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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Logline Workshop: 5 Steps to Making a Real Logline

I keep going over this because it really is the most important thing for a new writer to learn and it’s usually the last thing they get a handle on. So to save weeks of break backing trial and error, I’ve come up with a concept and logline workshop. Step by step to take you from concept to finished logline.

Step 1 – Find that “Chocolate and Peanut Butter” Combination. Firs come up with a concept. Concept is the idea of the story. It’s sometimes mistaken for the logline but it is separate. This is where the cliché of the Hollywood screenwriter throwing together titles of popular movies comes from; “It’s Top Gun meets The Little Rascals!” This is because studios are looking for two things in a concept, familiarity and uniqueness. They want something audiences around the world will recognize but at the same time something they haven’t seen before. Beginning writers make the mistake of thinking this is the be all and end all of a logline; that if they can just put two mega hit movies together they have the perfect logline. Otherwise they’ll just throw as many pop culture terms together in hopes of finding something that sticks. But a logline is more than just an idea or a set-up. Anyone can put two film titles together. A computer can do it. A writer needs an idea he can turn into a story. Here’s where beginning writer’s fail. By playing a word matching games they come up with ideas they can’t even turn into complete sentences, let alone entire screenplays.

So how does one find a good concept? There’s no one answer. With experience they start to come naturally. A beginning writer is to look for two contrasting things and then put them together. An old screenwriting text gave an example “A man who’s afraid of everything meets a woman who’s afraid of nothing.” Contrast means there will be drama. But despite their contrast they have to be somewhat harmonious. A reader has to be able to easily see how these two elements might combine. So while Crocodiles and Accountants may be contrasting, it’s not the most harmonious of combinations. This is why it’s sometimes called “That Chocolate and Peanut Butter” combination. Not to infringe on anyone but a writer is looking for “Two great tastes” that is two ideas that could stand independent of each other, that have been the basis for stories on their own. And these two ideas have to “Taste Great Together” or that an outside observer can easily see these two together. If a concept needs a ten minute discourse to explain itself then it wasn’t that good. This method can lead a writer back to putting movie titles and pop culture references together (or not in the case sited above) but the writer will have an actual criteria for putting combinations together instead of just randomly tossing the word salad.

Step 2 – Settle on a Main Character. Once a writer has a concept he then needs to put it in motion. Ideas without motion just sit on the page. Even the most explosive idea in the history of Hollywood will only get a writer to “So what happens?” Before the writer answers “What?” he first must answer “Who?” Stories aren’t about events or objects, they’re about characters. Movies are based on roles. The difference between greenlighting and turnaround is often who you can get to star in it. Once the writer has his idea, the next important step is to humanize that idea by creating his main character or characters. In the example above, who is the man who fears everything? Is he a harried insurance adjuster who knows obsessed with accident statistics? A hypochondriac who scans the internet for the latest viral outbreaks? Someone who was mugged as a child? Who is the woman who’s afraid of nothing? A reckless bike messenger? A beautiful, but sloppy and accident prone personal chef? A Dirty Harriet cop? In each case the writer should remember to keep the characters contrasting yet somehow compatible.

Step 3 – What happens? This is the big one. There are so many possibilities it may seem daunting to just narrow it down. But if a writer keeps to his two contrasting characters he’s really down to just four choices. In our example if the Man Who Fears Everything is A and Woman Who Fears Nothing is B, then the storyline is down to one of the four:

1. A can go to B
2. B can go to A
3. A can go to B in the first half, then B can go A in the second.
4. A disaster throw A and B together in a neutral location.

So for example, the Paranoid Insurance Adjuster falls in love with the Reckless Bike Messenger and tries to win her over by joining her on dangerous bike trails and races (A goes to B)

The Man Who was Attacked as Child witnesses a mob hit and the Fearless Lady Detective is assigned to watch over him. (B goes to A)

Our Hypochondriac hires the Sloppy Personal Chef, gets her fired, then to make it up to her tries to help her win a big open air Chili Cook Off (B goes to A then A goes to B)

Or Aliens could kidnap any of the three couples and put them together in a zoo (Thrown together in a neutral location)

Option 4 has a long history. Anytime you see a shipwreck or a plane crash or some other disaster throwing different people together, then you’re seeing option 4. It’s popular because it doesn’t require as much research and it helps the budget by limiting the number of locations. But it has one severe drawback.

Step 4 – Why does He or She Do it? Personal stakes. The “disaster scenario” removes most of the personal stakes because it removes choice from the characters. They didn’t choose to be marooned or trapped or whatever. The only stakes for the characters become elemental, survival or freedom. That may sound like enough stakes to some, but producers want more. They want to see more from first time writers to see if they can give them more. Years ago I pitched a horror idea to a producer, it was about a group of people trapped in a farmhouse with a horrible monster outside trying to get in. One of the producers I was pitching to asked me what were the personal stakes. I couldn’t answer because I thought I had enough at stake for the characters. I was wrong. I didn’t make the sale. A friend of mine once talked to a producer about adapting a comic strip. The original strip was about two characters trying various jobs and failing. The producer wanted to add some personal stakes, like they had to get money to keep the bank from foreclosing. My friend stuck to the original spirit of the strip and as a consequence didn’t get the job. So a writer should always give personal stakes to his characters. It’s what producers are looking for.

To take one example from above, say the Hypochondriac had an old nurse who used to care for him as a child. Her dying wish was that he try and help out her granddaughter, the klutzy chef. So when he gets her fired, he isn’t just letting down her but her dead grandmother as well.

Step 5 – What’s the Major Complication. A good logline encapsulates the story. So how much of the story does a writer need to encapsulate? Surprisingly quite a bit. A good logline should take the reader right up to the first major complication in the hero’s endeavors if not right up to the “fight or flight” moment near the end. A producer needs to be able to envision up to two thirds of the script especially from the beginning writer. This can be a real problem for writers who like to throw twists in the middle of a screenplay, it leaves them with not enough of a logline. A savvy producer, given the concept and the main characters can picture the first act, given the main action he fill in half of the second act, given the main complication and he can picture the screenplay up till the beginning of the third act. In other words the logline has successfully encapsulated the story for the producer and he can make a decision whether to read or reject right then and there.

So going back to Hypochondriac/Klutzy Chef Romance, our Hypochondriac has followed our chef to the big Chili Cook Off only there’s a problem. The main competition is someone who used to bully the Hypochondriac as a boy and still knows how to push our hero’s buttons. The Bully was even the reason our hero developed his condition in the first place (back to personal stakes!)

So there is the construction of a logline from concept to major complication. A logline is more than a game of Movie Title Jumble. It’s not pick a bunch of buzzwords out of a hat. It’s a serious exercise in structured writing and should serve as the basis for a writer’s first treatment or outline. It’s also the best selling tool a writer can have.

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