Novel writing tips

What are loglines? 6 tips to write strong summaries

There are many technical writing terms to learn as you become a writer. A word you might come across from time to time is ‘logline’. What are loglines, why is this type of summary helpful, and how can you write better ones? Read these logline definitions, tips and examples:

There are many technical writing terms to learn as you become a writer. A word you might come across from time to time is ‘logline’. What are loglines, why is this type of summary helpful, and how can you write better ones? Read these logline definitions, tips and examples:

Defining loglines

A logline is ‘a synopsis of a script or screenplay’ (Collins Dictionary). Many use it to describe single-sentence book summaries, too. You could describe the hook-driven summaries of bestsellers Hawes lists here as loglines.

The creators of Logline App explain the term’s origins:

‘…first used in old Hollywood. The big studios would own hundreds of scripts, and the studio head would keep a log book that recorded concise summaries (or “loglines”) that described each script in the studio’s possession.’

Term etymology via Logline

A logline is a useful type of story summary because it gives potential readers, publishers or TV/film producers:

  • The central conflict of the story
  • A broad synopsis of the story’s plot
  • An emotional hook to grab potential viewers’/readers’/producers’/publishers’ interest
  • Other key narrative details such as setting, key characters (protagonists and antagonists) and character goals

Example loglines

‘A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.’

Logline for The Matrix via

‘A young police officer must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.’

Logline for the 1994 movie Speed via

Why master logline writing?

Writing loglines is a useful exercise to master for not just screenwriters but novelists and other storytellers too because:

  • Loglines help you distill what matters in a story or individual story ‘episode’. This helps you keep the main focus of your story clear
  • A compelling single-sentence summary of your story is useful for pitching publishers who don’t have time to read vague and wordy summaries
  • Loglines are useful for story planning – writing a scene-by-scene outline using loglines (as you can when you use our Scene Builder tool) helps you work out key events each scene and chapter will focus on.

How to write stronger loglines

1. Share intriguing implied or explicit inciting incidents

An ‘inciting incident’ is the ‘call to adventure’ or founding event that sets the story in motion. It’s the falling-down-the-rabbit-hole or finding-out-there’s-a-bomb-on-the-bus.

Often loglines have an explicit inciting incident, describing the event that sets the story in motion directly. Often, these begin ‘when’ and describe the first significant plot point, e.g.

When a curious young girl falls down a rabbit hole, she finds a strange world of riddle-telling creatures and meets a bloodthirsty queen.

Made-up logline for Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In other loglines, the inciting incident is implied. For example, the logline from Speed (the classic 1994 thriller starring Sandra Bullock) above doesn’t describe the moment the bomb is placed, but rather the tense situation that results. The inciting incidents alluded to are the act of sabotage (the bomb’s placing) and the bomb’s discovery.

Interesting inciting incidents include emotional elements such as:

  • Surprise (as in Alice in Wonderland)
  • Danger or threat (as in Speed)
  • Revelation (as in The Matrix)
  • Desire (what a character wants to do, achieve or attain)
  • Fear (a situation a character wants to avoid, such as the bomb on the bus going off)

Exercise: Including inciting incidents in loglines

Try to write a logline for an imaginary situation that includes either an implied (prior) inciting incident or describes the inciting incident directly. Include one of the emotions from the list above. Example:

When a teenage schoolgirl outs her kind chemistry teacher as a shapeshifting mutant, she must deal with the tragic consequences.

Rian Johnson quote on hooks: 'My favorite sci-fi always uses its hook to amplify some bigger theme or idea'

2. Describe interesting character goals

Compelling loglines often describe characters’ goals. Loglines are even more compelling when these goals have higher stakes (such as having to keep a bus above a fixed speed to avoid a bomb onboard detonating, as in Speed).

Consider these examples from Hawes’ bestseller list:

President Jack Ryan must contain the fallout of a flu epidemic and two hijacked Russian nuclear missiles.

Logline for David Baldacci’s Tom Clancy: Oath of Office

While on suspension, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is made an executor of a stranger’s will and tries to keep a deadly narcotic off Montreal’s streets.

Logline for Louise Penny’s Kingdom of the Blind

Containing flu epidemics and hijacked nuclear missile situations; keeping deadly narcotics off the streets – these are high-stake core goals!

Stakes in genres such as Baldacci’s and Penny’s (thrillers and detective novels) will naturally be intense. Even in a romance novel that does not involve state affairs, though, interesting character goals may involve suspenseful situations and dilemmas.

3. Include main conflicts

Enticing story loglines give us an idea of potential conflicts. The Baldacci summary above suggests fictional president Jack Ryan will face ‘person vs environment’ conflicts (the struggle to contain the flu epidemic) as well as ‘person vs person’ (struggles with hostile heads of state).

Consider the intriguing explicit and implied conflicts in these novel loglines:

A pair of lovers find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict while Queen Elizabeth fights to maintain her throne.

Logline for Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire

After posting a video that goes viral, April May must deal with the pressures of becoming an internet sensation.

Logline for Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

In the first, we’re intrigued by the promise of conflicts that span the upper crust of society (monarchs) as well as ordinary people (a pair of lovers).

In the second, the central conflict is more implicit. ‘Pressures’ suggests that the main character will struggle both with society (for example, internet trolls or bullies) as well as internal conflict (coping with a significant change of status or celebrity). Each example makes the source of the story’s core conflicts interesting and clear.

Loglines and pitching quote: 'The pitch does a good job in explaining where the conflicts come from' (Larry Andries)

4. Suggest dynamic contrasts

Contrast and irony are two other interesting elements of stories we often encounter reading loglines.

In the Ken Follett example above, we see the contrast between the lives of monarchs and the lives of ordinary people who are swept up in leaders’ wars. Here the contrast is one of social status or class between characters. 

Contrast may have other sources – contrasts between key settings (e.g. between palaces and peasant dwellings, for example).

Note the interesting contrasts implied by these loglines:

Ten years later, figures from a BBC radio producer’s past as an M15 recruit in 1940 confront her.

Logline for Kate Atkinson’s Transcription

A detective investigates a seemingly wholesome member of the community when an 11-year-old boy’s body is found.

Logline for Stephen King’s The Outsider

In the first, there’s a contrast between the protagonist’s ‘ordinary’ present life (being a radio producer) and an exciting former life of espionage.

In the Stephen King logline example, we have the contrast between a community’s appearance (wholesomeness) and its dark heart. These contrasts suggest secrets, a disconnect between appearance and reality, and that element of mystery draws us in.

5. Promise momentous change

All great stories, like Homer’s Odyssey, take us on a journey. It might simply be a character’s spiritual or emotional journey from one situation to another, or a simple coming-of-age-story. Yet there is movement and change.

Suggesting a situation of change – transfiguration, ‘you can’t go home again’ (a point of no return) and the like – also makes a story summary intriguing.

Consider these examples of implied change in loglines:

Annie Marlow forms new relationships in the Pacific Northwest as she tries to recover from tragedy.

Logline for Debbie Macomber’s A Cottage by the Sea

A friendship between two women in Afghanistan against the backdrop of 30 years of war.

Logline for Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

The first suggests a point of no return. It describes a character having to pick up the pieces after a tragic event.

The second describes a watershed historical moment – the advent of a war, implying that the story will navigate how it affects two Afghan women and their friendship.

6. Hint at interesting elements of setting

Include a hint of setting in your logline if the elements of setting – time and place – give important context. This is particularly the case when writing:

  • Historical fiction examining historical periods and places that readers/viewers/publishers/producers may be interested in (such as World War II or the French Revolution)
  • Invented worlds with interesting features (such as Sir Terry Pratchett’s fantastical discworld)
  • Real-world settings that impart the story with interesting regional/local colour and flavour (e.g. a specific state, region, or territory known for interesting cultural elements)

Consider these examples where interesting setting information is included in the logline:

An American thirdstring quarterback joins the Italian National Football League’s Parma Panthers

Logline for John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza

An allegory on the high seas, in which a teenage boy and a 450-pound tiger are thrown together in a lifeboat as the only survivors of a shipwreck.

Logline for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

Grisham’s hints at a possible ‘culture clash’, where an American footballer must adjust to life playing for an Italian team. The two key settings – America and Italy – are implied, as well as a character’s trajectory from one to the other.

The logline for Martel’s novel tells us another interesting aspect of setting – the scope or constraint of the setting. The fact the character is confined in a small space with a notoriously dangerous animal makes the premise intriguing and exciting.

Use Now Novel’s story dashboard to create scene summaries including loglines and arrange them easily into chapters for a full scene and chapter outline.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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