Of the writing of books there is no end, and of advice on writing there is (seemingly) no end. Finding the heart of your story is not a new quest, and yet Jordan Smith has crafted a new angle on the subject, and delivered it in such sparkling, quick-footed prose that his book is well worth the price of admission.
First of all, what is a logline? In brief, a logline is the one-sentence summery of your story – but it can be much more than that.
I’m a person who loves examples. Mr. Smith provides plenty while walking through his book, and I’ll show you what I mean by using some of the loglines I made for my own stories using his book.
A story, at rock bottom, is characters who want something they don’t have, trying to get it. When you write a logline, you have to strip out all the excess fluff and focus on the main driving conflict, because only that much will fit into one sentence. Sometimes this is hard; after all, every single character is theoretically the hero of his own story, so how do you decide which is the “main” protagonist, conflict, and plot? Mr. Smith gives an excellent example of this in his book with Pirates of the Caribbean.
I had this very issue with my upcoming detective relationship-drama Hayes and Hayes. See, there are two intertwining story lines in this book; I wrote loglines for each of them:
A down-on-his-luck private detective with a photographic memory tries to find the truth about the death of his beautiful client’s husband.
The detective’s wheelchair-bound little brother, who lives with him and helps him solve cases, becomes jealous of his growing relationship with the beautiful widow.
Initially, this was an unwritten novel, so it was entirely up to me which plotline was the dominant one. In the end, I decided to just sit down and write the book, and let the two of them duke it out on the page.
Mr. Smith also points out that just because you think something’s a story doesn’t mean it has the structure to actually form one. For example, I had this cool idea for a pseudo-fantasy story about a half-breed boy growing up with his mother’s family and slowing beginning to wonder why he has red hair when everyone else in his village has black hair…
So, being a good little student I tried to logline it. Plop. The story isn’t about him. At least in its current vision, he doesn’t do much except wander around feeling confused and depressed. It’s the visitor from out of town, who’s being angled to marry the mother, who is asking questions, learning things, doing things, wanting things and moving to make them happen. Watching a kid be sorry for himself isn’t very gripping; the other guy is the actor.
Sigh. That story will go back on the shelf to simmer a little bit, and I didn’t waste 300 words on it finding out it was broken – just 32ish words. Thanks to the logline.
Authors also often have trouble with their story’s premise. I’m great at coming up with situations: a kind of character in a particular situation with this kind of baggage. Then I have to figure out where they go from there, and I stagger. Finding the Core of Your Story helps explain this. As Mr. Smith says, a logline of “A band of adventurers must defeat the darkness inside themselves to defeat the green mist outside” is not compelling. Audiences (or back cover readers) are going to yawn and change the channel, or wander into the kitchen for another bowl of trail mix… A logline like that is also not going to help you when you sit down to write it. All right! My character is going to…uh…because he really wants…uh…inner light…duh…
The more specific and scintillating you can make your logline, the more help you’ll have when you write it out. And when your coworker asks what you’ve been doing with your free time, and you spring your succinct yet gripping teaser on him, he’ll go, “Seriously? Sign me up! Can I buy three copies when it comes out?”
One further point Mr. Smith makes is that loglines aren’t just something you write up for your new projects. They can also be helpful if you’re looking at a pile of manuscript pages and wondering what little thing just doesn’t quite sing. If you take a step back, apply Mr. Smith’s technique to narrow down who your central character is, what he wants, and what he has to do to overcome whatever’s stopping him, you might find where your focus is off and be able to repair the book without more frustration and heartache.
After you’ve written the book, you need to sell it, right? My medieval adventure Sons of the King was a completed manuscript, but I’d received a suggestion for how to strengthen one element.
This is the first logline for my book:
A displaced prince must discover the truth about his brother’s death to avenge their father’s murder and retake the kingdom from the despotic usurper.
I reworked the book, and the logline, too, while I was at it. Just as a refocusing of the novel added immensely to the subtext, it also cranked the logline up to a whole new level. With help from my dad, I tightened it down to this:
A driven young man’s quest for justice is transformed by a chance night-time encounter with his greatest rival.
The first one is accurate, but needlessly overarching. The second one zeros in on the person of the protagonist, his struggle, and the specific event that gives him the key to his success. Once you’ve developed your own punchy logline for your story, you know the core around which your back-cover copy should revolve to blow your potential audience away.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m ceaselessly plugging my own ideas, but I understand things best when I see them working in front of me. I hope that seeing how Jordan Smith’s book has helped develop how I think about story (and the ways I’ve applied it) will help you decide whether or not to take that same help.
(Or you could just read the book for fun, save the money on a movie ticket, and still have an entertaining, power-packed evening.)
Cover image is used with permission of the author.