At a recent PRESS session, an author was trying to hammer their book description down into a proper logline. This can be more challenging than it might seem, especially because a book description and a logline differ in a subtle but fundamental way.
A book description is just that: it describes, to a greater or lesser degree of detail, the book. It is often a synopsis of the book's contents, sans spoilers of course, with a cliffhanger ending that encourages the reader to buy the book and find out what happens. (Synopses aren't easy either; here's why you are probably doing it wrong, and how to do it right)
A proper logline is not so much a description of the book as a pitch for the book. It doesn't even try to summarize or describe the book; it focuses on a few key elements of the book that capture its "magic:" characters in conflict, a protagonist striving for a goal, a distinctive setting or circumstances.
You’ll need a logline as an opening line, an intriguing one-sentence summary, a hook to pitch your book. More prosaically, you may need it to fill in a required field in Submittable.com or the application page for a contest or anthology. As the most concise hook you have, it fits well on business cards, half-sheets, websites, mugs, buttons, or whatever else you someday use to promote your book.
But don't wait until your story is finished before you develop a logline! It can also help you while you are writing, revising, editing, and polishing your story. It is an unerring lodestone as you wander the trackless wilderness of storycraft, a bright pinpoint navigational beacon to help you find your way through the foggy middle. The experts at the New York Film Academy tell their screenwriter students,
“If you ever get stuck with the production or find yourself losing your original vision, read it back to yourself. That's the very essence of your film, right there, and should shine through in every scene of the movie and on every page of the script.”
Novel-writing guru Randy Ingermanson agrees:
“If you read that one-sentence summary every day before you write your next scene (or edit it), you’ll always know when you’re going off track or when you’re already derailed.”
Good loglines are written in prose, but with a poet's spare and careful use of language. Every word must be absolutely necessary. They are written in present tense, active voice, generally twenty words or less (often as short as ten words), and sound something like this:
A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul. (12 words)
A battle-weary army sergeant leads a Sherman tank and its crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. (19 words)
A good logline is evocative. It gives the reader a taste of the story, not just what it's about, but the feeling of the story. Word choice, of course, is the main way one evokes certain moods or narrative voices, but you can also do this by alluding to a well-known element of the story, in this case, the lead actor:
Samuel Jackson deals with a passenger plane full of snakes.
Because Jackson nearly always plays a certain kind of no-nonsense implacable character, we can guess that whatever character Jackson plays in this story, he will be more than a match for a plane full of snakes. We also know, from Jackson's previous movies, that it won't be easy. Jackson's character will go through hell somehow. This logline raises more questions than it answers, but the most important information is front and center. You already know whether you'll love this movie or not!
That's another function of a good logline: not just to attract readers who will love your story, but to gently steer away readers who will hate your story. The number one reason that readers write one-star reviews: they feel tricked into paying money for a story they did not like. If the logline gives an authentic taste of the essence of the book, as well as the fundamental heart of the story, it will attract readers who will love it and buy it, and readers who won't love it will recognize this immediately and scroll on by. Which is exactly what you want both sorts of readers to do.
Even nonfiction books can, and should, have loglines that capture the heart of what the book is about:
My mother was right: love is unconditional, and humble self-belief is the secret.
This is in vivid contrast to a nonfiction book description. For that last logline example, the book description reads:
OMG My Mother Was Right is a unique journal that draws on the fascinating and heart-warming love shared between a mother and daughter. Pat, Fiona’s mother, died in a tragic accident, after which Fiona realized what an immense amount of knowledge and what a magical mindset her mother had left her with, to cope with life. This book epitomizes happiness and fulfillment to promote a positive view on life. Filled with encouragement and joy, it will most certainly give you something to think about.
Written by Fiona Stöber, a bilingual author who focuses on language education, OMG My Mother Was Right is a delightful, emotional, and easy read. Everyone will find their own mother’s love in this book. It will raise your self-awareness, your mindset, and your positive outlook on life. It can help you plan and review how your life is unfolding and help you make positive differences in your life. It is written from the heart, with the unconditional love a mother has for her children.
I think the logline for this book is much more powerful than the description, and shows how much work must have gone into it. Because the book description spread over two entire paragraphs, every word of it did not get the same intense scrutiny that the author gave her logline.
A logline can also mash up two, or possibly three, iconic existing works to convey the feel of the new work being pitched:
Clandestine is Pride and Prejudice in a Blade Runner world.
This works only if the allusions can vividly provide the logline’s ingredients: a setting, a protagonist/antagonist, a conflict/goal. In this case, anyone unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will have no idea that Clandestine is a tension-filled romance between persons of very different social classes; anyone unfamiliar with Blade Runner won’t understand the setting in which Clandestine takes place. Allusions should work like hyperlinks: if your target audience knows them intimately, they trigger a cascade of connections, images, and emotions. All the right ones, if you choose your allusions well! But if the allusions don’t work for one reason or another, you risk misleading people about your story. (Again, beware of luring readers into paying good money to be disappointed!)
A good logline resonates with the title of the story. Sometimes, your logline may even work well as the subtitle; other times, you may find that your subtitle makes a great logline! But most of the time, your title and subtitle (if you have one) will stand on their own, and your logline will stand on its own... but they ought to work together on some level. They ought to sound good together when you read them aloud. A good logline will give your title deeper significance and gravitas.
Sometimes the opposite is true, too... If your story is a retelling of a familiar classic (these have been hugely popular in recent years, from Dracula Untold, Maleficent, Tangled, and Cinderella to the heaping pile of Spiderman reboots and so many more) then your logline can simply comment on your title somehow, in a way that evokes the feel of your take on it. One classic example of this is the spare but powerful two-word logline for the 1998 remake of Godzilla:
No one concerned with subtly brilliant acting, witty dialogue, or intricately woven plot paid any attention to this movie (and if they were forced to do so, they wrote negative reviews of it). Everyone thrilled with the idea of seeing a supremely enormous Godzilla gradually unveiled and then rampaging through countrysides and New York City—yeah, those people loved this movie. Because to them, witty dialogue and clever plot don't matter. Size matters. The logline steered both groups of people in the right directions. (Yes, the trailer helped, but guess what guided the trailer-editors' work? The logline.)
Unfortunately, too many cinema and publishing professionals have muddied the boundary between evocative loglines and book descriptions with descriptive pitches that run much longer than a classic logline and offer so much information about the story that it might as well be a very short book description. But now that you know what a logline really is, you'll detect its genes in this hybrid:
To avenge the death of his family, a poor young moisture farmer on a desert planet masters his latent mystic powers to rescue a princess and thwart an evil emperor’s plans to enslave the galaxy.
Or this one, which shows that a story need not be a cinematic adventure to have a great logline:
A timid functionary at a Dunder Mifflin-esque corporation receives a misspelled nameplate and embarks on a quirky journey of self-discovery.
...are these wordy loglines? Or super-condensed book descriptions?
A bit of both, really.
(The second one shows that PRESS did indeed help that author to hammer his book description all the way down into a log line!)
There are even proven formulas that make it easier to create this kind of descriptive logline:
A [protagonist] must stop an [antagonist] from [antagonist’s goal].
A [protagonist] must [verb] an [antagonist] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
And to make this formula work even better, in the place of [protagonist] and [antagonist], write an adjective+noun pair that describes that character.
Formulas like this work best when you play with them instead of following them exactly. Well, like any recipe, begin by following it exactly, see what you wind up with, then play with it. For instance, notice that the very first logline example I gave you is an interesting twist on the second version of this formula: it makes the story antagonist the [protagonist], and the object of his hatred (the Apostle Paul) into the [antagonist], or at least the protagonist’s goal (to kill him):
A [rogue physicist] must [travel back in time] in order to [kill the apostle Paul].
You can see how this rougher version follows the formula fairly closely, but not in the way the formula tells you to follow it.
Here’s another helpful formula that might fit villain-less or thematic stories better than the first pair:
A [protagonist: adjective+noun] tries to [initial goal] but [this happens instead].
One more formula for you that’s a bit more general and will yield a wordier one-sentence summary than most formulas, but it might give you the ore you need so that you can refine it into gold:
[A person/people] [with a/have a problem], so they [initial or core goal] to avoid/before [disaster befalls, whether universal, contextual, or personal: the stakes!].
Learn the chemistry of these formulas, run your story through each one in turn, then embrace your inner mad scientist. Experiment! The formulaic approach may give rise to a classic evocative logline at some point, or finally remind you of comparable blockbusters that you can use for a mashup logline, or at least yield a decent descriptive logline.
The popularity of these kinds of formulaic approaches to composing a descriptive logline has given rise to a certain amount of ridicule in writers' circles, and some delightful parody:
Please note that David Malki!’s contraption uses a clever formula of its own, and might actually be helpful if you write certain kinds of genre fiction… ignore his "multiple choice" lists and add your own story’s ingredients and see what the Electro-Plasmic Hydrocephalic Genre Fiction Generator comes up with! And if you’re looking for story ideas, put this contraption to work making random but eerily plausible (and sometimes hilarious) descriptive loglines by clicking here.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the descriptive logline. Sometimes you'll even be required to compose one, by an agent, an acquisitions editor, a contest entry form, or a writing instructor. But it's good to be familiar with the classic, tight, evocative logline, or even the mashup logline, and to have one of those ready too, just in case. Because when a pro demands a "real" logline, it is nearly impossible to come up with so few words, so wisely chosen, so tightly arranged, on such short notice.
You must be ready.
You must forge your logline now.