This post is part of the Outline With Me series. For more like this, check out the outlining your novel page.
You did it! You’ve finally decided to write that novel you’ve been talking about forever, but now you have to actually get that premise onto the page. Where to begin?
Opinions vary, but I, for one, am a planner if nothing else. If you’re a planner, too, then reducing your novel’s premise to a logline might be a great place to start–before you put a single word into your manuscript itself.
What’s a logline? Simply put, a logline is a fifty-words-or-fewer overview of the premise for your book. Sound impossible? It’s not! If you stick to the formula below, I promise you’ll become a logline pro in no time.
Though we’ll be operating under the assumption that you’re creating a logline to help yourself explore the premise of your story for your own purposes, some of the tips included are also meant to help you prepare for using this logline as part of your pitch to agents or editors at some point down the road (assuming you choose to go that route).
Essentially, any logline resembles something like the following.
“In a world where [x], [character] must [act] before [deadline] or [consequence].”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you say. “I came here for writing tips, not an algebra lecture.” Alright, fine. But putting your tail between your legs and heading for the hills at the first sign of adversity isn’t what your main character is going to do, right? Be like your main character. You, too, can overcome (or at least try).
Let’s break down each of the components above, using examples from my current WIP as of the date of this post, and the novel I plan on writing once completed with this one.
“In a world where [x]…”
Looking at the above formula, one might be led to believe that all loglines must start with the phrase “in a world where….” Well, that would be false. By and large, most loglines don’t start with this stock phrase. Why include it then?
This lead-in is particularly effective (and many times necessary) when writing Sci-fi and Fantasy. Given the immense amounts of world-building that are inherent to these genres, the “in a world where” lead-in serves as a sort of disclaimer, letting the reader know that this is a time and/or place unique from the world the reader may be used to on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s take a look at the lead-in phrase in my logline* for EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn.
“After a nanochip grants her access to the internet in her mind…”
“Hey, wait,” you say. “That doesn’t contain the ‘in a world where’ phrase at all!'” Well, you’re right. Rather than stick with the stock phrase, I’ve used an alternative setup to provide the reader with the context necessary to evaluate the remainder of the logline.
On my Current Projects page, you’ll notice that the logline for XXX Accounting doesn’t contain one of these lead-ins at all. This should communicate to a reader that the time and place for this particular story is not all that different from his or her own.
With our story world having been established, let’s move on to the second component in our formula, which describes the story’s main character.
*A visit to my current projects page will show that this is no longer the logline for EMPATHY. Rather than update this post accordingly, I’ve left the logline untouched here, as a demonstration of how the logline used in outlining can vary from the one used while querying.
The character component of a logline should, in the very least, give you a feel for what unique identifying information will set your character apart from the others. This is a great place to build in intrigue, relatability, or both for your main character, especially if you plan on using this logline to earn the interest of agents, editors, or readers at some point down the road.
That being said, there can be a tendency to throw a laundry list of adjectives at your character in order to assure a reader that this character is unique. I would say one or two adjectives at most is appropriate. If you can’t find a way to provide yourself or readers with an image of your main character in only a couple of words, it may be worth asking yourself whether they are unique enough to support a full manuscript worth of action.
Let’s take a look at the [character] portion of the logline for each of the novels currently featured on my Current Projects page, building on what was established in the previous section.
“After a nanochip grants her access to the internet in her mind, an art-school dropout…”
Hold up now. Before you accuse me of breaking my own rules where adjective-stacking is concerned, let’s examine each of these cases for EMPATHY and XXX Accounting, respectively.
When employing “art-school dropout,” I’ve definitely adjectivalized “art school.” It works as a single descriptor here, as “art school” as a whole modifies the kind of dropout in question.
For “porn-star-turned-accountant,” we definitely end up with a handful of words, but these unique identifiers can hardly be reduced to anything more minimalistic while also remaining precise enough to embody the character in question. If you see a way to reduce this even more, please let me know (pretty please?), but I don’t see it after having tinkered with it for a while.
The moral here is that you don’t want to end up with a [character] section that reads like:
“A punctual, bratty, and cat-burgling sycophant…”
Because realistically, who cares if they’re punctual or bratty? “Cat-burgling sycophant” is specific enough to leave your reader with an impression. Things like punctuality and brattiness will come through via the character’s actions on the page. Your logline has to cut away all the fat–or at least as much of it as possible. Besides, we’ll focus on character traits like punctuality and brattiness later on on the outlining process.
With [character] having been addressed, let’s forge onward into action.
Yes, concise character description is critical to creating an effective logline, but the need for a compelling goal almost exceeds the necessity of a compelling character where loglines are concerned–especially in the outlining stage. A fascinating character is paramount to propelling readers through the pages, but if that character doesn’t have a concrete, high-stakes goal, all the character fascination in the world won’t solve a plotting problem.
To add to this, when using a logline to attract the attention of an agent or reader, they’ll have a whole book to get to learn the intricacies of your character. To pull them in within a fifty-word limit, though, the situation in which your character finds him- or herself must be compelling.
Given this, let’s take a look at the [act] components in the loglines we’ve started so far, and analyze them from there.
“After a nanochip grants her access to the internet in her mind, an art-school dropout must use this chip to apologize to her comatose wife…”
“A porn-star-turned-accountant has to cover up years’ worth of money laundering…”
In the logline for EMPATHY the [act] component is intended to have an emotional appeal that introduces the ideas of loss, love, and grief as important players.
The logline for XXX Accounting takes a different approach. It may not be explicitly stated, but there is an implied threat to the main character’s well-being contained within the [act] component. Though the threat will be fleshed out more explicitly later in the logline, including it early on can always be effective.
In both of the above scenarios, the [act] communicates or suggests high stakes for both main characters. Though we don’t yet know what will happen if both characters fail to accomplish their goals, the [act] gives an impression of the struggles both characters will encounter over the course of the narrative. Imagine if the the [act] in either of the above loglines were replaced with any of the below.
“… must eat a sandwich…”
“… must clean the bathroom…”
“… must complete paperwork…”
Woof. Boring, right? Granted, when done properly, the [act], [deadline], and [consequence] components can be pit off one another to produce high-stakes scenarios even if the [act]s themselves seem rather mundane, but those cases are the exception, not the rule.
So one of my characters has to apologize to her comatose wife, and another has to account for some money laundering. So what? If they have all the time and resources in the world to accomplish their goals, no one cares. This is why the [deadline] component of a logline is so critical–it allows you to turn up the heat on your character so that a reader has a better understanding of the dire circumstances in which your character finds him- or herself.
I take a divergent approach to the [deadline] in each of my loglines.
“After a nanochip grants her access to the internet in her mind, an art-school dropout must use this chip to communicate with her comatose wife–before this new technology turns on her.”
“A porn-star-turned-accountant has to cover up years’ worth of money laundering in order to evade an IRS audit…”
Just looking at the manner in which the two of these are punctuated, it should be apparent that one of these loglines is complete while the other is not. Though we don’t know the actual timeline on which this internet-in-brain technology will turn on our art-school dropout, the fact that this deadline exists certainly ups the ante. Furthermore, the [deadline] carries a veiled [consequence] within it. As the writer, you can now focus on your plot’s equivalent of this “turning” (whatever it proves to be) as the primary threat to your character’s main goal.
Could the [deadline] and [consequence] in this example be made more explicit or have a clearer timeline associated with each? I’m sure they could. The “turning” in the EMPATHY example could–and probably should–be made more specific as well. That’s something I’ll have to keep in mind before querying agents (and did, as the current projects page shows). It’s a start for now, though, and putting something on paper is half the battle.
Where the logline for XXX Accounting is concerned, the [deadline] complements the [act] in a more direct way. It confirms to readers that our porn-star-turned-accountant must account for all this money laundering not because she necessarily feels it is the right thing to do, but because the IRS is breathing down her neck. Again, this logline doesn’t explicitly spell out a time or date by which she must complete her [act], but it does imply one.
I find the [consequence] aspect of a logline to be one that can generally be lumped in with your [deadline] or [act], particularly if they complement one another as shown above in our EMPATHY example.
Consider what we have so far for the XXX Accounting logline. We know that our character has to make right regarding something very illegal before the IRS finds out. The complete logline, shown below, doesn’t explicitly state that our main character will face fines and jail time if she doesn’t resolve this in time, but familiarity with the concepts of money laundering and the IRS should imply these consequences to most readers.
“A porn-star-turned-accountant has to cover up years’ worth of money laundering in order to evade an IRS audit. There’s just one problem: she has no idea what she’s doing.”
“If the consequence is implied,” you might ask, “shouldn’t we be done? What’s up with all that gunk on the back end of your logline?”
That, my friends, is called upping the stakes.
With the essential components of the logline addressed in the previous sentence, tacking on a final clarifier provides additional information about our character and what her struggle will be over the course of the narrative. If she were an accounting whiz or money laundering expert, her struggle wouldn’t be that great. Knowing that she knows, well, nothing about accounting increases the tension for a curious reader and also begs another question–how did she end up in her position in the first place?
Do you want to know the answer to this question? You do?
Does this scenario seem interesting to you? It does?
Great, that means the logline would work from a reader’s perspective.
When writing a logline for pitching purposes (as opposed to one for outlining purposes), the ultimate goal is to give readers a “Goldilocks” amount of information. You don’t want to spoil anything, but you also don’t want to give so little information that the prospective reader has no interest in your character or plot. If they finish reading your logline with a bit of intrigue and a question or two just begging them to read on… they will!
“But even with this formula, my logline isn’t coming together.”
I get it. Loglines are hard. But truth be told, all fiction that follows a traditional narrative arc should be able to be collapsed into these simple components.
“Aha,” you say. “This formula isn’t working for me because my story is so cutting edge! It does away with the core foundations of storytelling and replaces them with axioms all my own!”
First of all, we’re all really proud of you. Second of all, maybe you’re right. Third of all, you’re probably not right, though.
If you’re struggling to fit the idea you have for your story’s arc into this formula, there’s a chance it’s because your narrative requires some retooling in order to become more focused. This is one of the main reasons I advocate writing a logline as part of the outlining process. Having a logline as my guide helps me keep things leather-pants tight during the writing process, and focused as I increase the level of detail in my outline.
Another common obstacle folks have when creating their logline has to do with the characters themselves. If you arrive at the [character] stage of your logline and aren’t sure which one of your characters to use, that leaves two possibilities:
1) your narrative doesn’t have a central protagonist.
2) you are writing a narrative from multiple perspectives.
Not sure who your central protagonist is? Write loglines for all possible candidates. Whose storyline is most compelling and has the highest stakes? Does the entire narrative revolve around that character and his or her (in)action? It does? Then that’s your central protagonist.
In David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, there are five different perspective characters, but the central protagonist throughout the book is clear–it’s Holly Sykes. She gets the first and last word as a perspective character, and the story would be radically different (and incomplete) were it told exclusively from the perspective of any other possible candidates.
Now it’s your turn.
Give writing a logline a try. If it helps, lay out all the “stationary” elements of a logline before plugging in the variables. I’ll make it even easier for you below. Just copy and paste the formula into whatever word processor you use, and replace everything contained in [brackets] with what works for your story.
In a world where [x], [character] must [act] before [deadline] or [consequence].
If you’re still struggling even after doing this exercise, never fear! Check out my new logline generator, which you can access either here or here! It won’t write your logline for you, but after seeing enough of them, it should help get your brain headed in the right direction.
Ready to move on to the next stage in organizing your novel? Let’s get to work on that narrative arc!