How to Write a Killer Logline

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

You’re at a your high school reunion and after exchanging pleasantries with your former classmates, someone asks that inevitable question: “You’re a writer? What’s your book about?”

You stumble through a reply, explaining that it’s a character-driven coming-of-age story and that the main character is struggling to find love but finds herself instead… And then notice that everyone’s eyes have glazed over and nobody’s listening to you anyway.

If you’re a writer, you’ve suffered through this scenario before. We all have. But fear not, there is a solution. It’s called the logline.

What is a Logline?

While at the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar, I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop by Lane Shefter Bishop, producer at Vast Entertainment. Lane showed writers how to sum up their books in a way that would make readers want to know more. In this workshop I realized that not only was the logline itself a useful tool for writers but the process of putting one together helps writers hone their skills and sharpen their thinking. Today I’ll share with you some of the insights I gleaned from Lane’s workshop and show you a step-by-step transformation of how Lane edited one logline. But before we dive in, let’s review the nuts and bolts of loglines.

Loglines are used by movie and TV people to sell concepts for the screen. Lane, who specializes in bringing books to screen, has sold many projects on a logline alone. Loglines are also useful for writers because it forces them to get to the heart of their story and answer that all important question: “What’s your book about?”

Note that a logline is not a teaser so it needs to share the “hook” of the story. This means that in some cases, loglines may actually give away that secret ending that you want to keep from your readers. While you may not be able to just slap your logline at the beginning of your query letter or use the logline to pitch your book to agents, the exercise of writing that logline will help you hone your query and pitch. And with a few tweaks, you can easily convert your logline into a pitch or the opening “hook” of your query. (We’ll be talking about query letters later this week so stay tuned!)

Logline Tips:

  1. Keep it short and sweet. Lane shared an excellent tip which was to pretend you have to pay $5 for every word you use in the logline. This is a great way to make sure you use only the most important words.
  2. Use fresh, vibrant language. You have only a handful of words available so make sure you choose the ones that best convey your message.
  3. What’s the hook of your book? A “hook” is that thing that makes your story different and unique. Every logline must have a hook or else it’s not a logline.
  4. Be specific about what’s at stake. What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t succeed? What’s the “Oh no!” moment?

 Common Logline Problems:

  1.  Too long. Cut out extraneous words and pare it down to the bare minimum.
  2. Too vague. If you make things vague, your book will sound like every other book out there. Be specific, but also be choosy about which specific details you include.
  3. No stakes. Your logline must reveal what’s at stake for the character in the story. If there are no stakes, then there’s no reason for the reader to care.

Remember that just because they’re short doesn’t mean that loglines are easy to write. Lane has years of practice and experience but she can take hours to write a logline, so don’t be discouraged if it takes a while for you to compose one that really shines. Lane shared that she goes through many drafts before getting to a good final version. She also suggests letting each version “marinate” for a while, then come back to it for another look. This process of tweaking, then letting it sit, then tweaking again can take hours or even days but it’s well worth the effort because once you have it, the logline is an invaluable sales tool.

Logline Workshop: Before and After

One of writers I met at the conference volunteered to let me share her logline here, both how it looked before the workshop, and the final version. I’ll walk you through the step-by-step of how the logline evolved through the workshop. For more by this writer, check out her blog. Now without further ado, here’s the original version of her logline.

When a killer targets Recoletta’s most powerful citizens, an inspector and a maid must stop him, uncover the clandestine plot connecting his victims, and learn why the city’s ruling Council is blocking their investigation.

Right away, we see that this logline is too long. A lot of the details can either be condensed or removed altogether. But more importantly, where are the stakes? Why does the inspector and the maid need to stop the killer? What will happen if they don’t? Will he kill again? These questions lead us to the first revision.

An inspector and a maid must work together to uncover why the city’s ruling Council is blocking their investigation to stop a political killer.

The inspector and maid pairing is important because it’s different and unique, so we keep that element and move it front and center. We’ve removed extraneous details like the name of the place (Recoletta) and the “clandestine plot.” This version focuses on the three important things: the characters (inspector and maid) the political killer and the coverup by the ruling Council. But there are still no stakes. Why does this killer need to be stopped? It turns out that this assassin is targeting everyone on the ruling Council and killing them one-by-one.

An inspector and a maid must stop a political assassin killing the entire ruling class.

Now we know the sakes: if this political assassin isn’t stopped, he will kill off the entire ruling class. What we don’t have is a hook, a thing that makes this story unique and different from all the other political thrillers out there. As it turns out, this isn’t a political thriller, it’s a mystery that takes place in a world where history books are forbidden and the ruling class is being targeted because they’re excavating a library. And there we have our hook, which brings us to this final version.

In a world where history books are forbidden, an inspector and a maid must stop an assassin targeting those determined to unearth an ancient library.

So there you have it, a step-by-step look at how Lane takes a logline from OK to outstanding. And the beauty of it is that the book and the story are still one and the same, but with a strong logline the story comes to life. I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked by that last logline and would want to read this book.

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