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When you pitch a busy studio executive, he only want to know two things: "What's your story about?" and "Do I see a movie?" A powerful logline gets your concept across clearly and concisely and answers both questions in a nanosecond. Loglines are an important marketing tool. You can use them on your query letters, at pitch fests, even in social situations. But did you know loglines are also an important writer's tool?
Your logline is your GPS system. Write it before you start your script and tape it up where you can see it. A good logline clarifies your concept and keeps you on track as you write. If you wander off path, a glance at the logline steers you back. It's okay to rewrite your logline as your story evolves, but it's not okay to neglect your logline and follow a story that is derailing.
Your logline's first duty is to hook us in a few words. "The true story about the first female pilot" is a good hook. It gives us what's special about the movie—the first woman pilot—and we can begin to see a movie. But we're not done yet.
Without worrying too much about details at first, sketch out your logline in a hero-goal-obstacle format: "This is a story about ______ (the hero) who wants ______ (the goal) but can't have it / do it because ______(the obstacle)."
"This is the story about a guy who wants to star in Broadway musicals but finds he doesn't have what it takes."
Now turn to the details. The above logline is vague. It doesn't spark the imagination. Who is this guy? What doesn't he have? What kind of movie is this (drama, comedy)? Be specific:
"A guy wants to star in Broadway musicals but he can't sing."
Okay, at least now we know the problem. But it's still not crystal-clear. We still don't really see the hero or know the genre. No producer will plunk down money for this. Let's give the logline some attention-grabbing adjectives and nouns:
"A wanna-be Broadway singer with tons of stage presence but no voice lip-synchs his way through a starring role and becomes an overnight sensation."
Now we can see the hero, the problem, and even the genre (most likely comedy). The questions being generated are story questions: How did he finagle his way into lip-synching? Will he be revealed as a fraud? Will he learn to sing? Don't you want to write the damned thing just to find out? With any luck, the producer will request your script to find out, too.
There's much more to loglines than I can cover here. Begin by reading movie descriptions in TV Guide and writing loglines for movies you've seen. For more guidance, check out the resources listed below.