This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. To find out more about what Jeff can do for your story, head to his profile on Reedsy.
A Little (True) Story
Before we start, I want to explain a little bit about what a logline is, because if you’re a screenwriter you’ve probably heard the term before (it’s a very common term of art in the screenwriting world), but if you’re a novelist, not necessarily. It is an extremely important tool, and we’re going to talk about why that’s the case in a little bit. But before we do, I want to illustrate why it’s important with a little true story.
Last summer I attended the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Conference, which is one of the largest writing conferences in the United States — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people come. (I presented my Anatomy of a Premise Line class there.) At the end of every conference, they have this tradition they call ‘The Gong Show’. Everybody gathers in the ballroom, five or six publishing company editors come up on stage, and each of them has a gong in front of them. Everybody in the audience got to write their pitch, like they were doing a query letter, and the moderator then read the pitch. If you got three gongs, you were out: you would be rejected by the editor.
Almost every single pitch got gonged.
The editors were good enough to sit there and explain why, and when I talk about the seven mistakes that people make with loglines, these are all the things they talked about. This is why the logline is so important: because in the real world of publishing, it's your foot in the door. If it's wrong, you're going to have much less chance of being taken seriously.
I might add that, after the Gong Show, I went up to the editors and redid some of the pitches that they’d heard, using what you're going to learn here today, and they said, "Oh, I wish they'd done that. They would have gotten a second chance."
Let’s Talk Workflow
The logline works into what I've developed as a writer's workflow. Everybody works differently and there are no rules — you don't have to follow Jeff Lyons's steps. This is just what I do when I work with somebody. I take them through this process:
- the hook,
- the logline,
- the premise line,
- then the synopsis.
Once you have these, you should be really comfortable with starting pages on the novel. By the time you get to a synopsis, you've got your whole darn thing figured out.
We're not going to talk about the premise line, synopsis, and pages here today; just the hook and the logline. But I wanted to show you that what we're doing with logline fits into a normal workflow of your development process as a novelist.
What is a hook?
Intuitively you know what I'm talking about. It’s a hook. It's the thing that hooks you.
- What is the sexy?
- What is the big conceit?
- What creates an image?
- What is the high concept?
You can see from these bullet points how I conceptualize the hook. But, more than anything else, it captures the high concept. That's a whole webinar in and of itself: talking about what high concept means. It's not just a catchy, marketable hook; there's a continuum of high concept. Later, I will outline the seven components I’ve identified that will make your story this thing called ‘high concept’ — something that can be easily pitched with a succinct and striking logline.
The reason it's important is that if you read submission requirements from editors, they will very often say, "We want a high concept idea," but they don't ever tell you what the hell that means! So people kind of guess. But it does mean something, and the hook is the thing that captures that high concept in the form of an image in your mind and an emotion. You know the hook when you get it, because it hooks you!
It’s an implicit component of the logline, when you have your logline nailed and you've got the pieces all in place.
You can start with the hook. Maybe you're working on a sci-fi or a monster movie and the hook's pretty clear. But for some stories, it's not so clear. That's not bad and wrong. It just identifies the kind of story you're telling, so you know what you don't have. It's important to know what you do have as well, because that informs how you move forward.
How a hook works: examples
Hooks do not tell your story. They give you the thing that hooks you into wanting to know more about what the story’s about. Here are some hooks that I came up with, so that you can see how different this is to the logline.
Jessica Jones is a TV series; but if it were a book or a movie this would still hold.
A self-hating superhero fights another superhero capable of enslaving and destroying her.
That’s the hook. And if you saw the show, you know that this applies.
Next, the TV show, Transparent.
A lifetime, closeted transsexual father comes out to his family.
We don't know all the details. We don't know the real story. We don't know what that means, other than that a transsexual father is coming out to his family and he's been in the closet all of his life — that's the hook.
For a movie, The Hunger Games.
A despondent teen takes on the powers-that-be to win a to-the-death competition, catalyzing a massive social revolt.
We don't know if it's a woman or a guy. We don't know it's a dystopia. But it's enough to capture the essence of what's going to grab you and make you want to read this thing.
Finally, one I just made up on-the-fly.
An out-of-town couple get stranded in a small town and discover it's run by aliens.
You don't know whether it's a comedy. You don't know whether it's a drama. But that's enough to pique your interest. You want this element somewhere, if you can, in your logline as well.
Let’s Talk Loglines
That’s the hook. This is a definition that I think works for understanding the logline.
What is a logline?
The logline is not your story; but it is the narrative essence of your story that conveys the high concept, the tone, and core emotion of your premise, and does all this in one short sentence (or two).
That's a lot.
This is a workable definition that gives you an idea of what the logline represents in terms of what you're trying to achieve.
Why do I need one?
This is why you need one of these suckers:
- Query letters
- Development Tool
Query letters are very often your first step: your foot in the door of an editor. You want to start your query letter off (or have it very near here near the top) with a logline, and you only get one chance to make a good impression, so you want that logline to be really, really on target. It is often the first chance you get to talk to an agent or to talk to an editor at a publishing company.
You also need it as part of your pitching process. The premise line, which is a whole other animal, is also part of that pitching process, as is a short and long synopsis or a very detailed chapter breakdown. But the logline is sort of the first step in: if the logline grabs them, then you do the premise, and then they'll usually want to see more of your work.
It's also a development tool for you as the writer. The logline — if you know what the components of it are — can be your introduction into your premise line. But most often the premise line, which is the entire structure of your story told in a couple of long, convoluted sentences, is your way into your logline, because it identifies all the pieces of a logline that you have to identify, which we're going to go over in a second.
So, it’s part of your development process in helping you to understand and conceptualize your high concept really well, and also in helping you to develop a tool that you can use in conjunction with your premise line.
The logline serves all these purposes, and there may be some others that I've missed; but, I know these are the three central ones that everyone's going to be concerned about.
An editor’s point of view
An editor friend of mine, Martha Hayes, gave me a very nice quote to prove to you how important the logline is:
"When I ask for a logline or premise, it reveals whether the author knows what he's writing about...and their experience level...If they can't refine their focus to do a logline, then their writing will probably be just as unfocused."
That's one of the main reasons why being able to do a logline or a premise line is so important: because it reveals so much about you and about your writing.
When somebody gets one of these things in front of them, they're not just looking at the logline in a vacuum. They're assessing you and your ability to be concise and to convey an idea and the concept of a story. If you're having trouble with your premise line, how difficult is it going to be for you to do it with 300 or 400 pages?
I understand that that's a judgment and that’s maybe not fair. Writing a logline and writing a novel are two different things requiring different skill sets: one is more of a marketing thing and one isn't. I understand that distinction. But this is a working editor, who has worked for big publishing companies and has a very precise understanding of what she wants as an editor and the role that these things play in her assessment of a writer and a potential client. That's why it’s so important.
Seven Mistakes Writers Make With Loglines
In this section, I'll break down some of the most common mistakes I see when I work with authors on their loglines.
Mistake #1. Confusing loglines for hooks/taglines
They think that the hook statement, or tagline (that little short catchy phrase), is the same thing as a logline. Taglines are made up by the marketing department of a publisher or studio.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That's a tagline.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” is a tagline.
It doesn't tell you anything about the story, but it sure catches your interest.
People will sometimes think that's how you're going to catch an editor: you're going to show them how clever you are by coming up with a really catchy marketing phrase. No - that's not going to work. They might like it, but it may not be enough of an impetus for them to say, "Yeah, move forward."
Mistake #2. Confusing platitudes for story
The next mistake they make is to think that loglines are just platitudes.
"She will find the love of her life."
Or, "He will get the dream job and be happier than anybody can imagine."
Generic statements that you could hear in any kind of a story, that are more platitudes than they are content showing you what's happening with a character or what's going on in the story. You want to avoid platitudes.
Mistake #3. Falling back on authorial intrusions
They fall back on authorial intrusions, typically in the form of questions.
“Will our hero get the money?”
“How is this going to play out? You'll have to read the book and see.”
People actually say those things in their loglines. You want to keep yourself out of it. You don't want to ask these kinds of questions. Authorial intrusion gives me no idea about what’s going on in the story.
Mistake #4. Explain, explain, and explain
The other big issue is authors explain, explain, explain. There is so much exposition, and backstory, and explanations: why people are doing what they're doing, what they're thinking, what they're feeling.
No. Don't get caught up in thinking you have to have every dot connected, because you're just going to go on and on and on. What should just be a short sentence ends up being a page or two — or certainly a few paragraphs — and you're not really telling the reader anything about the story.
Mistake #5. Failing to leverage language
The other thing people do is they don’t leverage their language. What I mean by this is that you want to make sure that you've got the right language and the right words in your logline. If you're writing a romance, you want to be romantic; you want to have adjectives, and adverbs, and other phraseology that conveys the tone and captures the genre.
If it's a horror story, you don't want it to sound like it's an action-adventure movie. You want to pick your words very carefully to create atmosphere and tonality and all that sort of stuff.
So many writers, when they're writing in very specific genres, very high concept stories, don't leverage the language that they will probably use for their novel. You definitely want to do that.
Mistake #6. Never getting to the good stuff
This is kind of like explain, explain, explain; but, you could avoid explaining all the time and still never get to the points. Never get to the seven components that you really need to have in place. You can be talking and dancing around these things forever and, like I say...never get to the good stuff!
Mistake #7. Confusing loglines for premise lines
The last one, and in my opinion one of the most important, is that people mistake loglines for premise lines. They are very different animals. One is the hook and the essence of your story that's going to get somebody to want to see a premise line. A premise line is the beginning, the middle, and the end of your story. It's going to be a couple of lengthy sentences that gives the entire structure of your story in a very short, consumable soundbite.
If you've got somebody in an elevator for 10 floors, you can read them your premise line and by the time you get to the ground floor, they're going to know what your story's about, not just be teased by a logline. It's very important to know that they’re different things, because if someone says, “Give me your premise,” the logline is not going to give them the premise. The logline is just going to give them the hooky essence of what the adventure is going to be about.
The Structure of a Logline
Premise lines are complicated. I literally wrote the book on this and it takes me 8 to 10 weeks to get a premise line right. I call it the literary equivalent of waterboarding. For any of you who have read my book, and follow along with some of the stuff that I teach, you know how hard it is to do.
But, it's so important to do it upfront so that you don't have to do it in the actual writing. It will literally cut your writing time in half if you do this development upfront before you start pages. If I'm on a mission in this world, that's the thing I'm trying to teach writers to do.
The premise line is not a cookie cutter. The logline is a cookie cutter. It's a machine. You want these components and you want them in this order.
1. The world
What is the world of the story? It’s a dystopian future. It’s a heist set in 1920s Chicago. It's a family drama that takes place in a cabin in the woods. Capture it in very few words.
2. The protagonist / moral problem
Then you want to identify the protagonist. Never by name. Always a guy or a gal, or a man, or a woman - someone who has some sort of flaw. It doesn't have to be this deep, dark, precise moral problem (as I call it). It could just be that they're really angry, like Jessica Jones. It could give some sense of what emotionally is going on in them, that's going to color them as a character in the story.
3. Goal or challenge/opponent
Then you give the goal or the challenge they're facing. The goal means: what is it that they want? The guy's going after the money. Or, the guy wants to go after the money, but he's being dogged by his nemesis in the FBI and he's about to get arrested. So the story is really about him getting out from under this guy in the hunt, not about wanting to rob the bank. It's a goal or a challenge.
Then you want to set up the opposition. Who's the main opponent? It needs to be personified in some way. It cannot be the city of New York; it cannot be the weather; it cannot be the ether. It's got to be something that's tangible. If it is a force of nature, then it has to have a representation of some kind in the form of a god or a person or whatever.
You need a human opposition in stories because you need that focus. Are there stories that don't have that focus and are both fun and work? Yeah. But usually, those writers are incredibly good writers. For the vast majority of us mortal folk, we need that focus. The reader is going to need that personification.
4. Choice or Decision / Action
Finally, the protagonist is going to have a choice or a decision to make, which is going to lead them into some action.
One thing you do not want to do in your logline or your premise line is to end it with, “And then a really cool thing happens at the end that you're going to really like.” You don't want those kinds of platitudes. If you know what happens at the end of the story, state it! What is the choice the protagonist is going to have? What decision are they going to make? Choices and decisions are different: choices lead to action and decisions filter your choices. They are different things, but it all has to lead to some action being taken.
Notice that this is about a protagonist. It's not about multiple people. It's not about an environment. It's very focused on a central character.
The Cookie Cutter
When you write loglines, you write it literally in this order — that's the cookie cutter.
The strategy to make this really work is, first find these structure elements — these seven pieces — and get those solid, then worry about the wording. Once you know that you’ve got all the pieces in place, then you can tweak it and get the marketing copyright and get it really genre-specific.
This is a cookie cutter in that I'm giving you a very specific, formulaic way of doing this — but this works. This came out of my work with novelists who have been very successful; but, more than anything else, it's coming out of my work with TV writers. They write loglines all the time when they're pitching TV shows, and this formula is what so many of them use when they sell shows, so I know this works. This isn't just something I picked up off the grass. This is pressure tested in the real world.
Remember we did the hook with Jessica Jones?
A self-hating superhero fights another superhero capable of enslaving and destroying her.
That's the hook. Here's the logline. I’ve got all the elements in bold to show you that they’re present.
In a world where Supers hide in the shadows [WORLD] a woman with super strength and anger issues [PROTAGONIST AND PROBLEM] discovers the super villian [OPPONENT] who once forced her to kill against her will is still alive [CHALLENGE], and must decide whether to run for her life or find and kill him, before he enslaves her again [DECISION AND ACTION].
Does that give you more information, more charge, and more of a sense of what the dramatic action is going to be than the hook? I hope you think yes.
It doesn't tell you the whole story — it's not the beginning, middle and end — but it tells you those core components. If you were to read that as an editor, I think you would find that worth pursuing, at least to get another phone call or to talk to the writer.
And here's Transparent.
A divorced father with a painful secret, negotiating a broken and dysfunctional family, weighs staying closeted or being open and decides to come out as trans to his family.
The broken and dysfunctional family — that's the world. So it came after the protagonist, but that's okay: you can mix and match these if it works out better. Staying in the closet or being open is the challenge. He decides to come out as trans to his family.
What's missing here is a clear opposition. But the family is the opposition. It's an ensemble kind of story, so as a TV series, there's no one person in the family who "he was up against." It was the family as a unit — but it works.
The Hunger Games
In a dystopian world where games of life-and-death maintain the peace, a rebellious teenage girl volunteers to 'play' in order to save her sister from being selected for the games, and soon finds herself in opposition to the powers-that-be when she decides to cooperate in order to cover up her own escape.
Could this be a little cleaner? Probably. But it gets the job done without telling you anything about the personal relationship. You don't really know what's happening in the middle of the story. You don't know what any of the big moments are going to be. But you have a very clear picture of what the adventure is, who the protagonist is, and what's going to drive that to the ending — all those pieces are in place.
Can society be an opponent? No — society cannot be an opponent because societies can't make choices. You've got to have somebody personified. In The Hunger Games, there's a guy at the head of the table who personifies the powers-that-be. In any good story, that's going to be the case: there's going to be some human being who represents that existential threat.
The Logline Machine
The way to be successful with this is to approach a logline structurally first, and we are going to do this together. We're going to find the pieces.
Two things are potentially going to happen here that will be problematic, and this is why the premise line usually needs to come first, before you have your logline. I'm going to be asking people questions and they're not going to have the answers.
Who’s the opponent? What kind of choice are they going to make at the end?
You can't write a logline until you have those answers. You'll be left writing vague statements to fill in those gaps in whatever way you can, and it's going to come off mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy. So if you can't identify the seven components, then you need to work on your premise first: figure out the structure of your story and who the characters are before you tackle the logline.
Once you’ve got the structure, then tweak the wording — get it all nice and shiny so that you think you're really confident with it. But before you send it out to anybody, develop a little bevvy of beta readers: people you trust, who know what they're doing. Not your mother, who I'm sure is wonderful. Unless she's a world-class writer, then use your mother. Find people who know what they're doing, who are also writers.
Take your logline and unit test it like you would any product. Here it is. Give me notes. Tell me what's working and why you think it's working. Here's what's not working. Tell me why it's not working. Get the feedback. Invaluable feedback like that is just incredible. But make sure they're people who are going to tell you the truth and not what you want to hear. That's why your mom is usually not the best resource!