Imagine it’s the late 1930’s, the heyday of the old movie studio system. You’re a young screenwriter sitting in the opulent office of the producer, hoping to get your story green lighted. His desk is piled with scripts and stacks of scripts litter the floor. Overweight, in a pinstripe suit, he sits back in his executive chair smoking a cigar. His fat round face is pinched in an expression of irritation. “OK, kid, you got three minutes?”
You swallow, open your mouth, and realize your mind has just gone blank. “Well, uh,…” you begin, “I got a script about, a, uh…”
He shakes his head, points his cigar at your nose, and shouts, “Get out kid. Come back with you have a logline.”
As you slink out of his office you wonder, What’s a logline?
A Google of the word yields this definition for logline: “[It] is a one (or occasionally two) sentence description that boils the script down to its essential dramatic narrative in as succinct a manner as possible.”
You’ve probably seen or heard loglines for many movies, for example (taken from the IMDB):
James Scott Bell in his book, The Art of War for Writers, states that, if you’re anxious to start on a new project, you should begin with a logline. He thinks that, “…a potent logline is a must.”
You should consider creating the logline right after researching and outlining your novel, but before the actual writing. Obviously, the logline is not something written in stone. It should be revised as you go along just as you revise your manuscript.
I created the following logline for my new novel, The Peril Protocol: “Dr. Hope Allerd has the ideal job as a fellow under the renowned Dr. Francis Peril, until a tabloid report appears claiming her beloved mentor is the most horrific serial killer since Jack the Ripper.”
Loglines are not only useful in helping maintain focus while you write. Other uses include:
Next time I’ll discuss creating a logline.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
If you’ve been writing for any significant length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying: “show, don’t tell.” Essentially, instead of explaining something about a particular character, setting, or situation, you should, with your description, dialogue, and action, illustrate your point. For example, instead of telling us, “Joe was happy as he walked down the street”, you could say, “Joe, with a grin wider than a Cheshire cat’s on his mug, sauntered over the cobblestone walk so effortlessly he could swear that his feet didn’t even touch the ground.”
I was recently reminded of the idea of “show, don’t tell” by a TV program I was watching a couple of weeks ago. It was a version of the Godfather movies in which Godfather I and II were combined and some cut footage was reinstated. One scene right after the famous opening wedding scene really illustrated for me the idea of “show, don’t tell”. Don Corleone’s long time friend and consigliere, Genco, is dying in the hospital. Along with his sons the Don goes to see him. Up until that time we only know that Vito Corleone is the head of a powerful crime family. Now, seeing his old friend at his bedside, Genco beckons him to come closer. Knowing that Don Corleone cannot refuse a favor on his daughter’s wedding day, Genco makes this remarkable request (the text is excerpted from the novel):
“Godfather, “ he said, “stay here with me and help me meet death. Perhaps if He sees you near me He will be
frightened and leave me in peace. Or perhaps you can say a word, pull a few strings, eh?”
From this one visceral scene we learn the perceived power of the Godfather. There is no description of who he is or what he does. But, we see this is a man whose very presence engenders dread, a man who commands respect with just a word or gesture. We learn volumes about him.
Another example comes from the movie, Patton. As the audience, we know from magazine articles, history books, and word of mouth that General Patton is flamboyant and tough. But, when we see the opening scene, the portrayal by actor George C. Scott of the smartly dressed, medal blanketed, gravel voiced, foulmouthed man strutting on a stage as he exhorts his troops to fight, riding crop in hand and pear handled six-shooters strapped to his hips, we know, without a doubt, this is the man who’s going to win World War II for us.
In my recent medical thriller, The Peril Protocol, I tried to follow the command in a scene in which my protagonist, Dr. Hope Allerd, has to take over the intubation (a life saving procedure) of a dying patient from Bryan, an intern. Instead of telling that Bryan was unsuccessful and that Hope had to take over, I wrote it as follows:
Now, Allison seemed to shrivel before [Hope’s] eyes. Semiconscious,racked with a menacingly high fever, and
covered head to toe with bluish macular lesions, she dwelled in that purgatory between life and the netherworld.
Bryan squinted and pushed the tube into the young woman’s throat again only to bring it back out.
Seconds went by. Her skin, the part that had been light pink, now took on a dusky hue.
The head nurse scowled at him. “I called Dr. Allerd.”
He looked in the direction of the door. “What? No. I can...”
“You’re losing her, Bryan,” said Hope. “How many attempts have you made?”
“Naw, I’ve been counting. It’s three. Three strikes and you’re out.”
Hope stepped next to him. Her slim five-foot six frame was like a dwarf’s next to his six-three muscular build. She took the
instruments from him and bumped Bryan aside with her hip.
In your writing, find instances where you can show and not just tell. You’ll have a more powerful, more instinctual narrative to give to your audience.
Can you identify the novel and author from these opening lines?
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I’ll give you a minute…
(Insert Final Jeopardy music here)
Time’s up. Could you identify them? Come on now. They’re classics. You’ve probably read at least one or two as a school literature assignment. OK, here are the answers:
The first is from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The second, and probably the most famous short opening line, is from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. And the final line is from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Well, how did you do? If you’ve never thought much about a novel’s opening line I invite you to think again. Opening lines are important. They’re the first thing a buyer reads, after the cover copy, when browsing volumes in the bookstore or library. They set the tone for what follows and, in many cases, demand us to continue reading.
Stephen King said this about opening lines: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
I think there are six reasons opening lines are important:
If you’re writing that novel, make sure your opening line is one unforgettable starter. Your audience will thank you.
You’ve completed your great American novel. As an indie author you’ve found the best self-publishing outlet. You’ve told all your relatives and friends that you’re finally in print. Then you sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
What’s that you say? You haven’t seen a cent and you’re now hovering around 1,000,000 in the Amazon sales rank? Maybe, its time to give up. Take your novel down from the site, delete the writing software from your hard drive, and call it a day. Perhaps it’s a good time to start that rubber band collection you’ve been considering.
Wait. You didn’t think writing would be easy, did you? You mean you really thought that all you had to do was churn out that Fifty Shades of Grey knock-off and just watch the cash come rolling in.
If that’s the case maybe you should really quit.
But, there’s another way of looking at this. Writers write. By this I mean, money be dammed. Sales be dammed. Fame be dammed. You write because it’s in your blood. Stories run like mighty rivers in your brain and drive you to the verge of madness until you get them down on paper. But, then once one is complete another hatches and begins to run rampant through your imagination. You can’t help it. It’s what you do. It’s who you are. You can no more change that than you can reverse your age.
Writing for you is like being a junkie in need of his next fix. You have to be at that keyboard knocking out the next chapter or, if you’re at work, away from your PC or Mac, snippets of dialog or that difficult scene careen around inside you like electric eels.
If writing were suddenly outlawed and your computer confiscated, you’d awake at 2 a.m., sneak into a dilapidated abandoned house and under a blanket by the glow of a flashlight scribble your magnum opus onto a cheap spiral bound notebook with a number two pencil.
And who needs approval? Perhaps your tenth grade English teacher told you that you couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag. So what? If there was anything of merit on writing the teacher told you, you inculcated it and continued to put words on paper.
If you’re sick with the flu, you continue to write.
If you’re about to be evicted, you continue to write.
If you’ve got to choose between paying the electric bill in winter and buying cartridges for your printer, you put on your overcoat and hat and continue to write.
Rain or shine, thick or thin, feast or famine you write. You write because it’s your passion. Nothing else makes sense. You bleed ink and consume story premises.
You will continue to write until someone pries that pen from your cold dead hand.
Then again, I heard that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien run this writers workshop in Heaven…