Wax off! Or, How to write a killer log-line.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Assalam alaikum wr wb, all my brothers and sisters. Peace and mercy be on our calloused fingers and every part of our tired but hopefully happy bodies.

I’ve been studying the oft-ignored of logline-writing.

I have basically stopped ignoring it.

The Black Board has been my Mr. Miyagi in this process.

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I have culled together the main things we should remember when we write log-lines from the various sources listed at the Black Board.

1. Start with an interesting character, give him/her a high-stakes want and make the obstacles against them practically insurmountable.

I think it’s worth unpacking each of the terms mentioned above.

An interesting character

Who would be the most fascinating person to put in this situation? Usually the most fascinating person has the steepest learning curve.

When mentioning the Protagonist, give them just one well-chosen adjective.

Don’t include their name.

Only mention a maximum of two characters in the log-line, preferably Antagonist and Protagonist. More than that and it just becomes confusing.

This applies even to an ensemble piece, such as Bridesmaids or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A high-stakes want

The highest stakes are usually derived from the five primal human needs – hunger, survival, protection of loved ones, sex and revenge.

None of these need be interpreted literally and more than one, I imagine, can occur in the same script, while carefully making sure the plot doesn’t become too muddy.

Peeples has the following log-line:

Sparks fly when Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons to ask for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

Wade obviously wants to have sex with Grace,  or wants to continue having sex with Grace, by showing his commitment to only having sex with Grace.

The Peeples’ family, I imagine, are trying to protect their daughter Grace from Wade.

Two competing wants = hopefully a funny and juicy conflict.

This segues nicely into the next crucial part of a log-line

Antagonist/obstacles

Do not ever have a passive character to whom things just ‘happen’. This is a fault not just in the log-line but in the entire story concept. The character should be the engine of action in the story.

He or she does something, something happens, they react by doing something else, probably still oblivious to their fatal flaw.  Something else happens. And so on until the Protagonist learns a new behaviour – or not.

Make the conflict external, even if it is internal. Let the Antagonist take a shape of some kind.

The character’s flaw is exacerbated, rendered life-threatening, by the obstacles the Antagonist puts in his/her path.

Again life need not be interpreted literally. Death can occur even when all your bodily functions are still working. As anyone who has ever stood in line at the DMV knows.

Hence the conflict forms the dramatic through-line of the logline.

Subplots should not be mentioned.

2. The logline should indicate the set-up, set up the main conflict of Act 2, and hint at the problem that will be resolved by Act 3.

This is by far one of the most useful things I’ve learned from the resources on log-lines.

Let’s look at the Peeples logline again:

Sparks fly when Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons to ask for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

Let’s re-arrange it so it mimics the 3-act structure of the movie.

When Wade Walker crashes the Peeples annual reunion in the Hamptons, sparks fly when he asks for their precious daughter Grace’s hand in marriage.

It’s much less elegant and a little confusing, which is probably why they went with the previous structure.

Act 1 set-up: When Wade Walker crashes the Peeple’s annual reunion in the Hamptons….

The Hamptons = lots of money.

Wade Walker = probably not so much money.

The use of the word ‘crashes’ means that he’s not expected and probably, not welcome either. Conflict already built in.

Act 2:  “…sparks fly when he asks for Grace…” This is the engine of conflict for the bulk of the movie.

Act 3:  How will we know whether Wade is a loser or a winner in this movie?

Answer: We’ll know if he’s allowed to marry Grace or not.

Once you have all these ducks in a row, you can fiddle around with them to make a cleaner prettier sentence.

3. What are the genre expectations based on this log-line?

The genre is one of the key aspects of marketing a movie and one of the first questions in a production executive’s mind when he views a coverage report.

A lot of dark comedy log-lines I wrote initially were misunderstood as thrillers.

I’ve found using ‘funny’ words and an ‘ironic’ tone might help.

Yep, I’m still researching this one, mostly in the comedy genre, because that’s my jam. Will let you know.

4. You can diagnose a lot of script problems at the logline stage alone. 

It’s amazing what an incredible diagnostic tool a log-line is.

In the forums on the Black Board, I’ve been alerted to lackluster antagonists and protagonists, a lack of a clear goal, and various other more secondary, but still very important considerations.

Such as there are too many weird things going on (sci-fi).

The device that connects everything together just isn’t working (sci-fi again).

And various other common-sense questions that don’t arise when you think you’ve discovered a brilliant concept.

For example, in Harry Potter, why didn’t they use the Time Turner and just jolly well  go back in time and kill Voldemort?

5. Slice-of-life log-lines operate according to different rules.

Slice-of-life movies do not translate their internal goals into external goals.

Christopher Lockhart uses the example of Love Actually:

A varied group of Brits struggles with the pleasures, pain, and power of love during the Christmas season.

…and Gosford Park:

During a weekend jaunt at a British country house, servants – who must keep order and protocol – struggle to please their aristocratic employers until a murder threatens to disrupt the balance.

According to Lockhart, these stories should be defined by a time ( as in Christmas in Love Actually), place (Gosford Park) or historical event (Bobby) and the theme should not be presented didactically.

6. You only got 25 words! 

…but I’m sure, in the age of Twitter, that isn’t too big a deal.

7. Start with a spark of an idea and keep adding elements to it. 

No one is born a fully formed adult having already discovered their vocation and values in life.

So it goes with loglines. Rarely do they come out fully formed.

They start out pure, innocent and sweet in the form of a story concept, a angel that strikes you with its wing in the queue at the supermarket.

For example, “a lawyer who cannot lie”, “Othello in high school”, “Othello in Indian politics” (these three are high-concept because they can be summed in a few words), “racial tension in LA”, “a family road-trip to a beauty pageant”.

The conflict, the stakes, the wants and the needs, all come later as you let the thing sit around for a while, gathering form.

When it graduates college, you’re good to go! (I know I’ve stretched that metaphor way too far.)

Much love and peace,

The Happy Muslimah (in a nutshell)

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2 thoughts on “Wax off! Or, How to write a killer log-line.

  1. GREAT article on writing loglines, Sabina. I’ve added it to our list of logline resources. I’m so glad to hear The Black Board is helpful to you–but you’re the one doing the work! It’s always a pleasure to have you in the conversation and you definitely liven up the logline workshop. (In a good way!)

    1. Thanks Shaula. The Black Board has been a crazy inspirational and wonderful resource. Feel like I’ve grown leaps and bounds since I began to frequent it.

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