Script Magazine has an interesting article about 7 crucial log line mistakes. While you should read the article, here’s a summary of their list:
- It contains no irony
- It brings nothing new to the table
- It ends with a mystery
- It contains a dozen half-baked ideas rather than one solid, well-thought-out idea
- The genre has no official rules, but we’re supposed to somehow know your rules
- A character must “discover” something about herself or “come to terms with” herself
- It only makes sense in movie land
Irony makes a log line more interesting. Would this be an interesting story? “The leader of a powerful country tries to overthrow a neighboring country run by a dictatorship?” There’s no sense of irony there. Now let’s rewrite it like this: “A teenage girl tries to overthrow a dictatorship running her country.” That’s far more interesting because irony makes the hero’s task much harder.
In “Liar Liar,” the irony is that the hero is a lawyer who must tell the truth for a day. There’s little irony if a priest must tell the truth for a day.
Now the complaint about bringing nothing new to the table refers to story ideas that rehash existing movies. Remember all those “Die Hard” clones about some man battling terrorists in an enclosed space like a hockey arena, ocean liner, train, etc.? How about all those “Alien” clones that pitted a group of people against a monster under the ocean, in a pyramid, etc.? Hollywood constantly ignores this idea of bringing something new to the table.
Coming up with a totally original story idea is nearly impossible. What is possible is providing a unique twist to that idea. The idea of a bunch of people battling an alien sounds trite now after “Alien,” but twist it around and you have “Predator” where the people battling the alien are highly trained commandos. That’s something that wasn’t seen before.
Your log line needs to tease a reader by grabbing their attention. Then it needs to come to a satisfying conclusion. If you fail to wrap up how your story ends, you leave the impression that even you don’t know your story. The ending doesn’t have to be defined as much as it needs to be implied. For example, “Avatar” is about a man who has to save the alien race from extinction by the humans. The story already implies that the hero will fight for the aliens and win or lose. The ending isn’t as interesting as your story idea.
We already know the hero must win or lose. What we don’t know is how it will happen and that’s the twist you need to provide to make your story interesting. In “Avatar,” that twist was the hero being able to live inside an alien body. In “Kingsman,” that twist is how the hero will defeat the villain who has far more power. Withholding the way the story ends isn’t as important as how the story will end.
A log line needs to be precise. It can’t have multiple storylines that confuse everything. That’s the point of number 4.
Number 5 is about defining the rules of your world. this is particularly crucial for fantasy or science fiction stories where we don’t know what’s possible. However, even in ordinary stories, we have to know the rules and that means understanding the world that the story takes place in. For contemporary stories, that’s easy but for time periods in the past (ancient Rome) or fantasy/science fiction, you need to define the world precisely so we understand the limits. Once we understand the world’s limitations, then we can understand how the hero reacts to this new world.
As a general rule, you’re only allowed one miracle per story. In “Twilight” the miracle is that vampires and werewolves exist, but after that, there are no additional miracles like time travel or aliens in flying saucers.
Number 6 is actually more about horrible consequences if the hero fails. Something extremely bad should happen to the hero and the world if the hero fails such as a nuclear terrorist attack (“True Lies”) or the continuing reign of terror from a dictatorship (“The Hunger Games”). If we don’t know what horrible fate awaits the hero if he or she fails, we won’t care that much about the hero’s story.
Finally, the last point is about making sense. Many horror stories fail in this regard because you have to wonder why would people stay in a haunted house if they didn’t have to? Just be logical within your story world even if your story world is the world of magic like Harry Potter.
Read the seven flaws of most log lines and make sure you avoid them. Then try rewriting these seven log line mistakes in a more positive light to highlight what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. When you can look at both lists that say the same thing except in different ways, you’ll likely see more ways how to write a proper log line.