by Marla White
Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Nowhere is that more true than when talking about a logline for your tv series or feature film. For your pitch and especially you spec script to grab the audience’s attention, it has to be clear very early on what it’s about and that can only happen if you the writer grasp it at a core level.
The level of clarity you need can only come if you can talk about your idea from the inside-out, not the outside – in. Talk about it in terms of what’s emotionally at stake for the main character, not just what he or she does. For instance, “A cop moves to a small town to solve crimes” is working from the outside in – you’ve identified where and what, but not why we should care. “A NY detective who returns to his small hometown to clear his innocent brother’s name only to discover the town has secrets that are best kept buried,” tells us with more specificity about the cop’s background, his emotional motivation, and that there will be enough mystery to drive multiple seasons.
After reading (and writing) a lot of loglines, one of my favorites is the logline from “Kevin Can Wait” found on IMDB. “A newly retired police officer looks forward to spending more quality time with his wife and three kids only to discover he faces much tougher challenges at home than he ever did on the streets.” I’ve never even watched the show, but from that simple sentence I know what it’s about. Taking great loglines like this apart, a pattern emerges:
Logline = who + an emotion driven action + result
This is just a blue print – get more creative, push yourself to be as clever in the logline as you are in the script. To borrow from Captain Barbossa, think of this as more of a guideline than a rule.
Start with who is the series (or movie or book) is about. Since the number of words in a logline are limited, talk about tone, motivation and state of mind as concisely as you can. “A man who..” may be accurate, but “A disgraced lawyer” helps the person hearing or reading instantly understand the character and perhaps even establish some of the visuals of the world in his or her head.
Think of your character in descriptions like, “A loving wife…” or “A group of surgical interns at a prestigious hospital …”.
Emotion Driven Action:
What journey is this series going to take the character or characters on? Usually it’s a verb like discovers, learns, returns to, moves to, retires from etc. It can also be a combination of two of them, like retires to a small town only to find, or returns home and discovers
For instance, “A loving wife, betrayed by her husband who is imprisoned after a sex scandal, is forced to return to work at a law firm…” or, “A group of surgical interns at a prestigious hospital find their personal and professional lives get exponentially messier…”
What do they learn, find or discover that demonstrates there are several seasons to be mined from this idea and not just a two-hour movie? Raising kids is harder than it looks? Aliens and other monsters exist? (If you have a cop, lawyer or doctor driven idea, it’s already implied in the general idea that there will always be crime, defendants and sick people so you’ve got a head start.)
From our two examples, the full logline could be:
“A loving wife, betrayed by her husband who is imprisoned after a sex scandal, is forced to return to work at a law firm and discovers it’s both more difficult and more rewarding than she imagined.”
A group of surgical interns at a prestigious hospital find their personal and professional lives get exponentially messier as they cure patients, play hospital politics, and fall in love.
I know what you’re going to say - “my series is much more complex than that”. Really? Why? Take a hard look and see if all the others words you think you need to use for a logline are necessary. The order may change around to make your logline flow smoothly, but consider if phrases like “in a world where” or “After a bio weapon has been released on the world and wipes out all but a few men…” couldn’t be worked into the logline in a simpler way. For instance, “One of the few surviving men fights to keep his freedom and find out who released the bio weapon that killed off most men and how to cure it” tells the same story but from a direct, personal view.
If you can clearly, colorfully and concisely describe who the main character of your series is, what action they are taking and how the result will generate stories for five seasons, then you’ve got the basic building block of an amazing television series.
What are some of your logline successes? Epic fails? Or your favorite ones for better or worse that you've read?