LOGLINE: A novelist must distill her story into a one-sentence logline, or she will fail to sell her book and will end up alone in a padded room.
Anyone pitching a book can relate to the angst of writing a logline, the single short sentence that captures the essence of your story. In one breath, you must command the attention of an agent, editor, or producer. You have five seconds (maybe ten) and you likely won’t get a second chance. But, no pressure.
You have to make that agent understand why your book is different from all the other books out there. You must make that editor want—no, need—to read your story. The rules for writing loglines have always seemed fuzzy to me. Tell everything, but be concise. Explain the enormous stakes, but be specific. I could never quite grasp it.
Then I met Lane Shefter Bishop, the logline whisperer.
I sat in on Lane’s session about writing loglines at GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace conference in May. It might be exaggerating to say a beam of light descended from the sky and graced me with understanding. But that’s what it felt like. All of a sudden, loglines made sense.
Lane is a director and producer who hunts for books she can pitch to movie and television executives. She is also the author of Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence. After her Muse session, I immediately bought and read her book. I rewrote the logline for a novel I’m currently pitching. I rewrote the logline for my new novel in progress. I even wrote one for a book idea I haven’t even started writing yet.
I contacted Lane and she agreed to talk to me about my new obsession with loglines. I started by asking her about the basics.
JCD: What are the key components of a logline?
LSB: #1: Who is the protagonist? The protagonist is always the person who has the most to lose and the person whose decisions move the story forward. #2: What does the protagonist want? What they want can be the toughest part. Most writers give me emotional stuff. The protagonist wants to fall in love or save the world. There’s a billion stories like that. No. Be very specific. They want to steal the Hope Diamond. They want to win the Kentucky Derby. It’s the specifics that make your book different than all the other books out there. #3: What is at stake? What will happen if the protagonist does not get what they’re after? And why should I care? Those stakes have to be really high.
JCD: What are the most common mistakes you see writers make when crafting a logline?
LSB: The biggest mistake I see is writers being way too general. Big fat generalizations, like the protagonist wants to save the world. The other thing is they tease. Don’t tease. Give it all away. I can’t sell it if I don’t know what the nifty secret twist at the end is. Nobody likes to be teased. Don’t put names in. I don’t care if the protagonist is named Fred or Stephanie. And don’t ask me questions in the logline. Just sell me on your book.
JCD: Is a logline for an agent the same as one for an editor or a producer?
LSB: A good logline is the gift that keeps on giving. Writers use it to find an agent. Agents use the writers’ logline to sell it to editors. The same logline will sell your book to an agent, publisher, editor, and producer. Grab us quickly. Be unique. We all want the shiny new toy.
JCD: Can you give me an example of a great logline?
LSB: The true story of a woman who, at only nineteen, ran the biggest drug cartel in US history.
JCD: What makes that logline so effective?
LSB: The extreme nature of being only nineteen and running a cartel. The inherent stakes are life and death. And the juxtaposition of being nineteen and not doing what normal nineteen year olds do. It’s unique.
JCD: How often do you find a great logline, but the manuscript disappoints you?
LSB: Not very often. Things that are wrong with the writing come out as they perfect the logline. Writing the logline helps steer the book. It helps writers focus on what’s important.
JCD: What made you decide to write Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence?
LSB: Most of the loglines I was seeing were hot messes. There are so many talented writers who don’t know how to sell their work. You could be the best writer on the entire planet, but if you can’t sell your work, it doesn’t matter.
JCD: How often do you receive a perfect logline?
LSB: Never. (Laughs.) But they’re getting better.
In her book, Lane gives lots of other advice, such as stripping away adjectives and adverbs, and eliminating extraneous clauses, plot details, and characters. Her litmus test? Read your logline to anyone whose opinion you value and ask, “Would you read that book?”
After talking to Lane, I felt more prepared. I understood loglines. At least I thought I did. I hesitantly showed Lane a logline for my new novel in progress. It felt like showing a finger painting to da Vinci or playing a two-finger symphony for Mozart.
Here is the original I wrote before Lane’s workshop, before I read her book: Lilah, a young widow, accidentally buys a farm at auction during the Recession. She becomes obsessed with converting the overworked land into an organic farm, but develops Pica, the biological compulsion to consume the soil she is trying to rehabilitate.
I was a little embarrassed to show Lane that one because I knew it broke all the rules. I named my character. I included too many details. But I am enlightened now, so I proceeded to show her my revised version. A young farmer battles the dangerous compulsion to ingest the overworked soil she longs to heal.
It was short, tight, to the point. No names. Not extraneous plot details. I held my breath. Did I nail it?
“Is Pica deadly? Could she die?” Lane asked.
“Probably not,” I answered.
“What does your protagonist want?”
“She wants to convert an overworked conventional farm into an organic one,” I said.
“What happens if she fails?”
“She put all her money into it. She would go broke and lose her farm.”
“Why isn’t that in the logline?” Lane asked. “I need to know what’s at stake. Could she die? Lose all her money? Most importantly, what makes this different from any other farm story?”
Ouch. So much for my enlightenment.
Lane made good points. This book is still in the early stages. But I need to be thinking about desires and stakes now. My character could lose everything if the farm fails, so she keeps working even in the face of an illness that could kill her. (Yes, Pica can be deadly it turns out. See, I’ve already increased the stakes in my story by focusing on the logline.)
Let’s go back, for a minute, to the logline I wrote at the top of this post: A novelist must distill her story into a one-sentence logline, or she will fail to sell her book and will end up alone in a padded room.
Yes, I am that novelist desperately trying to write the perfect logline. Admittedly, my logline for this blog post is a bit dramatic. If I don’t sell my book, I don’t think my family or friends will abandon me. (At least I hope not.) And, although writing sometimes makes me feel crazy, I don’t think I will actually lose my mind. (Right?)
If I were really telling my own story, I would have written: A novelist must distill her story into a one-sentence logline, or she will never sell her book, her dreams will be crushed, and she will continue driving endless carpools in suburbia.
I imagine Lane whispering in my ear: “So what? Dreams are crushed every day. Why should I care?”
Luckily, I’m a fiction writer, so I can make stuff up. I amped up the stakes. I showed you who the protagonist is (a novelist), what she wants (to write the perfect logline so she can sell her book), and what the stakes are if she does not sell the book (she will end up alone in a padded room).
Because I am that desperate novelist, and I don’t want to end up in a padded room, I’m going to give the logline for my second novel one more shot: A widowed farmer battling the deadly compulsion to eat soil must transform her conventional farm into an organic one or go bankrupt.
And so, I hesitantly ask: Would you read that book?