements should be clear in your screenplay, so should they be clear in your logline. A logline, after all, is a representation of your screenplay and your movie.