How to write a story logline without going crazy

How to write a story logline without going crazy

I decided to try to write a logline for my next novel because I had wandered into mucky territory in working on my plot. I’ve attempted this for several of my earlier novels, but never successfully. I can write a 500-page novel, but a one-sentence summary? This turns my brain into a pretzel.

What is a logline?

Logline Examples

The term logline originated in Hollywood. According to some, film producers would get so many scripts to consider that they took to summarizing the story in one sentence and putting it on the spine of the manuscript so that they could easily find what they were looking for.

A more likely explanation, IMO, is this one, thanks to Ms. Google:

The term “logline” was first used in old Hollywood. The big studios would own hundreds of scripts, and the studio head would keep a log book that recorded concise summaries (or “loglines“) that described each script in the studio’s possession.

A logline (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”) summarizes the essence of a story in one sentence (sometimes two) between 20 – 30 words long.

How hard can that be?

Hard!

Why write a logline?

  • Writing a logline is a good way of discovering the core of your story.
  • A logline will help you keep focussed on that core while writing the novel.
  • A logline will be useful if pitching your book to an agent or publisher, should you need to do so.
  • A logline will be useful in marketing the novel once it’s published.

How to begin

I love anything that makes writing something seem easy, like this video on writing a logline:

According to this, a logline formula is, simply:

Character + want + obstacle

Easy, right?

Not exactly!

First step: Describe the main character

I’ve read that it’s best to use an (interesting) adjective + noun structure for any character mentioned in your logline, and to not use their names. (An exception to this last is to name characters of historical significance.)

Here’s Molly, the main character of The Next Novel (working title Raptor Girl):

A feral teen falconer with mysterious powers

Yes, I know: it doesn’t quite fit the two-word rule, but I’m going with it.

Her antagonist, young Master Pete, might be described as:

  • a predator
  • (or, simply) the Master

And the interesting adjective? Here are some I’m considering:

  • vindictive
  • vengeful
  • desperate

Although “desperate predator” is interesting, “vindictive Master” is clearer.

Next step: What does my protagonist want?

That’s the million-dollar-question, because my Molly (or any character, for that matter) wants many things:

  • She wants her father’s respect.
  • She wants him to come out of his depression, get over his grief.
  • She wants to save his life.
  • She wants to solve the mystery of her brothers’ death.
  • She wants to help her father fulfill her dead brothers’ last wish to compete in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala.
  • She wants to escape Pete’s murderous vengeance.
  • She wants to save the lives of her raptors.
  • She wants not to be sent to the gallows for having saved them.
  • She wants to be a falconer, to live a life with raptors.
  • She wants to kiss the funny horse whisperer.
  • She wants to prove to the world that her white falcon is exceptional.

So: how to choose just one?

I began by looking for the one thing that might tie into several others.

This one might be key:

She wants to help her father fulfill her dead brothers’ last wish to compete in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala.

Let’s give it the “why” test: Why does she want to do this?

Because:

  • It would help restore her father’s spirits.
  • It would honour her dead brothers.
  • It would prove how amazing her falcon is. (And what an amazing falconer she is, in turn, earning her father’s respect.)

So it’s a fairly central goal, except for one thing. Competing in Queen Elizabeth’s Gala could mean discovery by the Master, from whom she is fleeing.

Last step: the obstacle

So maybe this is the obstacle:

A feral teen falconer with unusual powers is intent on helping her father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so could mean being sent to the gallows by the vindictive Master.

OK. Not bad, although at 41 words it’s far too long. Trimming it back will have to come. Loglines will change over time; they do not have to be written in stone.

Refining the logline

But now, how to refine it, make it better?

In Finding the Core of Your Story  Jordan Smith suggests two things:

  • some loglines need a phrase to set the scene;
  • using the word must or forced can add urgency.

So, giving this a try:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so could mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Now to test it, to see if it follows the formula

Main character:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elisabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Goal:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

Obstacle:

After the suspicious deaths of her two brothers, a feral teen falconer with unusual powers must help her broken-hearted father honour her dead brothers’ last wish by competing in Queen Elizabeth’s White Falcon Gala, although doing so will likely mean being sent to the gallows by their vindictive Master.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that it solved a few plot problems. Before, competing in the Gala was something that happened almost by chance, which didn’t feel logical, much less dramatic. Also, the danger of discovery by Master Pete was never even considered. Now that possibility adds tension.

Plot problems outstanding

There are many outstanding plot problems to be solved, including solving the mystery of her brothers’ death and how to dispense with the vengeful Master.

Also, perhaps the one hook that’s most of interest to potential readers is that Molly will become Queen Elizabeth’s Master Falconer.

You can see how challenging it is to write a logline!


Useful references on writing loglines

Finding the Core of Your Story: How to Strengthen and Sell ...

Finding the Core of your Story by Jordan Smith

Learn How to Write a Logline for Your Screenplay Once & for All

10 Tips for Writing Loglines

Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters ...

I’m a big fan of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and I’m looking forward to reading Save the Cat Strikes Back, which I understand has a chapter on loglines.

Speaking of Save the Cat, this post on logline templates for specific genres as defined by Snyder looks interesting. I’ll be exploring it soon.

In other words, more to come.

The ins and outs & ups and downs of public speaking

The ins and outs & ups and downs of public speaking

I’ve been combing through old blog posts, preparing for The Big Read in San Miguel de Allende of The Shadow Queen this coming January. For one, I need to have my website in order, especially the posts that relate to that novel. I also need to refresh myself on the process I went through in writing it. It has been a moving exercise.

Annual San Miguel Big Read – San Miguel Literary Sala

As soon as this is done, I will need to begin crafting my keynote speech. February will be upon me in no time. It seemed appropriate that in combing through my website I happened upon an interview I gave on Jane Friedman’s blog some time ago. In response to Kristen Tsetsi‘s question on public speaking, I outlined my process. I share it here — with some additional stories of things I’ve learned since.

Archive of Author Events | Sandra Gulland

Q: A reading, you’ve said, is more like a talk, an opportunity for the author to engage with the audience. What five pieces of advice would you give authors about to deliver their first reading/talk?

Most writers are introverts and find public speaking daunting. Take heart! Introverts are, as a rule, excellent public speakers, but only because they prepare like crazy.

Here is my process …

Write the talk: every word of it

Put a lot of time into writing a good talk. Write out every word of your presentation. Aim for only about five to ten minutes of reading, and the rest of it talk, leaving time for about fifteen minutes of Q&A at the end. Type the sections of your book you plan to read into your speech.

In general, people love to laugh, and self-deprecating humor goes over well. Remember that you are there to entertain. Readers enjoy personal accounts about the process of creation.

People like to be participants, so ask questions: engage the audience.

Prepare a few funny questions to suggest at the end, should your audience be shy to speak up during the Q&A.

Your entire talk/reading should be about thirty to forty minutes.

Read the talk out loud: every word of it

Read your talk out loud slowly. Edit the passages you are going to read from your book to make them easy for you to read, as well as easy for listeners to understand. Change words you find difficult to pronounce or stumble over. Think of this as theater. A passage read out loud comes across differently from a passage one reads to oneself silently, so adjustments must be made.

Print the talk out in big bold type

Convert your talk to large bold print, and break each paragraph into sentences. Print out your talk and assemble it in a binder. Dog-ear each page so that the pages are easy to turn.

(I wrote about my speaking process in a blog post here, “Finding focus.”)

Rehearse the talk, over and over

A natural, relaxed presentation is achieved with lots of preparation. A few days before your talk, read in front of a mirror, sweeping up from the page with each sentence to meet your own eyes. The day of the talk, do this two or three times. (A caution about going hoarse, however!)

Slow down as you read—don’t race through it.

Try on what you’re planning to wear—is it comfortable? Do you feel good in it? Do you feel like yourself?

Prepare to present the talk … and to expect glitches

Getting comfortable with public speaking comes with practice.

Never Be Nervous Again Audiobook by Dorothy Sarnoff ...

When I was first published, I read and was greatly helped by Never be Nervous Again by Dorothy Sarnoff, who advises speakers to think of the following mantra before a talk: “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, and I know what I know.” Try it! Don’t dread a crowd; embrace it. (I highly recommend this book.)

The most important rule-of-thumb: enjoy yourself — but most of all enjoy the people who have made an effort to come see you …

… including the snoring fan slumped in the front row.

This happens! For amusing stories from actors, read this. (Confession: I’ve once or twice been that snoozing person in the audience myself. When the eyelids start to droop, it can’t be helped!)

I’ve learned that giving out door prizes throughout a talk is not only fun — Who doesn’t love a door prize? — but keeps everyone on their toes.

Find out what the venue is going to be like. Ask for a mike if the group is going to be large. This will allow you to have a more emotional range in your reading. I like to be able to dramatically whisper, for example.

If you plan to give a visual presentation (such as Powerpoint), expect that there will be glitches with the equipment. In my experience, this never fails to happen, and sometimes too with mikes. I’ve learned to bring my own computer, portable projector and cables just in case. If only there was a portable mike one could have on hand, as well.

Plan what you will do in case only one or two people show up. Offer to go to a cafe for a one-on-one chat, for example. Consider this your rite of passage: every author goes through it.

Some of my most memorable talks have been to very small and intimate groups.

author readings Archives | Sandra Gulland

There will be disasters: these will make good stories. Eventually. One of mine was a live TV interview, called an “open-ender” because I was in one city and the interviewer was in another. I could hear his questions through the ear bud in my right ear. And then it fell out and I couldn’t hear a thing. I was filmed scrambling on the floor trying to find it.

I laugh about it now. One wonderful thing about being a writer is that everything is potential material, nothing is wasted.

What public speaking adventures/misadventures have you experienced, either as a speaker or someone in the audience?

What do beignets, a film and The Shadow Queen have in common?

What do beignets, a film and The Shadow Queen have in common?

This is an exciting winter for me. Not only will I be giving a keynote at the San Miguel Writers Conference in February, but my novel The Shadow Queen has been chosen as “The Big Read.”

https://sanmiguelwritersconference.org/big-read/

What this means is that readers all over San Miguel will be reading The Shadow Queen. (Yes!)

From an article in the Atencion:

“For most of us, who never mastered the intricacies of French history in high school, or never studied it at all, this richly detailed portrait of life in the French court under the rule of Louis XIV will thrust us into an absorbing world, described by an extraordinarily talented writer. It is such an outstanding example of historical fiction that it may open up other alluring worlds to readers who have never ventured into the genre before.

 

“Every year, the Writers’ Conference hosts the Big Read, inviting everyone in town to read the same book by one of the Conference keynote speakers and then to join one of many Big Read discussion groups around town. We provide discussion questions, present a program to provide background information on the book and the author, and invite all discussion group participants to meet the author in person at a private reception.”

On January 14 there will be an event held to present the novel to book clubs. I’m not able to be there (we will be on the Pacific Coast at that time), but I’m working with the organizing committee to help put together an entertaining presentation.

The first thing I suggested was that they serve beignets, a French pastry featured throughout the novel. That turned out to be fairly easy to arrange since San Miguel is blessed with an excellent French pastry chef.

The second thing I suggested was that we recruit my actor friends Rick Davy and Marilyn Buillivant — of Literary Cabaret fame — to put on a short, dramatized reading from the novel. They are keen, and it’s going to be wonderful, but I have since discovered that scripting scenes is not easy!

The committee has also arranged for a filmmaker, Dennis Lanson, to make a short film to show at the event. It will likely partially be an interview of me about the novel — my process and how The Shadow Queen came to be, etc. — and partially images of 17th century theatre and some of the characters in the novel, along with my voice-over commentary. This has entailed a search for images that are of good-enough quality to be projected onto a large screen. Again: not easy!

In going though old blog posts and selecting images, I’ve begun to fall under the spell of that era again. For example, OTT Baroque theatre:

How is it possible not to swoon?

I love, too, this image of Madame de Montespan, the woman we all love to hate:

In order to do all this coherently, I’ve been rereading The Shadow Queen. It has been years since I was in that world, and I have to confess that I’m finding it delightful.

Eagles, red kites and an Elizabethan wedding: a round-about way to come up with an idea for a scene

Eagles, red kites and an Elizabethan wedding: a round-about way to come up with an idea for a scene

Yesterday I began searching for my next raptor to paint and I was captured by this lady, named, appropriately, “Imperious.”

I wanted to find out the breed of this bird and to know if it might be one my character in The Next Novel might have had experience with. In other words, what was this bird, and was it common to Elizabethan England?

http://raphaelhistoricfalconry.com/img/Team-Raphael-Falconry.jpgI’d discovered Imperious on the website of Raphael Historical Falconry, and so I wrote to them. This morning, I had a long email from Emma Raphael, giving me a full and very interesting explanation. (People are so very generous with their knowledge!) Imperious is a Golden Eagle hybrid, and Eagles were rarely seen in Elizabethan England. In fact, there was only one recorded, in the ruins of an old castle near Chester, and was persecuted by farmers who feared for their young cattle.

The beauty of the Red Kite

The wild raptor most associated with Elizabethan England, Emma went on to explain, is the Red Kite.

Free photo: Red Kite, Bird Of Prey, Milan - Free Image on ...

(The red kite might be a scavenger raptor, but it is so beautiful! I believe I may have found my next painting subject.)

Emma went on to explain about red kites in Elizabethan England:

They were at their highest population levels ever at this time because of the spread of human settlements and all the open rubbish pits found in towns and villages in which they scavenged. They flocked in their hundreds and could be seen wheeling around the skies like crows whistling and calling.

She suggested I look at the painting “The Wedding at Bermondsey” — a painting of a wedding in Elizabethan London. From a detail of the painting, red kites can be seen in the sky.

Emma goes on to explain that …

The royals throughout the period hunted kites with Gyr Falcons because they were so numerous and there are lots of accounts of “kite hawking” in Londonshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingtonshire.

Cambridgeshire is the initial location of The Next Novel, and so here, with a simple inquiry about Imperious, I have a wealth of scene possibilities.

The charm of men in bloomers

Additionally, ” Wedding at Bermondsey” is a painting I could get absorbed in for some time. The details are delicious. The 16th century is new to me, and I confess that men in bloomers are charmingly captivating.

Wedding at Bermondsey, Joris Hoefnagel, 1569-71 | Historic ...

Why Do Only Women Have to Dress Well?

 

Belgium artist Joris Hoefnagel painted “Wedding at Bermondsey” some time after his visit to the UK in 1569.

Using Scrivener: the good, the bad, and the hopeful

Using Scrivener: the good, the bad, and the hopeful

I’m using Scrivener right now to write my next novel and most everything else I need to write … a speech, a workshop, etc.

Notice I said “right now.” It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship so far. For the short pieces, I jump in frustration to Word fairly quickly … only to recall why Word frustrates me. That said, the newest Word for Mac has an amazing feature — “Insert Online” pictures —which makes crafting an illustrated blog post a breeze. I’ll be using it for blog posts, for sure.

Ergonomic necessities

I love trying new systems (a new To Do List method, new Exercises, etc.), but I’m in systems overload right now. Back problems have forced me to change how I even go about writing. No more cozy in bed for hours with my latte and laptop. No more sitting with a notebook on my lap to write. Now I have to do what I’ve been told for years I should do: get up off the &%*# couch.

In short, I’m learning to adjust to a sit-down/stand-up desk, learning to put a 30-minute timer out of reach so that I have to move to turn it off. In short, there will be no more losing myself for hours in a cramped position while writing, but moving, moving, always moving.

There are often benefits in making changes. For example, I’m learning to dictate while moving. Yeah!

So end of the world? Hardly.

Plotting on Scrivener

Which brings me around to the initial subject of this post: an intriguing YouTube video on plotting with Scrivener. Every day I look for an article on writing to post to my Flipboard magazine. I always read the article to see if I feel it’s worthy, and this one absorbed me for quite some time. I’ve downloaded the template (the download link is toward the bottom of the page), loaded it into Scrivener and am going to give it a try. I’ll let you know what I think — once I stop moving, that is.

Organizing Scrivener to Plot Your Novel with Allan L. Mann

Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.

Mob hitman James Files claims once again he was the man ...

I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.

November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver — Reviews, Discussion ...

The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.

A Berkeley childhood

I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.

My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.

These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.

Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?

The three assassinations

On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.

I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.

The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”

And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.

I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.

A decision

That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.

And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.

A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.

Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.