Essentially, a screen story's log-line should tell the reader who must do what in order to prevent what from happening.
If you are having trouble formulating a concise log-line for your story, chances are your plot is suffering from DGD (Dramatic Grammar Deficiency), or - worse - that you are failing to grasp the emotional logic of what is actually going on as evidenced by the actions and interactions of the characters.
The best remedy for DGD is not a recipe, or a handy template, or even a sure-fire, "5 easy steps to the perfect log line". What is required is a more intimate relationship with the characters whose actions and plans and objectives are what is driving the story (or not), and the recognition that not all of the characters necessary for the realisation of the story reside in the actual screenplay. There are other characters, which are just as important as the dramatis personae, and ultimately you must forge relationships with them as well if you are to discover the story's thematic significance and emotional meaning.
WRITING LOG-LINES FOR SCRIPTS
"If you can't say it in one sentence, you don't know what it's about."
A conventional and successful log-line will usually contain three elements: it will tell you 1) WHO the protagonist is and WHAT they want to achieve; 2) WHO or WHAT stands in their way; and 3) what the RISKS or consequences will be if they don't succeed.
To illustrate this notion more vividly, consider the following:
WHO? It is not necessary to name your protagonist in the actual log-line, but you should tell us what kind of person they are, which is done most effectively by conjuring a picture or image of them that in some way epitomizes their essence or dramatic identity or the relevant given circumstances that have a bearing on their choices and actions; for example: A rock'n'roll arsonist; a troubled young girl; a rebellious family man; a cynical police detective, an alcoholic lawyer; and so on.
WHAT? What is their main objective in the story? What is it that they desire, remembering that dramatic action is goal-directed action. Do they want to protect their family? Win someone's love? Discover the identity of a murderer? Redeem the sense of their own integrity?
WHY? is the action DRAMATIC? In other words, what is at risk? What are the stakes? The possibility of the death of a loved one? The destruction of a way of life? A travesty of justice? The punishment of an innocent under the guise that they are guilty?
When composing a log-line, make sure that it emphasizes the protagonist as a pro-active character - a character that is making things happen and not merely the recipient of events enacted by others. Even if your protagonist is initially a victim, they must eventually become an active force for change or their story won't illicit our concern, and we won't care.
Many great movies feature compelling settings that multiple or in some important way contribute to the on-going conflict/s in the story, such as a war, a ghetto, a high powered law firm, the Old West. If you can, include the setting in your log-line you can make the story world even more vivid and present to the reader.
Keeping the above in mind, how might one write the log-lines for some well-known films? Let's look at a few examples.
West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet).
Two young lovers associated with rival gangs in the slums of New York try to escape the bigotry and violence that surrounds them to find a better life.
A naive young woman wants to see the world and find true love before her evil stepmother captures and re-imprisons her.
A land lubber sheriff tries to kill a giant shark to protect his family and seaside resort town.
A small boy who was accidentally left alone tries to prevent robbers from breaking into his home during Christmas.
A down-at-heel lawyer seeks to redeem his self-respect by defending the rights of a young medical-malpractice victim against the city's leading Catholic-owned hospital, and city's biggest and most prestigious law firm.
You will, no doubt, be able to create variations of these log-lines. There are no right and wrong log-lines - only ones that help you sell your screenplay and ones that don't.
Extrapolating on what we have already said, a more ambitious way of looking at the task of a successful log-line is to understand it as a sentence (or sentences) that presents the “what’s-it-about” of a story – the Set-Up, the Conflict, the Stakes and the Resolution. A great log-line, when fully realised might even go beyond what has already been outlined by incorporating the following:
Keep it in present tense, and pack as much potent visually dramatic information as you can without losing the edge and attitude of the story.
If you think of your log-line as a commercial for the movie you see in your head - the one you have played out in your imagination as you've been writing it, then you'll breathe life and personality into one, two or three sentences it will take you to say IT.
Log-line for Rainman :
A self-centered hotshot returns home for his father's funeral to learn that the family inheritance goes to an autistic brother he never knew he had. When the hotshot kidnaps this older brother and drives him cross-country hoping to gain his confidence and get control of the family money, he discovers an unusual dimension to his brother's autism that sparks a genuine relationship, which leads to the revelation of a of dramatic childhood secret.
Log-line for Some Like It Hot :
Two womanizing musicians, seeking to escape the mob after witnessing the St. Valentines' Day dress in drag and join an all-girl band headed for Miami, where their disguises not only open the door to love but also to misunderstanding and new dangers. Just when it looks like love conquers all, the mobsters show up at the same Miami resort.
THE PROMISE OF PREMISE
PREMISE – “a proposition hypothetically supposed or held to be true; a basis of argument.”
Every cohesive and emotionally logical, dramatic screen story is capable of articulation in a well-formulated premise of one sentence. When it comes to writing energetic, vital screenplays, there is no idea or situation that is potent and meaningful enough on its own to carry you from beginning to middle to end unless it can be expressed in terms of a clear-cut premise.
A premise is something to be proved, something asserted as true; it is the writer’s truth concerning the great issues that confront human existence – the ideas and values that inform and confound us – love, death, loyalty, jealousy, prejudice. A premise states what the story is about, what it means, rather than simply recounting what happens. It conveys in a simple proposition the central truth of the story as that truth is understood by the screenwriter. A cogent premise is supported and validated by the actions of the characters; the story is the evidence that either supports or fails to support the story’s premise. If it does not, then there is either something wrong with the story, or something wrong with the premise.
The search for your story’s premise is a meditation on what the story actually means. As such, a premise – at least in the early stages of finding the characters and the story - is not written in stone. You may massage it; elaborate on it; employ it heuristically to test the effectiveness of both the action and the emotions conveyed. A premise is a guide to how well every part of the story supports or resonates with every other part of the story. It may be a stepping stone or a catalyst in the quest to dig ever deeper into the story’s possibilities and to find something new and unexpected there. Your premise should point the direction and vividly illuminate the ultimate goal and meaning of the actions of the characters.
Screenwriter and teacher, Bill Johnson, has said that a premise is a promise. It articulates for the writer and others the truth for which the screenplay offers evidence. If I say I’m going to tell you a story that proves love conquers everything, including death, I better make sure I’m giving you Romeo and Juliet and not Othello.
By way of example, consider the film, Viva Zapata, written for the screen by John Steinbeck, from a novel (uncredited) by Edgecumb Pinchon.
The log-line of this film might be stated as: “Emile Zapata, a good man, struggles against oppression, and in the end becomes an oppressor himself.”
BUT the premise will be: “Good men who fight against injustice sometimes discover through their actions that they, themselves, become the perpetrators of injustice. (Viva Zapata)
If the premise is borne out by the story, if the story “proves” through what it shows us that the premise is true, then we can say that the story has succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to do.
Premises deal with universals, like love, courage, greed, freedom, justice, death, duty, play, the nature of our responsibilities to ourselves and to others…
A premise is usually wider than a simple statement of a theme (e.g.: all men are brothers, war is hell, etc) because it includes in its expression the fulfillment of the dramatic issue that lies at the core of the story. Thematic statements don’t always contain this fulfillment stage.
Some times a film's premise (or theme) is actually stated by a character or narrator within the body of the film. Here are a couple of examples from the films The Verdict and Cool Hand Luke :
CREATING PREMISES (with acknowledgments to Bill Johnson)
Every human being is a bundle of presuppositions. Another word for a presupposition is PREMISE. Hence, every human being is a bundle of premises.
Some of these premises are significant and some aren’t.
A significant presupposition might be: “You can only keep what you are prepared to give away.”
An insignificant presupposition might be : “Broccoli puts hair on your chest.”
The significant ones are the ones that ought to attract our attention as storytellers.
Some times an insignificant presupposition can be made significant by virtue of a story.
One premise can lead to many stories…
Knowing one’s premises is really knowing oneself. And writers, like everybody else, don’t usually know that much about themselves, or they know what is comfortable for them to know and repress or hide the rest. They’ve been “taught” to do this – like everyone else – since they were very young.
It is idiotic to go hunting for a premise OUT THERE, in the world. The best story premises are the ones that are already alive and at work within you. Find one of these, one that reflects or reveals a powerful conviction that you hold about the nature of human and/or non-human reality.
The act of creating a story becomes – in part - an act of clarification – an opportunity to explore and clarify to yourself (and others) a conviction or value that you hold dear.
Do you know what your convictions are?
Do you ever look them over? Are there any that you would die for?
Anyone who has a few strong convictions is a mine of premises. And a storyteller – or at least, a potential storyteller.
Storytelling is about self-discovery. We tell stories in order to find out what and who we are…
A PREMISE GROWS OUT OF THE ACT OF DISCOVERING THE STORY THAT WANTS TO BE TOLD…
A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of the idea behind the story, and MUST contain the following:
1. The CENTRAL THEME, idea or dramatic ISSUE.
2. The defining ACTION, movement or conflict
3. The FULFILLMENT of the idea or value.
The creation of an inspired story is not possible UNLESS the storyteller commits him/herself to a POINT OF VIEW…
Until the author takes sides there can be no story.
When the author champions one side of an issue or another, a premise becomes possible.
This does not mean that the writer oversees a rigged game. The veracity of the premise is worthless unless it has been actively challenged by formidable and capable opposition.
We, the audience, might not agree with your conviction. BUT through your story, you have a chance to prove the validity of your contention, and make us re-think our own prejudices and assumptions..
If the story is to change or broaden the audience's attitudes, then the characters in the story must lead them into the sort of world in which the story's PREMISE is perceived as true, in other words, the actions and interactions of the characters SHOW or DEMONSTRATE the life of the truth that the story embodies.
The premise is a promise concerning the sort of story you intend to tell that will not be broken so long as the story "proves" the premise.