“Cannot. Stress. This. Enough. Every week I see scores of pitches – sent to my inbox, my ears or via script listing sites – and every week I see Loglines and Taglines being mixed up. PLEASE STOP.”
May 11, 2010, Lucy V. Hay (script editor and novelist)
IMAGINE MY SURPRISE
So here I was, cruising along, a relative newbie as a published author, following the lead of others who were more seasoned in the business than I will ever be. And since many of these authors seemed to use the terms logline and tagline interchangeably, I labored under the delusion that these were just different terms for essentially the same thing.
Since a lot of attention focuses on these two similar but different tools of the trade, research was in order. I found plenty of blogs and articles that confuse the two, or describe the difference but use examples for one term that are clearly samples of the other term. A few pointed out the difference.
Both terms have their roots in the film and TV industries, but the concepts transfer equally well to novels. And since authors should have both for their books, they should know the difference.
First, taglines, tag lines, or tags are American terms, so if you are in the UK, you know them as end lines or straplines. In Italy, they are called pay offs; in Belgium, baselines; in France, signatures.
In the film industry, a tagline is a piece of marketing copy designed to go on posters to sell the film, or in a writer’s case, to sell the book.
Author Stacey Nash describes a tagline for books as “a one-sentence summary of your story. Its goal is to intrigue and make the person that you are delivering it to want to read the story. The most important thing about the tagline is that it needs to be high concept. It should sum up the entire plot in one quick compelling sentence.”
The samples of taglines (all for movies) used by Lucy V. Hay, which she found in a Google search, are:
● “He lived the American Dream…With a vengeance.” (Scarface)
● “An epic of miniature proportions” (A Bug’s Life)
● “EARTH—take a good look. Today could be your last.” (Independence Day)
● “The Toys are back in town.” (Toy Story 2)
● “Whoever wins…We lose.” (Alien Vs Predator)
The longest is ten words. We’re talking short and high concept.
Whatever art form they’re selling (movies, TV shows, music, books), taglines are one sentence (or maybe two) that describes the product. That sentence utilizes puns, clever wording, and images that the average person already knows about, at least superficially, to intrigue the individual into wanting to see the film, hear the music, or read the book.
For me, the key is using imagery most people know and understand to convey an expectation of what the book is about.
Some blogs call a tagline an elevator pitch. I guess that depends on how many floors you’re going to travel. I’d say it’s a one-story elevator pitch. Whatever you call it, it’s the Big Hook. The Attention Grabber.
And your book needs one.
The Origin of the Term
The origin of the logline (or log line) is not the movie industry tie. Actually, according to Stanley D. Williams, it is a nautical term.
Log lines were thin ropes with knots tied in them and wound on a spool. Mariners unreeled these ropes behind them to measure their speed– in Knots–by counting how many evenly spaced knots passed through their hands as the sand in the hour-glass drained from the top to the bottom. The log line was a necessity which helped them navigate the journey and not get lost, since it would show how far the ship had gone in a certain direction and when to turn to find their destination. It was a navigation tool.
I’m not sure how the use of the nautical term got transferred to the movie industry, but according to Wikipedia, the logline came into use when the old movie studios had script vaults. In those vaults, they stored screenplays, apparently one on top of the other, in stacks. Readers supposedly “wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about either one the cover of the script, on the spine of the script, or both.” This allowed people to read the loglines without actually unstacking the scripts. I suppose, in a sense, this was also a navigation tool.
What is a Logline?
The logline, while short, is longer than the tagline and presents a basic description of your plot in about twenty-five to thirty words. It should contain all the necessary elements for telling a good story.
That’s right. And it’s tough to condense 90,000 words into twenty-five. It’s a two-story elevator pitch or a thirty-second time bite in real time.
And you need one of these for your novel, as well.
Let’s go back to the Wikipedia version. So, how did these readers consolidate a script (or a book) into this short description. A number of different authors and screenwriters have identified what needs to be in a logline.
Stanley D. Williams (story consultant, screenwriter and director) believes a good logline is a single sentence which includes five elements.
The subject of the sentence will describe (1) an imperfect but passionate and active PROTAGONIST. The verb will depict (2) the BATTLE. And the direct object will describe (3) an insurmountable ANTAGONIST who tries to stop the protagonist from reaching (4) a physical GOAL on account of (5) the STAKES, if the goal is not reached.
Christopher Lockhart (screenplay writer and film producer) writes “A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible…A logline must present:
● Who the story is about (protagonist)
● What he/she strives for (goal)
● What stands in his way (antagonistic force).”
Author Stacey Nash sees the logline as three sentences in which you sum up the plot of your story answering these basic questions:
● Who is your main character?
● What does he/she want? What is his/her goal?
● Why does he/she want this (motivation)?
● What are the obstacles in his/her way?
● What makes the story unique?
Screenwriter Erik Bork defines the requirements as:
● A very quick sense of who the main character is
● The catalyst that sets the story in motion (the big Uh-Oh)
● The nature of the challenge the characters now face, and it must be a huge difficulty.
Cindy Carroll (screenwriter and author) recommends using one of these structures to answer the address the elements of the logline.
● To stop A, character B must do C, but D happens.
● When A happens, character B must take some action (C), but D happens.
● Character B does something, then when A happens they must do C, but D happens.
She gives the example of one of her own loglines, which is twenty-three words.
“When an informant turns up dead, a by-the-book undercover cop models men’s underwear to uncover the killer and stop a DVD pirating ring.”
Author Kimberly Killion’s pitch format also works as a way to structure a logline by filling in capitalized words.
“TITLE is a GENRE about ADJECTIVE/DESCRIPTION OF MAIN CHARACTER, who wants to DEFAULT ACTION. But when CALL TO ACTION, he must STORY GOAL, which seems impossible because CENTRAL CONFLICT.”
Of course, we can see the common thread. They’re not easy to write because every word has to count and give pertinent information to the reader or listener.
Rules of Thumb
● Be succinct without being sparse. The trick is to create a logline that is pithy but has substance. It must be clear that the antagonistic force is an obstacle to the major goal. It must imply that something is at stake; it must suggest that something can be lost.
● Don’t use the main character’s name.
● Use a descriptive adjective to give the main character depth in a word or two. Instead of describing the main character as “a detective” use “a cynical fifty-year-old detective” or “a young, enthusiastic detective.” Using “an ex-superhero” tells a lot more than “a superhero.” “An alcoholic ex-superhero” conveys even more to the reader (or listener).
● Make the genre clear in the text. If your novel is a romance, you need a hero and heroine in the logline. Whether science fiction, comedy, or mystery, the logline should tell the reader what the genre is.
● Present a succinct description of the protagonist’s main goal and place it as close to the beginning as possible.
● Make your protagonist pro-active. Show the action of the story. Even if the protagonist is reactive, that’s not the same as passive.
● Include the stakes or a ticking time-bomb. Urgency. Show that something can be lost. I like the example used by Erik Bork in his article.
• To save his reputation, a secretly gay fraternity boy must sleep with fifteen women by the end-of-semester party.
● Include the set up, particularly science fiction or paranormal where the rules are different. More Erik Bork examples:
• In a world where all children are grown in vats…
• Driven to a mental breakdown by an accident at work, an aquarium manager…
● Don’t reveal the twist or surprise at the end. The logline (and the book) should work by itself without the “bonus” surprise at the end.
● Make every word count.
● Sell it, don’t tell it.
One final suggestion from a number of screenwriters and authors: Write your Log Line before you write your novel, or at least at the beginning. James Burbridge writes that the bad news is that if you can’t make the logline work, it’s probably because the story doesn’t work.
Okay, Now I Get It!
When things were getting pretty fuzzy and definitions overlapping and contradictory, this example brought clarity to me.
This is from the Press Kit for Close Quarters.
A film about sex, betrayal, friendship, jealousy, love, hate, death, and coffee.
Forced to work an extra shift, two young baristas must come to terms with their own relationship while being bombarded by the very different issues of their diverse customers. (29 words)
● Short Synopsis
BARRY and ABBY are two baristas in a Chicago coffeehouse. Barry is passionately and blindly in love with Abby. She knows this all too well, but is hardly ready to move into any kind of formal relationship with him. This does not stop Barry, though, who has decided that the best way to win her over is to propose to her in front of the largest group possible. This evening will be his opportunity. It is Abby’s birthday and her friends are planning a surprise birthday party for her. Barry is planning an even bigger surprise.
How about this one for the movie Jaws?
Don’t go in the water.
A sheriff struggles to protect his beach community after a grisly shark attack, but greed rules the Chamber of Commerce. (21 words)
Another good example is the movie Alien. This comes up often as an example.
In space, no one can hear you scream.
After responding to a distress signal, a space crew is forced to confront a deadly alien who stows aboard their ship, leaving one member to fend for herself. (28 words)
Just For Fun
So, authors, write your taglines and loglines, and if you run out of ideas or just want some fun, go to Brian Stoke’s Random Logline Generator. This link is for the Zombie edition of the generator:
Another random generator is: http://www.screenwritersutopia.com/modules.php?name=Logline