What’s Your Novel’s Log Line?

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The term log line (also spelled log-line and logline) is usually associated with movies, but the wise novelist will learn how to write one.

In the context of writing (as opposed to measuring a ship’s rate of speed), a log line is the succinct summary of a story. According to the Wikipedia article,

The log line first came into use and was recognized as a separate form during the old studio days of Hollywood. The studios had script vaults in which they stored screenplays. Readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about either on the cover of the script, on the spine of the script, or both. The log line on the spine of the script allowed people to read the log lines of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.

Some of the examples of log lines given on various sites are “movie tags” rather than true log lines. The difference is that a movie tag is an advertising hook used to intrigue a viewer, while a log line is a selling tool intended to persuade an agent or producer to read a manuscript.

Here are two movie tags I found offered as “good examples of log lines”:

To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman. – The Silence of the Lambs

On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. – Taxi Driver

An effective log line will contain these three essential elements:

the main character
what the main character wants
what must be overcome for the character to succeed

In other words, an effective log line will include protagonist, goal, and antagonistic force

These log lines from the Internet Movie Data Base meet these criteria better than the examples of the same movies given above:

A young FBI cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims. – The Silence of the Lambs

A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as nighttime taxi driver in a city whose perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge to violently lash out, attempting to save a teenage prostitute in the process. –Taxi Driver

But even these log lines are less than effective as selling tools.

Both state the protagonist. The one for The Silence of the Lambs also states the protagonist’s goal, but it fails to include the antagonistic force: the killer’s hypnotic influence on her mind. The one for Taxi Driver states neither the protagonist’s goal nor the antagonistic force.

The most important element of any story is the protagonist’s goal. Once the main character has a goal, the story ensues from the obstacles that come between the protagonist and that goal.

Screenwriters are advised to write the log line before writing the script. That’s probably good advice for the novelist as well.

If you need a log line to serve as a starting point for a novel, or just want a little amusement, check out Brian Stokes’s Random Log-line Generator.

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5 thoughts on “What’s Your Novel’s Log Line?”

  1. Oh my gosh, that random log line generator is awesome.
    I used to pay good money to get writing prompts like those from Writer’s Digest magazine!

    If we actually write a story based on it’s offerings, do we need to share credit with Brian Stokes?

    I want this one:

    “A telekinetic mafia kingpin writes a book about a teacher’s ex-wife.”

    or maybe this one:

    “An incredulous jingle writer finds a good luck charm while sharing an umbrella with an accident-prone fortune teller.”


  2. I’ve never heard it called a logline before – I’ve always heard it called a “hook/one-sentence hook” or “elevator pitch.”

  3. This post reminds me of something I read years ago and has stayed with me. The famous Broadway producer David Balasco os alledged to have said, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”

  4. “Flesh-eating accountants discover their true selves.”

    This generator would be good for English teachers trying to think up writing prompts for reluctant students. Thanks for the link.

    My take: If you can’t think of a log line for your novel, you probably haven’t written a novel that will engage the reader. I see the immediate connection between novel log lines and paragraph structure: what’s the one idea being communicated?

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