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.

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

Machine Without Horses: a beautiful historical novella by Helen Humphreys

The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.

I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.

Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.

I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:

The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)

I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)

When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)

In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.

“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)

Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”

This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)

This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:

The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)

I especially love this passage:

A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)

Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”

Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)

Not exactly like being in love, however:

When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)

This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.

Exquisite.

On the evolution of The Game of Hope

On the evolution of The Game of Hope

On November 2, 2011 (the day before my birthday), my agent, Jackie Kaiser, called to tell me that I’d been made a very tempting offer by Penguin to write two YA novels. One was to be about Josephine’s daughter Hortense, and the second was to be of my choosing.

My husband and I were in Mexico at the time, and two nights before I’d told him that I would never again contract to write a book “in advance.” I simply found it too stressful.

So the timing was a bit ironic. After Jackie’s call, I told my husband, “I’ve just been made an offer I can’t refuse.” Jackie had emailed me a photo of the box the offer had arrived in. Inside were the contract details and chocolates. How charming was that?

Even so, I thought about it carefully for two months. It takes me years (and years!) to write a novel, and I have to feel passionate about it. I have to fall in love with it. So I reread books about Hortense and covered our dining room table with plot points on index cards, considering. I needed to see if there was a story there, an enchanting story about Hortense’s teen years.

And there was. And it was one I very much wanted to write. By February 9, 2012, I had made up my mind. I would accept the offer. I would write a Young Adult novel about Hortense …

… although not immediately. I was on draft 6.1 of what I was then calling This Bright Darkness, soon to become The Shadow QueenPlus, as I noted in that blog post of Feb. 9:

Somehow, I feel that I can do all of this all at once: finish This Bright Darkness, begin another adult novel set in the 17th century, write two YAs and a short novel for GoodReads, as well as launch my own e-book imprint.

(Reality has never been my strong suit.)

The Shadow Queen was published and my e-book imprint launched, but the “other adult novel set in the 17th century” had to be put on the back burner and the short novel for GoodReads was regretfully abandoned. Writing a novel requires full attention.

Soon I was carting research books on Hortense back and forth from Mexico to Canada.

I organized my plot cards, shuffled and re-shuffled them.

I researched like crazy.

I bought a deck of The Game of Hope and began exploring. (Fun!)

On November 2, 2013, a full two years after receiving the offer from Penguin, I began the first draft.

This is draft 1.7 — that is, the 7th draft of the 1st draft.

Over the next four years, I made two research trips to France.

Here I am at the gates to Mortefontaine, the country estate of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

This is a statue of Hortense at her home of exile in Arenenberg, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Constance, now a delightful museum devoted to her memory.

This is a photo of what remains of Madame Campan’s wonderful school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Over time, I had the requisite stack of nine drafts it takes me to write a book.

During the four years it took to write The Game of Hope, it went from being a novel told in the present tense to (at a fairly late stage) a novel told in the past tense. The title changed many, many times, and settled, finally, and happily, on The Game of Hope. The cover changed many times as well.

The Game of Hope, Hortense’s story, is now a book. For real. I’ve yet to hold it in my hands, but I will soon, in Toronto on May 1, the official Canadian publication day.

The amazement I feel about this long and magical process never grows old.

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A Question Readers Often Ask: What’s next?

A Question Readers Often Ask: What’s next?

Readers often ask, “What’s next?” The answer to that question depends on when the question is asked, of course. What follows is an evolving diary, begun many, many years ago.


A reader wrote some time ago:

Are you going to write more stories about the court of the Sun King?

Yes!

You did such a great job with the historical details and as I have studied Louis XIV and his court— there are plenty of interesting stories to tell (including the adventures of the Princess Palatine, even La Grande Mademoiselle and Lauzun, a couple that united even after a prison term and old age only to break up over greed).

Indeed! By the way, I love La Grande Mademoiselle, but have yet figured out how to tell her story.

You could even do a trilogy of Louis XIV’s Mistresses— you’ve done La Vallière, next could be Montespan, then Maintenon (the king’s mistress, then second wife).

I believe she’s onto me.

Or a novel on Princess Henrietta as she has a tragic back story with her father being killed, her brothers Charles and James, and she had several romances during her marriage to her cousin Monsieur that are interesting reading, including one lover who was her husband’s boyfriend who falls for Henrietta and became a master of disguise to see her at any cost (De Guiche–who visited her as a fortune teller, a litter bearer and in a domino so he could romance her in Philippe’s presence at a masked ball).

What wonderful suggestions these are. Henriette would indeed be a fantastic subject.

I especially love the De Guiche stories, and in fact wrote many scenes of him hiding in the fireplace and disguised as a fortune-teller, etc., but these scenes, like many, many others, now reside in my cut file.


What I wrote in answer to this letter above:

I am considering writing a novel about Athénaïs (Montespan), but it might focus on her first engagement more than her relationship to the king. I’m not sure. It could also be a story told from the point-of-view of Des Oeillets, her maid who was the go-between between Athénaïs and Voisin, the convicted poisoner.

As this reader points out, there are a wealth of wonderful stories to be told. The hard part is choosing. It took me eight years to write Mistress of the Sun because I kept changing perspectives. I even included the unforgettable Mademoiselle at one point.

I did, in fact, eventually choose to tell the story of The Shadow Queen from the point of view of Des Oeillets (Claudette).

Shadow Queen Cover copy 2

But to answer, “What’s next?”  I am writing a Young Adult novel based on the teen years of Josephine’s daughter Hortense. I am back in the Napoleonic world!


The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland Canadian Cover

It’s Easter 2018, and Hortense’s story, The Game of Hope, will soon be published in Canada, two months later in the U.S.

As for what’s next? I’m writing — or, at least I think I’m writing — a novel about a teen, a girl falconer in Elizabethan England.

That story about Mademoiselle at the Court of the Sun King continues to haunt me, however. Might that be next next?


{Photo at top is by Evan Dennis on Unsplash.}SaveSave

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4 Formulas for Figuring out a Story

4 Formulas for Figuring out a Story

Figuring out a novel’s “elevator pitch” — the summation of a story in a sentence or two — is invariably difficult for novelists, at least it is for me. My mind does not lend itself to reductions. I’m more of the expanding type. (Not an asset.) These 4 formulas — which I’ve gathered from hither and yon in decades of reading books on writing — are helpful in getting at the core of that unwieldy beast: a novel.

The 1-sentence formula

When _____ [OPENING CONFLICT]
happens to _____ [CHARACTER],
he/she has to _____ [OVERCOME CONFLICT]
in order to _____ [COMPLETE QUEST].

As applied to my next novel, The Game of Hope, I came up with:

Haunted by dreams of her dead father, a 15-year-old girl goes on a quest to find out if she was the cause of his death.

This is a tidy summary, but as with most one-sentence summaries, this doesn’t actually fit what actually happens in the novel.

The 3-sentence formula

_____ is about _____, who wants to _____.
The only problem is that _____.
As a result, he/she _____.
Yet, ultimately, he/she succeeds because _____.

One problem with this summary is that it gives too much away.

The 3-part book formula

1. The genre (i.e. “mystery novel”);
2. Parameters: what happens and what the reader getting into (“Seattle”, “a detective” “a dead boyfriend”);
3. Something left to the imagination (a dead body, a framed main character).

The Game of Hope is historical fiction for Young Adults. It’s about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense, who hates her stepfather Napoleon and idolizes her dead father … until she finds out some unpleasant truths.

This is better, perhaps. It’s important to leave something unsaid, to tempt the reader.

The 5-part story formula

1. Character
2. Situation (What trouble that forces the character to act?)
3. Objective (The character’s goal.)
4. Opponent
5. Disaster (The awful thing that could happen.)

Make each of these elements specific.
Put them together to form two sentences.

Sentence 1: A statement that establishes character, situation, and objective.
Sentence 2: A statement—or question—that pinpoints the opponent and potential disaster.

Haunted by nightmares of her dead father, 15-year-old Hortense goes on a quest to find out if the father she idolizes is trying to tell her something. Was it her fault that he was executed? What she finds out is not at all what she expected, and more of this world than the next.

I think this is a better summary — but I don’t think I’ve nailed down the 5 elements yet.

And more …

I recently read Gotta Read It!: Five Simple Steps to a Fiction Pitch that Sells by Libbie Hawker (a book I recommend). She writes:

To construct a skeleton for your pitch, answer the following five questions as simply and blandly as you can: Who is your main character? What does she want? What stands in her way? What will she do, or what must she do, to achieve her goal? What is at stake if she fails?

Hawker’s book is about how to write a longer summation of your novel  — one that might be used to send to a prospective agent, or be put on the jacket of your novel, on Amazon or in the publisher’s catalogue, for example. One begins with this short summary, the distillation of the novel, and then fleshes out “the skeleton” to represent the tone and subject of the novel truly.

The Game of Hope is soon to go into production, so it’s time for me to begin thinking how to frame the story, pitch it to readers. It’s never easy, but these guidelines help.

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