The first time I heard the term “log line” used, I wondered what the person was talking about. Since we were in a writers’ group meeting, I was fairly certain it had nothing to do with organizing fresh-cut timber into orderly rows. At least I didn’t think it did. But what did it mean?
Wait, she asked me what the log line for a book I was working on was. That was a clue. It did have something to do with writing, not timber. I finally had to give up. I couldn’t imagine what the term meant, and I certainly didn’t know. I might have just remained silent and tried to find out later in order to keep from exposing my ignorance, but the question had been addressed directly to me. I was expected to answer.
The situation sorta reminded me of when my wife, who is a home-grown horticulturalist, would point to a tree or flower or plant and ask me what it was. I’d say, “I don’t know. We’ve never seen one of those before.”
Then she’d say, “Of course we have. It’s a ____.”
The whatever in the blank would be something she’d pointed out to me a hundred times. How could I not know? But I was only embarrassed before my own wife in that situation.
Here, I was about to show my ignorance in front of the writers’ group I’d helped start. Looking around the table at a bunch of people thirty years or so my juniors, I thought this was doubly embarrassing. I mean, these people were barely out of diapers when I wrote my first novel (which the dummies in the publishing houses had somehow failed to recognize the brilliance of).
Sensing my fumbling and not wanting to make me squirm any more, my BFF Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) spoke up. “Your one-sentence synopsis of your book.”
“Oh.” Relief flooded me for a moment. “Well, it’s about this young girl. Her parents died in the War Between the States, and she had to . . .”
“No. A one-sentence synopsis that describes the gist of the book. It summarizes the point of it. What you wanted to accomplish by writing it. The story you wanted to tell.”
“Oh.” I made two or three more attempts to put it into one sentence before it became obvious to everyone that I couldn’t do so.
At that point Kristen and several other members of the group proved a truth about the first half of the title to Kristen’s book. We are not alone. It would have been easy for these people to laugh at my unease, to criticize my ignorance. Instead, they loved me.
Those who were somewhat familiar with my book made suggestions. I took their suggestions and mulled over them, taking part of one suggestion and combining it with part of another until I had a reasonably cogent log line.
According to my Warrior Writer friend Nigel Blackwell, who may be the most knowledgeable person I know on the subject, a log line should follow this pattern: “Protag MUST protag’s-active-goal BEFORE antag’s-active-goal-with-consquence.”
For example, “Woman must stop Nazi’s granddaughter from perfecting cloning techniques before she takes over the world.” or maybe “Man must find and expose murderer before his own father is wrongly convicted of the crime.”
Both of these sample log lines give a concise statement of what the story is about. If we can’t come up with a log line, we haven’t got our story firmly gelled in our minds. Working on it makes us focus our attention and get down to the nitty gritty of our plot.
Once we have something usable, it’s good to enter it in small print under our headers so it will appear on every page as we write, serving as a reminder to us about what I was trying to accomplish. This is not only helpful when we actually start writing our text, but while we work on antag, protag and other character profiles. We need our thoughts focused as we do this, also. Then when we start to chase a rabbit down some side trail, a glance at the log line will remind us of what we’re doing and steer us back to where we belong.
At an agent pitch opportunity at a writers’ conference a few years ago, I recall her rolling her eyes when she asked me for a one-line summary of the book. I now realize that my hemming and hawing made me look like I didn’t know my own work.
Coming up with our log line should probably be the first thing we do when we get ready to write a story—novel, short story, or whatever. My friend Kristen will disagree with this statement. She puts the log line after other preliminary work and just before starting the actual manuscript. That’s fine for her, and it may be for you, too, but I think there are good reasons to put it first.
If we don’t know what our story is about, how can we create the powerful characters who will carry the action? As we develop the characters, we may change our ideas for the story a bit. That’s okay. We can change the log line, too, but at least we’ll have some direction to guide us.
If we don’t keep our log line firmly in mind—like I do by adding it to my header—how will we realize when we digress and start chasing rabbits? And if we don’t know what our log line is, how can we appear to know what we’re talking about when a fellow writer asks us what our book is about?
A concise, powerful log line can go a long way to getting you going in writing your story.
Ø Do you have a log line embedded in your mind for the story you’re working on?
Ø Got an anecdote about log lines?
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