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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Logline By Any Other Name

The lovely and talented Charlie Jane Anders over at IO9 has started a great new writer’s advice column. And in her very first post she talks about she calls the “Elevator Pitch,” which readers of this blog will recognize as a Logline. She even says most writers think of the Elevator Pitch as:

…some kind of crass Hollywood thing: like "It's Rain Man – With Time Travel! It's 28 Days Later meets 9 1/2 Weeks!"

She then goes on to text book description of a logline:

But really, the "elevator pitch" just summarizes what your story is about. And if you can't explain what your story is about in a couple sentences, maybe that's actually a bad sign.

Yes it is a bad sign if you can’t summarize your own story. A very bad sign. I’ve tried to make that point several times in this blog (here, here and here.) I’ve stated over and over again that loglines are what get executives and producers to read screenplays. Anders takes it a step further by including the audience into the equation:

…when you describe your book in a few pithy sentences, you're making a promise to your potential readers, about what they'll get if they invest time and money in your book. You warrant that you'll deliver a story about a guy who gets migraines that let him rewrite the past. Or a dragon who disguises herself as a racehorse so she can take part in the Kentucky Derby. If the reader buys your book based on that pitch, you'd better deliver on it.

Perfect sentiments. Although I will say if a writer promises a Dragon/Racehorse story and deliver an Elf/Motorcross story, the producer/publisher will probably notice long before that story gets a chance to disappoint an audience.

It’s fascinating that Anders should choose the logline for her first advice post. It just underscores the close relationship between the storytelling arts though there are still huge differences between a screenplay and a novel. I wouldn’t use Syd Field to plot out a short story. Another important difference is length. Anders encourages side developments in the course of writing a fantasy novel.

These subplots, and digressions, and possibly philosophical lines of inquiry, are marvelous and should absolutely be in your novel. It's part of the joy of speculative fiction that you can draw such a broad canvas.

A screenwriter who indulges himself thusly will quickly run out of real estate. 120 pages of properly formatted screenplay goes by remarkably fast. Space for subplots is severely limited.

In another bit of irony, some time ago I posted about how really good loglines can act as “human computer viruses” or “Nam Shabs” like the kind described in Neal Stephenson’s Sci-Fi classic Snow Crash. One of the reason loglines or elevator pitches are so important is that broken down it’s easy to see how “catchy” they are. How quickly they can spread just by word of mouth. You see this all the time in the publishing world where previously unknown writers suddenly jump into the bestseller ranks. It’s because their “elevator pitch” was extremely “viral.”

Loglines have been around Hollywood for decades now, going back to the beginning of High Concept in the 80's. From Anders' article it appears as if the publishing world is implementing it's own version. That's great news for screenwriters who want to write novels and for novelists who want to write screenplays.

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