The Logline; Or, Contortions of the Modern Day Screenwriter



So I am talking to my students about pitching.  And I’m talking about pulling information for a short one liner describing story. And someone gets stuck.

In every pitch, the short pitch, the medium pitch, the long pitch, the phone pitch, the lunch pitch, the elevator pitch, the wow nice to see you in line at the store pitch — in every pitch — you have to be able to —

Drop the premise statement on the person you are talking to. That is the fast one liner that tells someone, in about one sentence, what the story is about.

[This by the way is also cavalierly referred to in most circles as a logline. Even Greg Beal has given up saying that is just wrong. It is vernacular and jargon now.]

This is the bit that blows most people out of the water. This one sentence. I have been dragging it out of writers for so long, I literally have a formula for it: Title is a Genre about Protagonist who must Goal or else Stakes.

But that applies to plot driven stories. Plot driven stories are pretty easy to figure out. There is a strong goal, there is a big price to pay if the character fails (No, Frodo, don’t keep the ring!), you can just traipse out Lord of the Rings there plugging in the bits and you get Lord of the Rings is an fantasy action/adventure story about a hobbit who has to carry an evil ring of power across a continent and destroy it or his world will be plunged into darkness forever. It is not that hard with a strongly plot driven story with big stakes. Just plug the pieces in and bam, there’s a premise description.

Where it gets messy is a situational character driven story. There are no big stakes in situational character driven stories. No “the protagonist must do this or else this terrible thing will happen.” So basically you just have a character in a situation, and writers are often not real good at pulling just that one definite situation out of the story. So you ask them, so what’s it about? And you get, Well, there is this woman, and she has issues with her mother, and her dog doesn’t like her, and also she has this accounting job…. And meanwhile the listener is sitting there going, Okay, okay, okay, but WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

The assumption when the above happens is the writer can’t write for shit and the story is a mess and the listener should not walk, the listener should fucking run, for the nearest exit, and probably pull the fire alarm along the way. That’s not always true though.  Sometimes the story is great, the writer just really and truly sucks at narrowing down a story description. So —

I drew a map. (Yeah, I know, I am unhinged, but also I came up with a math equation that actually works putting a premise statement together so stick with me here.) The map is to show someone where they are going to find the bit of story that should be in that premise statement. And if you catch me in my cups sometime I might show it to you. Meanwhile —

If you’ve got a plot driven story with a big goal and big stakes, the story is always going to be about what happens at the climax of the story. The big ending and stand off is what the story is about. That final fight Frodo has to destroy the ring is what Lord of the Rings is about. Destroying the ring.

If you’ve got a situational character driven story, the story is about what happens at the story’s beginning: What sets the story in motion. That’s the situation. In Moonstruck, it’s when Loretta falls for her intended’s brother. Boom, Moonstruck is a romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother. In About a Boy, it’s about a guy who scams women at single parent meetings for dates. Boom, it’s about this guy who pretends to have a kid so he can pick up women at single parent groups. The situation is always in the story’s opening when a character driven story is launched. If the story’s working right, the story opens up introducing a problem and escalates it. So, you’ve got a set up and escalation happening and there’s the situation, right there in the story’s opening.

You can go back and forth with pitches once you know where the pieces are. You can introduce a plot driven story, if push comes to shove and words and brain fail you, as the situation: Lord of the Rings is about this hobbit who comes into possession of the most evil powerful ring in his world. Die Hard is about this New York cop trapped in a building that’s been locked down by thieves posing as terrorists. Moonstruck is a romantic comedy about a woman who has to choose between her fiancé and her new crush — the fiancé’s brother. But first you have to really know what you are doing and be able to find the pieces.

Until you’re that good at shifting things around though, it’s good to have some “won’t fail you in an elevator” guidelines: Plot driven stories revolve around the story climax, that’s where you find the pieces for the premise statement. Situational character driven stories revolve around the story’s opening, that’s where you’ll find the pieces for the premise statement.

AKA, “The Logline.”

Screenwriter and author Max Adams

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Max Adams is an author and award winning screenwriter. She has written for Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures – and a couple others to remain unnamed because no one around here wants to get black listed. Max is a former volunteer AFI Alumni reader and WGAw online mentor, has appeared as a speaker at AMPAS, USC, and Film Arts Foundation, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Utah, is the author of The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide AND The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, is the founder of two international online screenwriting workshops, and has the dubious distinction of having been dubbed “Red Hot Adams” by Daily Variety for selling three pitches over a holiday weekend – which made her agents cry. [In a good way.] She answers now to both “Max” and “Red Hot” in crowds and dog parks.

Send Me Updates!