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Crafting a Log Line

| May 16, 2011 | 3 Comments


Mark Bertolini (Breakneck, Ghostlines, Long Gone) is one of the hardest working writers in indie comics.  If you’re unfamiliar with his work, just wait.  The sheer volume of projects this guy is working on is staggering.  This has been a break out year for Mark, with several of his creator-owned books published by 215 Ink and Creator’s Edge Press hitting the comics shelves.

A few months back, Mark found out that there was some potential Hollywood interest in Breakneck. I was able to give him a line on a literary manager who might help rep his work in that arena.  As any good manager would do, the conversation soon turned to, “So, what else you got?”  If you’ve written a screenplay or have a property you think would be perfect for Hollywood, that’s awesome!  But definitely start working on the next one before you put much effort into trying to get the first produced.  Most good literary managers or agents aren’t looking for a one-trick pony, they’re looking for a long-term relationship with a consistent producer. Anyway, one of the properties that Mark’s manager is particularly interested in is Ghostlines.  However, Mark’s having a bit of trouble with a request.  In Mark’s words:

“My manager thinks Ghostlines could translate well into a movie, so I’m letting him do his thing, but there’s one thing I need to do for him, and I’m struggling to make it work.  He needs a log line, a one-sentence description of the story, something simple that encompasses the story that he can put in front of a producer and give them a good idea of what Ghost Lines is about. Similar to a pitch, I guess, but dumbed down even farther.

And I’m having a hell of a time trying to get one written.”

Ah, yes, the log line. This is something I always try to include in the early concept stage of my writing process, because it’s a PAIN to write when the story is done.  Your log line is your super quick pitch.  It’s very similar to the one sentence hook you might use at a comic book convention to grab an attendee’s attention.  From Wikipedia, “A log line or logline is a brief summary of a television program or film, often providing both a synopsis of the program’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.” If you’ve ever flipped through a TV guide or read the short descriptions of movie’s in Netflix, you’re familiar with log lines.  But yeah, I feel Mark’s pain.  They can be tough to write.

But, hey, isn’t this what ComixTribe is for?  Let’s help our boy out, shall we?
Here’s a short summary of Ghostlines from Mark:

“Essentially, the story of Ghost Lines is this: a shadowy corporation creates serial killer “stand-ins” to fill the role of the serial killer (when they can’t be caught), someone they can parade in front of the population and convince them that the killer has been brought to justice. There’s a small army of these stand-ins, controlled by a series of open-air transmissions called Ghost Lines. One of the stand-ins fights back, using the Ghost Lines to track down the real killers, and strike back at the corporation that created him.”

Okay, so from that paragraph, I think it’s pretty clear what Ghostlines is about.  Now, here’s the log line Mark has so far:

“Deacon Sands is a serial killer stand-in, used and abused when the real killer can’t be caught. But now Deacon is using the tools given to him by the corporation that created him to strike back, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake.”

Now, as it stands, this log line is functional, but as Mark himself admits, “It’s just too damn wordy.”  How do we improve it?

As I said, log lines are tough, and there is definitely an art to them.  And in truth, I haven’t yet come up with a perfect log line for Mark.  Instead, I’m going to outline some tips and principles for crafting log lines, and then hopefully turn it over to the Tribe for some ideas.  Sound good?

1) Get out the hatchet!

Brevity is paramount when it comes to log lines.  Let’s take a look at Mark’s log line WIP again.  This time, I’m going to eliminate all of the words in that logline that are unimportant.

Deacon Sands is a serial killer stand-in, used and abused when the real killer can’t be caught. But now Deacon is using the tools given to him by the corporation that created him to strike back, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake.”

For brevity’s sake, there are a couple of easy deletes here.  Unless your story is about a real person, no need to include his/her name in the log line.  I’d rather know who Deacon Sands is.  A devoted father?  A defrocked priest? A recovering alcoholic?  Give me something I can connect to instantly.

Also, in the log line, there’s not a lot of room for redundant phrasing.  “Used and abused” or “trail of death and destruction in his wake” are simply too verbose.  Cut cut cut!

2) Study Log Lines from Similar Movies

The good news is, EVERY movie you’ve ever seen can be boiled down into one of these log lines.  Though Mark’s book is clearly a high concept premise, it’s surely no more convoluted than, say, Inception.  So, have faith!  If Nolan could boil Inception down to one line, so can you!  Here are a few log lines for famous flicks:

Inception – In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption which involves executing his toughest job to date: Inception.

Source CodeAn action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

Pulp Fiction – The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

If those movies can be log lined, so too can Ghostlines.  Again, notice that each log line above focuses on two things: Character and Themes.

Character

Inception: highly skilled thief
Source Code: soldier
Pulp Fiction: hit men, gangster’s wife, diner bandits

Themes

Inception: technology, dreams, redemption
Source Code: action thriller, mission to find bomber
Pulp Fiction: violence, redemption, intertwined lives

A worthwhile research project is to pick some movies in a similar genre of your story and search IMDB for their log-lines.  Look at how they boil things down.  And then take a number of cuts at it.

3.) Find the Verb, Find the Heart

I can’t stress how important it is to find a group of like-minded, thoughtful peers to bounce ideas off of.  (It’s why ComixTribe exists, afterall.)  Here’s some killer analysis and recommendations from writer Mark Cooper (author of the upcoming Inspectre graphic novel from Slave Labor Graphics.)  Talk to us, Coop:

I think you’re neglecting  the reason the story matters to the characters (and the reader).

You have a plot with a compelling scenario, but there’s no apparent story: Is Ghost Lines about Deacon’s revenge (and if so, on whom)? Is it about the way Ghost Lines are used against the Corporations?  Is he leading a slave revolt? What is the specific action that motivates Deacon to the end of the story?

You’re assuming, as readers, that we’ll categorize the Corporations as the antagonists, but you also introduce the real serial killers, so now both of those relationships need to be defined otherwise it confuses Deacon’s  action (motivation).

The log line you’ve included lacks a strong verb: Deacon Sands is a serial killer stand-in, used and abused when the real killer can’t be caught. But now Deacon is using the tools given to him by the corporation that created him to strike back, leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake.

 

You can find that verb by thinking: Subject verb object

Deacon Sands gets revenge. This is a weak verb example.

Deacon Sands murders his Overseers. Maybe too pointed, but it has an emotional punch.

Even if the verb you choose doesn’t entirely describe your story, you can at least discover the flavor of the logline. A good verb demonstrates relationships with impact and efficiency; exactly the way your logline should function.

It’s  OK to sacrifice details in you logline. Instead of “Shadowy Corporations” you could say, “Society”. It lacks detail, yet still represents the emotional identity of the antagonist. You do want to (tightly) define the “Ghost Lines”, and play-up the “scapegoat” motif.

The higher concepts are:

1.       Why do we care about the protagonist?

2.       What’s at stake?

Harry Potter is the only Wizard that can defeat the evil Voldemort. That’s a lot to ask a 14 year old.

 

I think you need to take a big step back and look at it from the reader’s perspective, which requires incredible efficiency: We should live in mortal terror that a reader ever skim over our words. A logline, because it’s so brief, needs strong words that attract and hold the reader’s eyes.

Again, great thinking by Coop here.

So, here’s the challenge: Can you help Mark craft a strong log line for Ghostlines?

Let the suggestions, comments, and discussion commence!

***

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.

Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.

Contact Tyler via email (tylerjamescomics@gmail.com), visit his website TylerJamesComics.com, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on Facebook

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About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

Comments (3)

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  1. I went to a writing workshop last summer that dealt with log lines in part. They had us ask a few questions to boil things down to the basics, which has really helped me. Here they are:

    Who is the main character and what does he or she want?
    Who (villain) or what is standing in the way of the main character?
    What makes this story unique?

    From there you just put it together, using action and descriptive words.

    Maybe something like: Deacon Sands, meant to be a patsy for a serial killer still on the loose, decides to turn the tables on (insert shadowy corporation name here) using the Ghost Lines against them.

    It’s a tough idea to distill down to a quick hitting concept.

  2. Sarah says:

    Thanks, this helped for a treatment of a graphic novel I’m wanting to do for Archaia.:3

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