A few years ago, an inquisitive stranger cornered me with a seemingly innocuous question: “What’s your book about?” Instead of rattling off a zinger, my brain blanked, my tongue tangled, and I stuttered something about “a monster who eats people” before hastily retreating.
If you’ve been in this predicament before, you can probably relate. You might effortlessly keep track of multiple POVs and complicated plot twists while you’re writing, but as soon as someone expresses curiosity, your mounds of mental notes disappear in a blink.
“They put me on the spot! That’s what triggered my sudden amnesia.” Or so you argue. After my own awkward response, I realized that the problem went deeper than my social skills: I didn’t fully understand the core of my plot.
Beneath the skin and muscle of a story is a beating heart that pumps lifeblood into every scene. Whether you’re tossing around a new idea or stuck in a sagging second act, crafting a log line will not only save you from embarrassment, it may save your work-in-progress from disaster.
What’s a Log Line, and Why Do You Need One?
A log line consists of one or two sentences that describe your plot’s fundamental elements: characters, situation, goal, conflict, and stakes. Apart from sating nosy friends, this encapsulation has numerous benefits. During the early brainstorming stages, it reveals whether your concept is strong or weak. When you start drafting, it acts as a compass (much like an outline, except shorter), preventing stray possibilities from luring you off course. And later you can recycle it as a pitch to agents and publishers.
Here are a couple examples of what a log line can look like:
“When four siblings with a tense relationship stumble through a magical wardrobe, they discover that they must free the land from a tyrannical witch—or watch their newfound friends get turned to stone.” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
“After inheriting a fortune from an unknown benefactor, humble orphan Pip Pirrip struggles to become a gentleman to win the heart of a cruel girl.” (Great Expectations)
As I’m sure you’re thinking, though, distilling thousands of words into fifty or fewer sounds as plausible as cramming the guts of Cinderella’s oversized pumpkin into a sixteen ounce can. Why else would you become incoherent when someone encourages you to talk about your passion project? Fortunately, the task has a formula that’s easy to follow if you address one category at a time.
A log line should identify the book’s leading protagonist and provide a glimpse of who he is, whether his personality, social status, occupation, or even (in the case of speculative fiction) species. Thor revolves around an arrogant god of thunder. Raymie Nightingale depicts a grieving but determined ten-year-old girl. Macbeth chronicles the escapades of a titular, overambitious general.
With books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Six of Crows, multiple characters can be grouped together because each of them has an equal amount of “screen time” and impact. But usually, if you cross-examine your cast, you’ll notice one character singling himself out.
Whose arc is intrinsic to the plot? Who experiences the highest stakes? Who changes significantly by the end? Which traits define him and his choices? What makes him interesting? The answers will bring clarity to the character development you’re setting in motion.
Near the beginning of a novel, an event overturns the protagonist’s world. Blessing or curse, the result is the same: he can’t go back, and his actions from that moment forward determine whether he’ll grow or devolve. In Thor’s self-titled film, he recklessly destroys a truce with a neighboring planet and Odin banishes him to Earth. In Raymie Nightingale, the little girl’s father abandons his family for another woman. And in Macbeth, a trio of witches prophecy that the general will rise to the throne of Scotland.
Most novels have several overlapping subplots, such as Pip’s infatuation with Estella, abusive home, and unearned riches. But your log line should focus on the inciting incident or first plot point to avoid distorting the direction your story is heading in. Otherwise you’ll confuse potential readers—yourself too.
What are your protagonist’s circumstances at the opening of the story? What’s the catalyst for his journey? Which of his problems is he ignoring, and which is he striving to solve? Uncovering the source of the pressure is as simple as reviewing your first few chapters.
Since your protagonist’s desires drive the plot, your log line needs to mention his response to the new reality he’s dealing with. A goal can be confined to a scene or stretch across an entire novel, but the latter is what I’m referring to here.
Before Thor can return to Asgard, he must overcome his pride and prove he’s worthy of the divine hammer Mjolnir. Raymie enters the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition in hopes of impressing her father. And Macbeth schemes to assassinate King Duncan.
What does your protagonist yearn for? What’s his primary motivation? How is he reacting to the loss of normalcy? Once you’ve established those behaviors, you’re ready to move on to the parts of your log line that will someday entice readers and publishers to invest in your story.
Any entity that hinders your protagonist from achieving his goal deserves recognition in your log line. In speculative fiction, thrillers, and suspense, the opposition often takes the form of a villain, whereas contemporary and historical fiction may present an inconvenience, misunderstanding, or moral dilemma instead.
Thor’s treacherous brother Loki conspires against him, jeopardizing his attempts to regain Odin’s approval. Raymie must compete against the talented Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski. And guilt and paranoia cause Macbeth to hallucinate about the people he’s murdered.
Most writers are obsessed with tormenting their characters, so checking off this box shouldn’t be too strenuous. What or who is threatening your protagonist’s success, and why?
The risks associated with failure give readers a reason to care about your protagonist’s fate. The higher the cost, the greater the tension and desperation to emerge victorious. If Thor doesn’t defeat Loki, both his celestial kingdom and his newfound home on Earth will be in peril. If Raymie doesn’t win the contest, she fears she won’t attract her father’s attention and will never see him again. If Macbeth continues to succumb to his lust for power, he’ll damage his sanity.
Conflict may grab readers, but stakes lock them in their seats, so your log line won’t be compelling without this final detail. How would failure affect your protagonist, his world, and the supporting cast? What would the fallout be?
Putting the Pieces Together
Now it’s time to consolidate all of your notes. Don’t worry about the length yet—you can sharpen your hatchet after you’ve jotted down the basics. I’ll use my answers from the previous sections to demonstrate.
Thor: “When the arrogant god of thunder recklessly destroys the truce with a neighboring planet, Odin banishes him to live among humans, where he must overcome his pride, prove he’s worthy of the divine hammer Mjolnir, and defeat his treacherous brother to protect both his celestial kingdom and his newfound home on Earth.”
Raymie Nightingale: “After Raymie’s father abandons his family for another woman, the grieving but determined ten-year-old enters the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, hoping that her father will spot her picture in the newspaper and remember that he loves her. But when she must compete against the talented Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski, Raymie fears she’ll never be able to win and impress her father enough to coax him back.”
Macbeth: “When a trio of witches prophecy that General Macbeth will rise to the throne of Scotland, he becomes consumed with ambition and listens to his wife’s suggestion that he assassinate King Duncan. But when guilt and paranoia cause him to hallucinate about the people he’s murdered, his sanity deteriorates.”
One of the cardinal principles of writing is that you can’t edit a blank page, but you can edit a full one, so let your inner critic guide this step. Remember, a log line is a quick and concise summary of your plot, not a back-cover blurb, which means reducing your word count as much as possible.
Thor: “The exiled god of thunder must overcome his pride before he can regain his powers and thwart his treacherous brother’s plans to overtake both the celestial kingdom of Asgard and Earth.”
Raymie Nightingale: “After Raymie’s father abandons his family, the ten-year-old enters a talent contest to impress him. But when she faces two talented and determined competitors, her hope of attracting her father’s attention dances away.”
Macbeth: “When a trio of witches prophecy that General Macbeth will rise to the throne of Scotland, he assassinates King Duncan only to be haunted by his crimes—and the onset of insanity.”
If you want more examples to study, I recommend browsing movies on IMDb.com and analyzing how each blurb is structured to be succinct and catchy. You can also practice crafting log lines for your favorite stories. How would you describe A Tale of Two Cities, Dune, and Little Women?
Once you’re comfortable with the process, recognizing the five core elements of any plot will become second nature—whether you’re discussing your latest read or your own work-in-progress.
Now, finish polishing your log line and go wow your friends with it.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.