By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 16, 2011
Are you familiar with what screenwriters call a “log line?”
It’s an extremely useful tool—not just for writers, but for artists and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Today I’m going to interview an expert on the subject, Hollywood script consultant Jen Grisanti, who’s the author of a new book that I recommend highly–Story Line.
SP: Jen, thanks for returning to the scene of the crime. Our earlier interview—The “All is Lost” Moment–got tremendous response when it appeared a couple of months ago. But let’s get down to business on a different storytelling subject: the log line.
Most of us think of log lines as the short plot summaries of movies that we see in TV Guide. But a real, professional log line is a lot deeper and a lot more specific, isn’t it?
JG: The log line is the road map to your story. It’s your calling card. If your log line doesn’t work, your script won’t work. A well-structured log line leads to a well-structured script. Your log line is the framework for your story.
SP: How exactly would you define a log line?
JG: A log line is a brief description of the plot of your story, which involves an emotional hook and a twist of irony. A log line organizes a story in the briefest form possible while retaining the strongest emotional effect.
SP: In your story consulting, you break a log line down into five distinct parts. What are they and what’s the significance of each?
JG: My formula for a log line is; setup of who (create empathy for your central character), dilemma, action and goal with a twist of irony.
Setup of Who. It’s critical to create empathy for your central character. The audience must be rooting for him or her.
Dilemma. Wikipedia defines it this way: “A dilemma is a problem offering at least two solutions or possibilities, of which none are practically acceptable; one in this position has been traditionally described as ‘being on the horns of a dilemma,’ neither horn being comfortable; or ‘being between a rock and a hard place,’ since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough.” Dilemmas provide tremendous opportunity for drama.
Action. This line illustrates how your central character pursues the goal.
Goal. This tells your audience where your story is going. If the goal is not clear, the story won’t work. A clear goal is the key to the success of your story.
Irony. This is when your central character has one intention in the start of the story, but the opposite happens by the end. An example of this might be from the movie Pretty Woman:
A cutthroat businessman who wants to remain detached needs a date for some social engagements; he hires a beautiful prostitute he meets … only to fall in love with her.
SP: Just for fun, give us the log lines for The Social Network and True Grit.
JG: Social Network:
When a socially inept and financially challenged Harvard student’s girlfriend dumps him, he creates an idea to rate the attractiveness of female Harvard undergrads as a way to mend his loss–and his idea becomes a global social sensation that makes him the youngest billionaire in history.
Here’s a log line for True Grit:
When a 14-year-old girl’s father is murdered and no one goes after the killer, she hires a tough U.S. marshal with “true grit” and sets out with him and a Texas Ranger to find the man who killed her father to avenge his death.
SP: Do you want your writers to have the log line of their story before they begin, or is it something that’s only discovered with hindsight?
JG: I ask writers to write their log lines before they write their scripts. A true log line will show you everything that is working or not working in your story. Why write the script if the story isn’t 100% there?
SP: Can a strong log line help a writer sell his idea?
JG: Sometimes in a pitch meeting, a producer or studio exec will ask a writer straight-out, “What’s the log line?” A log line is the nucleus of a strong pitch because it demonstrates that you know your story cold and it helps the producer or studio exec to see the full power or “hook” of the material.
SP: Can a log line help a writer pinpoint weaknesses in the story?
JG: Absolutely. The log line will tell you if you empathize with your lead, if your dilemma is powerful enough, if your central character is active in his pursuit and if his goal is strong enough. The log line will highlight the emotional stakes of your story. What’s the worst that can happen if your hero doesn’t achieve his or her goal?
SP: Jen, I know you sometimes ask your writer clients to come up with the “log line of their own life.” Why do you do that and how does it help the writer?
JG: One of the first writing exercises in my new book, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, is the Log Line for Your Life. I tell my writers to think in terms of Setup of Who, Dilemma, Action, and Goal. Later they’ll add fiction to truth. But your own truth will be the core of your log line.
An example of a log line that reflects a long ago moment in my own life is, “A new bride who lives in a fairy tale fantasy falls through a rabbit hole and when she awakens, finds herself President of Cheated On Anonymous.” This is the starting point. From here we can create log lines for television, feature, and novel concepts. For example, a log line for a TV show could be, “An idealistic bride soon discovers the truth about her marriage and must redefine her fairy tale, only this time in the real world.” A log line for a feature could be, “In an effort to experience her fairy tale moment, a young woman marries the wrong guy and discovers her truth in the process of going down the wrong road in order to get back on track.” A non-fiction log line could be, “A betrayed young woman goes on a spiritual journey for truth, which reflects a touch of wish fulfillment, while learning to balance real life and shed fantasy.” This illustrates how you can start with a truth, add fiction, then further evolve it into different platforms of story.
SP: I must tell you, Jen, that I’ve used the concept of “the log line of your life” in my own personal life this past year and it has really helped me (along with the concept of the All Is Lost moment). At a particularly difficult juncture for me, I asked myself, “What is my log line right now?” It wasn’t easy figuring it out, but once I did, it really gave me clarity.
Forgetting about writers and storytelling for the moment, how have you seen this concept help your clients (or yourself) in your real lives?
JG: I love to hear that you used this in your own life. I think this exercise is a healing one for many. It helps us to detach from our story and look at it for what it is. It’s our story. It helps us to reflect on the pivotal moments of our life and look at them in a new way. What tools did we use to get through it? What if we passed them forward to help others? This could mean that there’s a meaning behind why certain events happened in our lives. Your story is your gold. When you learn how to use it, you will find that you connect with your audience. This is your goal.
SP: This question may be beyond the scope of story consulting, but I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say. Suppose readers of this interview were new-business operators or dancers or photographers–or just people at a personal crossroads in their lives. Can the concept of “the log line of your life” help them too?
JG: I am so happy that you brought this up. I am going to speak at an event for female entrepreneurs. I will incorporate the exercise Log Line of Your Life as a way to help them understand their story and how knowing their story can lead to successful meetings and networking experiences. So, yes, this concept can help new-business operators or dancers or photographers. It’s an exercise that applies in every occupation as a way to stop isolation, create community and connect with your audience. This is the gift of your story. Once you connect with and understand your own story, you will connect with others.