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How To Write a Logline:
The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Learn from some of the best loglines in film how to nail down conflict, save months of rewrites and get more requests to read your script

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
July 17, 2018 27 comments
How to write a screenplay

How to Write a Logline: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Learning how to write a logline that achieves this is perhaps the most important stage in planning and development phase of writing a screenplay.

Without a great logline—one that succinctly sums up the core conflict of the story—it’s pretty hard to write a great script. This is because a screenplay logline contains the foundational DNA the whole movie is built on: its struggle between all the major characters and an essence of what’s at stake.

In this post we’ll show you not only how to write a logline, but how to write good loglines that will grab the interest of all those execs, managers and producers you’ll be pitching to.

Learn how to write a logline the smart way and you’ll save yourself months of rewrites in the future by addressing problems at the foundational concept stage.

With all this in mind, here’s a look at what we’ll be covering in this post:

  • What is a logline? A logline definition that will demystify the process
  • How to write a logline using a simple logline formula
  • Bad logline examples and how to fix them
  • Some quick wins to rescue weak movie loglines
  • A key rookie mistake when it comes to writing a logline

So, let’s dive on in with the first section.

What is a Logline?

how to write a logline

Here’s a quick logline definition: a logline is simply the script’s core conflict summed up in one or two sentences.

By “core conflict” we mean the struggle between protagonist and antagonist that indicates to the reader what’s at stake—the reason why they should watch this movie.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of exactly what is a logline, let’s take a look at a few sample loglines from famous movies.

Film logline examples

  • Manchester by the Sea. When his brother dies, a depressed handyman is forced to return to his hometown and confront his horrific past having been made sole guardian of his spirited 16-year-old nephew.
  • The Hangover. Three buddies wake up from a bachelor party in Las Vegas, with no memory of the previous night and the bachelor missing. Now they must put together the  pieces of the night before and get him to the altar before it’s too late.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US government to locate the ancient Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, and stop them from becoming the most powerful army the world has ever known.
  • Se7en. Two detectives—a rookie and a veteran—attempt to catch a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi before he kills again.
  • Paranormal Activity. A young couple become increasing disturbed by a seemingly demonic presence in their new suburban home and must figure out how to stop it before it’s too late.

Imagine these movie loglines are for films that are yet to be released. Would you want to watch them? Imagine you’re an exec who reads one of these loglines in a query letter, or hears it in a pitch. Would you want to read the script?

The answer is probably “yes” because each logline makes you want to see the movie or read the script by perfectly encapsulating the core conflict inherent in the story.

So let’s now take a look at just how to write a logline that gets people excited, makes them envisage the movie and want to read the script.

How to Write a Logline Using a Logline Formula That Guarantees Conflict

how to write a logline

There are three elements that go toward creating great loglines.

If you learn how to write a logline using this logline formula you’ll be putting yourself at a major advantage over the thousands of specs scripts currently floating around Hollywood. And potentially save yourself some major headaches while writing the actual script.

The three-way triangle of conflict

There is a simple logline template you can use when learning how to write a logline:

Protagonist + Struggle with Antagonist + Death Stakes

We like to call this the “three-way triangle of conflict” and it’s an essential tool in building the best loglines possible.

In fact, the reason why so many movie loglines fail at the first hurdle is usually because they’ve missed out one of the three steps in that equation. But before we go into each of the steps in more detail, let’s apply our three-way triangle of conflict logline formula to the ones we previously looked at:

  • Manchester By The Sea. When his brother dies, a depressed handyman [protagonist] is forced to return to his hometown and confront his horrific past [death stakes] having been made sole guardian of his spirited 16-year-old nephew. [struggle with antagonist]
  • The Hangover. Three buddies [protagonists] wake up from a bachelor party in Las Vegas, with no memory of the previous night and the bachelor missing. [struggle with antagonist] Now they must put together the pieces of the night before and get him to the altar before it’s too late. [death stakes]
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones [protagonist] is hired by the US government to locate the ancient Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis [struggle with antagonist] and stop them from becoming the most powerful army the world has ever known. [death stakes]
  • Se7en. Two detectives—a rookie and a veteran [protagonists]—attempt to catch a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi [struggle with antagonist] before he kills again. [death stakes]
  • Paranormal Activity. A young couple [protagonists] become increasingdisturbed by a seemingly demonic presence in their new suburban home [struggle with antagonist] and must figure out how to stop it before it’s too late. [death stakes]

As you can see, the script logline template of Protagonist + Struggle with Antagonist + Death Stakes can be applied to any genre of movie. And as in the case of the logline to Manchester by the Sea, don’t necessarily have to go in the same order.

What’s important is that there is a three-way triangle of conflict that gives a sense of the pressure the antagonist is going to put the protagonist under and why we should care.

You may be wondering why a Drama like Manchester by the Sea or a Comedy like The Hangover contain “death stakes.” We use this as a catch-all phrase because ultimately all stakes are about death.

The only difference between the stakes in an Action/Adventure, Thriller or Horror and those found in a Drama or Comedy is that in the former they’re literal, while in the latter they’re figurative. But we’ll get into this in more detail later on in the post.

The power struggle

Essentially, a movie is a three-way power struggle between the protagonist, antagonist and what’s at stake, usually personified in a stakes character. Let’s take a closer look at some of these sample loglines:

  • Manchester by the Sea. Lee is the protagonist, his own personality and terrible past are the forces of antagonism, and saving his failing life is what’s at stake—personified in the stakes character of his nephew, Patrick.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is the protagonist, the Nazis are the antagonists and the future of the world is at stake—personified in the stakes character of Marion.
  • Se7en. Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, serial killer John Doe is the antagonist, and stopping him before he kills again is what’s at stake—personified in the stakes character of Mills’s girlfriend, Tracy. And so on.

It’s this three-way power struggle—the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over something big at stake (usually personified in a stakes character)—that gives a screenplay its power.

So now let’s go deeper into each of these specific three stages you should use when writing a logline.

How to Write a Logline Step #1: Add Protagonist

how to write a logline

A concept, story, or plot isn’t much without a protagonist to identify with, and this should be the first thing you establish.

The trick, though, is to make sure you define your protagonist (or protagonists) as clearly and evocatively as you can in a short thumbnail sketch: “a female FBI cadet,” “a middle-aged beach bum,” “an aspiring pop singer,” etc.

This is a great way of giving us an impression of who we’re rooting for, as jobs and life statuses often tend to hint at personality too. Don’t be afraid to add an adjective too: “an uptight businessman,” “a confused graduate,” “a meek hobbit of the Shire,” etc.

In either case, always lean toward the specific when writing a logline rather than the general. Write “a frustrated office worker,” rather than “an office worker,” as it says more about who we’re dealing with.

The trick is to build as specific and as vivid a thumbnail sketch of your protagonist as possible in as few words as possible. “A loving father of four who works as a mechanic, enjoys playing online poker, and dreams of one day emigrating to the US,” could obviously do with some trimming.

There are no hard and fast rules over this, but it’s not necessary to add names to movie loglines. We don’t need to know that your protagonist is called Cindy Schwartzman, just that she’s “a hard-nosed New York Post reporter.”

How to Write a Logline Step #2: Add Struggle With Antagonist

how to write a logline

We could’ve called this step “Add Antagonist,” but that would be to skip over an essential factor in creating great loglines: the pressure the protagonist is put under while struggling with the antagonist.

It’s much easier to come up with an effective concept and screenplay logline if you do it from the perspective of a protagonist’s struggle with an antagonist, rather than simply “hero vs. villain,” which feels static.

Whether your antagonist is a physical person, a storm, a pack of wolves, an asteroid, or whatever you choose, what’s important to get across in the logline is just how super frustrating this struggle will be for your protagonist.

By adding a struggle with an antagonist to any idea, concept or logline, it can be immediately improved. Consider this logline to the movie Sideways:

A failed novelist, still hung up on his ex, embarks on a wine tasting road trip with a friend right before the latter’s wedding.

It’s not bad. It paints a good picture of who the protagonist is, and tells us the basic facts of what the story’s about. But it’s still missing something—and that something is the second step of the logline formula: the struggle with an antagonist.

The problem here is that, “embarks on a wine tasting road trip with a friend right before the latter’s wedding,” doesn’t give us any sense of the conflict and struggle between protagonist and antagonist. A better version would be something like:

A failed novelist, still hung up on his ex, struggles to handle his soon to be married best friend’s attempts to get them both laid while on a wine tasting road trip right before the wedding.

Once the protagonist has to struggle to do something—in this case “handle his soon-to-be-married best friend’s attempts to get them both laid while on a wine tasting road trip,” the logline immediately gains conflict and increases interest.

The stakes of “right before the wedding” are also increased because now we know the antagonist’s intentions too.

Another popular mistake when writing movie loglines is to write something like:

A World War II nurse faces death at every turn in an epic story of love, loss and redemption.

These kind of loglines summarize the conflict thematically, but don’t actually tell us what the actual conflict is or who the antagonist is. Make sure we can envisage how your protagonist will have to “struggle to overcome,” “battle against,” “clash with,” “thwart,” etc. an antagonist.

Adjectives like these really help the reader see the movie in a logline. They add movement to the story and are the best way of letting us imagine just what the protagonist’s journey and conflict will entail throughout the film.

If you have a hard time imagining who, or what, your protagonist struggles against, then there’s a strong chance you need to go back to writing a logline which clearly displays the conflict in your story.

How to Write a Logline Step #3: Add Death Stakes

how to write a logline

Many writers already appreciate that there needs to be something more at stake in a film than whether the protagonist buys a Ferrari or a helicopter, but still come unstuck producing major stakes for us to care about in the script logline. The reason for this is often that they’re not applying “death stakes.”

In order for a movie to have high enough stakes for an audience to care about, it needs in one way or another to be about the protagonist’s death—either literally, or figuratively. This is why we care so much about what happens in great films, because they’re about the highest stakes you can get: death.

Death stakes in action/adventures, thrillers and horrors

These types of movies generally all involve literal death stakes for the protagonist (and often for others too—either their immediate family, or the wider world.)

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is literally threatened with death at the hands of the Nazis, and so are millions of others if he doesn’t stop them from capturing the Ark.
  • Prisoners. Keller Dover has to find his missing daughter before she’s literally killed.
  • It Follows. Jay will actually be killed by the evil entity if she doesn’t pass on the curse by sleeping with someone else.

Death stakes in dramas and comedies

The stakes in Comedies and Dramas on the other hand, tend to revolve around the figurative death of the protagonist, in which we know they’re running the risk of never being healed, or “complete” ever again. The stakes you need to focus on for protagonist’s in these genres are usually more personal and/or relationship related.

  • 27 Dresses. Jane will figuratively die inside if she continues to always be the bridesmaid and never find love herself.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey will figuratively die if he doesn’t lead the life he wants—traveling and seeing the world.
  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Neal’s relationship with his wife and kids will figuratively die a little more if he doesn’t make it home in time for Thanksgiving.

The number one thing you must do when writing a logline and considering the stakes of your movie is always ask yourself:

How does my protagonist risk dying in this film, either literally or figuratively?

If there’s no clear sense of the protagonist’s imminent death inherent in the concept then it could more than likely be strengthened by adding one.

The foundation of all good conflict rests on the aforementioned three-way triangle of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, both struggling to achieve something with high stakes attached.

Again, this can be a love interest, or the protagonist’s life, or a magic cat, depending on the genre and the story. The main thing to remember is that whatever’s at stake, must be of super high importance to the characters involved.

If we can sense, even slightly, from the logline that the protagonist and antagonist will find it hard to care about the stakes, we will find it hard to care as well.

Bad Film Logline Examples and How To Fix Them

how to write a logline

Here are some bad logline examples, followed by better versions with the three-way triangle of conflict added:

  • A happy-go-lucky pastry chef is given maid-of-honor duties for her best friend’s wedding, but doesn’t get on with one of the other bridesmaids.
  • An actor who once played an iconic superhero puts on the Broadway play intended to revive his career.
  • A United Nations employee traverses the world to stop a zombie pandemic.

Note how these aren’t the best loglines because they fail to really engage the interest as well as they could, especially when compared with the versions below with an added three-way triangle of conflict.

  • Bridesmaids. A down on her luck pastry chef [protagonist] clashes with a competitive bridesmaid [struggle with antagonist] while struggling to handle maid-of-honor duties for her best friend’s wedding. [death stakes]
  • Birdman. A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero [protagonist] battles his ego, family, and cast members [struggle with antagonist] while putting on the Broadway play intended to revive his career. [death stakes]
  • World War Z. A United Nations employee [protagonist] traverses the world in a race against time to stop the zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, [struggle with antagonist] and threatening to destroy humanity itself. [death stakes]

As you can see, the three-way triangle of conflict and some well-chosen adjectives can really help bring a logline to life and really strengthen the core conflict in the movie.

Some Quick Wins to Rescue Weak Movie Loglines

how to write a logline
Firstly, how do you know if your screenplay logline is weak or not? If most or all of the following statements ring true, there’s a strong possibility your logline isn’t as strong as it needs to be.

  • I find it hard to articulate what the script’s about if someone asks
  • It’s hard to locate a triangle of conflict in my logline
  • When I tell someone my idea they get confused

Many screenplays we receive for script coverage are weak because their initial concept is weak. In order to strengthen the concept, however, here are five quick wins that you can apply to any script.

1. Ask yourself three key questions

If the concept is lacking, we advise writers to return to the logline stage and ask themselves the following three questions:

  • Who is my protagonist and what do they want?
  • Who (or what) are they struggling against while trying to achieve this?
  • What’s at stake if my protagonist doesn’t achieve what they want?

Simply asking yourself these three questions should help flag up any issues in your logline and show you what main areas need addressing.

2. Force your protagonist to do something they don’t want to do

If your protagonist is just doing something in your script logline because they want to, maybe try forcing them to do it instead in order to raise the pressure and stakes.

Let’s take a look at a few logline examples:

  • Manchester by the Sea. Lee is forced to look after his nephew, rather than happily agreeing to it.
  • Sideways. Miles is forced into a different kind of wine tour than he expected by Jack, rather than both of them agreeing from the outset to try and get laid.
  • Don’t Breathe. The trio of burglars are forced to fight for their lives after becoming trapped in the blind man’s house, rather than them choosing to remain because of the money.

When writing a logline, it’s always good to eliminate all possible escape routes for your protagonist, box them in a corner and then try and get them out of it.

3. Tell us one idea, not many

This is a key thing to remember when learning how to write a logline. Often newbie writers’ loglines tend to jump from one idea to the next:

When a farm boy discovers a magic portal to another world he realizes his imaginary friend is real and together they must find the princess before the king imprisons him for theft and the evil queen invades with her army.

Keep your script logline simple. Tell us who or what the protagonist is struggling against and what’s at stake.

4. Use irony to make things extra interesting

Ask yourself what’s the most ironic situation your character could find themselves in, given their personality?

Here are a few film logline examples that use irony to great effect:

  • Bridesmaids. It’s ironic that the best friend of the bride doesn’t want to be her bridesmaid.
  • The King’s Speech. It’s ironic that the King, whose royal position involves public speaking, can’t talk without stammering.
  • Don’t Breathe. It’s ironic that three young burglars fall victim to their target: a blind old man.

Irony can strengthen a logline immeasurably by making the core conflict that much more surprising, intriguing and contrary to what audiences expect.

5. Exploit ordinary vs. extraordinary dichotomies

If your script is set somewhere extraordinary, one easy way to strengthen the logline is to make sure the protagonist is as ordinary as possible. Likewise, if your protagonist is extraordinary, you can make sure the world of the story is as ordinary as possible in order to heighten the conflict.

Here are some sample loglines that show this in action:

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Joel is a shy office worker who winds up racing through his own memories. [ordinary protagonist > extraordinary world]
  • Enchanted. Giselle is a cartoon princess who is sent to New York where she falls in love with a lawyer. [extraordinary protagonist > ordinary world]
  • Wanted. Wesley is a loser office worker who gets drawn into the world of elite assassins. [ordinary protagonist > extraordinary world]

Accentuate these dichotomies when writing a logline and you’ll make it pop that much more.

A Key Rookie Mistake When it Comes to Writing A Logline

how to write a logline

The biggest Key Rookie Mistake we see many aspiring screenwriters make is starting a screenplay without first making sure their concept is absolutely rock solid beforehand.

All too often scripts are written without the initial idea behind it being first vetted by others and pulled apart by the writer. More often than not, the writer then ends up wasting months rewriting a script with a flawed concept that could’ve been improved in the logline stage.

If your logline doesn’t include all the elements from our logline template—a three-way triangle of conflict, and doesn’t excite and intrigue those you tell it to—it may be worth spending some more time reworking it until it does.

However, this is not set in stone. Good loglines can also come slowly—even after having already started on a script. Sometimes you may want to start writing without nailing the concept and that’s fine, as some of the best loglines have been known to evolve and reveal themselves over a series of drafts.

If you’d like help learning how to write a logline, or with a specific idea for a movie, check out our Concept Analysis service. Send over your logline and we’ll write up a page of notes on your idea’s core conflict, marketability and suggestions on how to improve the story before you commit to the script.

How to Write a Logline: Conclusion

how to write a logline

When it comes to writing a logline you may have heard the phrase “concept is king.” It’s kind of a cliche, but that’s because there’s a lot of truth in it. In Hollywood, you stand a much better chance of selling a spec screenplay with under-developed characters, but a great concept, than one with wonderful characters but an uninspiring concept.

That said, this post has been all about how to write a logline for a script that you want to get optioned, sold and produced in the industry. If you have an idea for a film about a sheepherder in Anatolia who comes to terms with his past while sitting on a hill, it’s unlikely to spark the interest of a Hollywood exec.

Yes, it’s true that there are a number of movies that don’t seem to have much of a three-way triangle of conflict and yet have been successful and/or gained a cult following. Films like Clerks, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Boyhood, as well as a multitude of foreign arthouse films, don’t appear to “play by the rules” or “be tied down by restrictive Hollywood conventions.”

In most cases, however, these movies, were shot and independently produced by filmmakers doing things their own way—either as mavericks at the beginning of their careers, or as established filmmakers with slightly bigger budgets but the reputation to do what the hell they want.

If you have a low-budget, slow-burn arthouse idea for a movie, rather than focusing on how to write a logline using the steps in this post, we recommend simply shooting it yourself and going the festival route. Festivals love these kind of movies in a way that’s yet to catch on in the industry. Write loglines for short films as well as features. Create, follow your vision and get your art out into the world.

Whatever method you choose, now that you’re armed with a logline definition we hope this post has answered your question of what is a logline and how to write good loglines.

How do you come up with movies ideas? Do you have a movie loglines database? Do you have any tips on how to write a logline you think we’ve missed out?

Let us know in the comments section below.

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Hire one of our genre experts to get your screenplay where you want it to be, get an agent and get sold. You can check out our script coverage services.

film logline examples

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27 Comments
  1. Marcus Cook says:

    Irony in a logline has to be the most important thing for me. Blake Snyder talks about this a lot and you guys are spot on as well. I’ll be using you guys soon!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Marcus!

  2. Rehman P says:

    There are definitely some good points here but I think a script idea should just flow naturally. You should just know what to put down without analysing it. I get most of my best ideas when I’m just waking up, that moments between sleep and conscious.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, as we say in the article there are no hard and fast rules about this.

  3. Jules says:

    Where can I find more info on this? Someone told me once there was a book on writing loglines but I don’t know what one.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      The best book for loglines is Save the Cat Strikes Back which you can purchase here.

  4. Ray says:

    Can I send you my logline for your opinion?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sure thing Ray. You can do so here.

  5. Boaj says:

    How do I make sure my logline is good enough? How do I no?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      What’s people’s reaction when you tell them your story?

  6. Lucy says:

    “A woman obsessed with fashion lands a job at a top fashion magazine but finds things don’t go as she planned.”

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Lucy – we can help you out with this logline if you purchase a Concept Analysis.

  7. Gavin says:

    Just starting out with this screenwriting business and this helps a bunch. Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Gavin.

  8. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the info guys, this will help me refine my logline.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      No problem, Jeff!

  9. Harmony Iwobi says:

    Can I send for you my script. It’s for a script that is full of romance and mystical adventure that will amaze all who see it. It is ready for production. Thank you dear.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a coverage services page that you can check out here.

  10. Vic says:

    Why does a logline have to be only two sentences?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      One or two sentences means you’re able to sum up the core conflict succinctly.

  11. Deepak Dogra says:

    Easy to understand the main conflict.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Deepak.

  12. Phiwa Sukumane says:

    Good day. I need help. Totally off topic and sorry for this. But how many boys does Ray kill in the movie, In Bruges?

  13. Amani Hamisi says:

    thanks for a good lesson surely am going to make good loglines ever

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Amani – good luck.

  14. P.I KIING says:

    Just what i needed, thanks for explaining so thoroughly, thumbs up!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, glad it helped!

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