“A screenplay is a story told with pictures in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure” – Syd Field
So what have you decided to write about? By that I don’t mean the genre, I mean what is the main subject of your story. Well regardless of what you’ve chosen, my advice to you is either write what you know or do your homework.
For example, Anaksha Dark Angel was a crime-noir thriller based on the US West coast. The problem is, I don’t live on the West coast. I don’t even live in the US, I live in the UK. That’ s a major disadvantage if I am going to write a story based over 5000 miles away from home. In order to make it sound even remotely realistic, I had to do a lot of work researching the legal system in CA and police procedures, despite adding my own fictional twists. The environment had to look and feel believable and I had to tread very carefully when it came to small details. Even a minor UK/US difference such as driving on the left side of the road, or a 3-pin electrical socket in the background would have ruined it. It was also helpful knowing people who live in CA who I can fire questions at if I need to find anything out. My workload was more than it should have been, but in the end I did my homework as best as I could and I’m happy with it. Granted there may be a one or two American/British spelling differences which slipped by me but despite that I think I did OK.
So the rule is: Either write what you’re most familiar with, or do lots of research.
Alright people, with that out of the way this is the part you’ve all been waiting for. This is where you actually get to start doing some work. So fire up a text editor or grab a notepad and pen because you’re going to lay the all-important cornerstone to your foundation. This is the phase screenwriters call…
The Log Line
Open any TV guide and you’ll see how each film has a few short sentences describing the basic outline of the movie. Go to any cinema and pick up a copy of their current film listings and you’ll see the same description next to each film. It’s a very short paragraph describing the basic premise of the film, without giving away the ending or any secrets of course. These short descriptions have one purpose – to excite you enough to hand over your money to watch the movie, without which there would be no film industry. But what a lot of people don’t know, is that these short descriptions are actually the humble beginnings of each film. Before you create a basic plot structure, you need to create what is called a log line. This is just a few sentences describing what the film is about and needs to sound exciting enough so that if anyone read it in a TV guide or the even the back of a game box you’d be dying to see/play it.
Let me give you a few examples (which I’m writing up in my own words by the way).
“When faced with financial bankruptcy and unemployment, a group of reject scientists decide to set up their own ghost hunting business right in the middle of downtown Manhattan.”
Can you guess what film that is? Of course, it’s Ghostbusters. Look at the way the line is written. The reader can immediately visualise the film in their mind and that’s the key. Despite not having seen it, they just know it’s going to be funny from the opposites in description alone. The opposites being “ghost hunting” and “downtown Manhattan“. Yes it sounds crazy, I know… but this kind of irony works beautifully! I mean, you can just smell the conflict in the movie.
If the reader has no knowledge of this film (ie: they’ve not read any reviews, seen any trailers or heard anything from their friends) then all kinds of questions will come up in the reader’s mind. Are the scientists serious or are they con-artists? Will they succeed? Are there really ghosts in Manhattan? From this description, the reader will make a decision to either watch the film or give it a miss. If you’ve created enough of a hook, then you’re onto a winner.
In Hollywood jargon there’s something known as a high-concept. This is a fresh and totally original idea which which agents and studios are always on the look out for. In my opinion, Ghostbusters is an excellent example of a high-concept idea.
Here’s a few more log lines for you. Some of them I’ve written myself, and some of them have been taken from IMDB. See if you can work out what films they are. (By the way, it doesn’t matter whether these films are good or bad, the purpose of this is to get you thinking about your own log lines)
“A young man is accidentally sent back in time where he meets his parents. However, when his mother ends up with a serious crush on him, he must now do everything to make sure his parents meet and fall in love before he disappears out of existence.”
“A vengeful, hate-riddled vampire hunter is forced to co-operate with his sworn enemies in order to hunt down and destroy a new threat looming over the city.”
“A drunken, hateful, out-of-work detective who is convinced a toon killed his brother, must now investigate and prove the innocence of the most annoying and most wanted toon in the city who’s been accused of murder.“
“A successful, lonely businessman who hires a hooker as a companion for a series of social events, ultimately ends up falling in love with her.”
“When a desperate movie producer fails to get a major star for his bargain basement film, he decides to shoot the film secretly around him.“ – (log line taken from IMDB)
“When wealthy industrialist Tony Stark is forced to build an armored suit after a life-threatening incident, he ultimately decides to use its technology to fight against evil.“ – (log line taken from IMDB)
Did you get the opposites in the log lines? Did you work out which films they are? If not, here they are in order. Back To The Future, Blade 2, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pretty Woman, Bowfinger, Ironman.
Did you notice how the log line for Back To The Future has an extra punch added to it? The main protagonist must make sure his parents fall in love before he disappears out of existence. There’s a sense of urgency there, or a time limit. These kind of ticking timebomb plot structures work really well.
Here’s the log line I have for the Anaksha movie screenplay which I’m writing, which is simply titled Anaksha.
“A terrified little girl who flees her East Indian homeland to escape the criminal underworld, inadvertently ends up on the shores of America’s most dangerous city. But when a series of unfortunate events leads to the murder of her best and only friend, she decides to take the law into her own hands and ultimately rises to become the city’s most feared vigilante.”
A scared little girl? Escaping from crime and terror? America’s most dangerous city? There’s a lot of opposites and conflict right there and it’s very easy to visualise what the film is going to be like. Not only does it give you the basic understanding of her unfortunate circumstances, it practially sums up everything Anaksha stands for. It only tells you what I want you to know, and does so without giving away the entire story or any secret twists. The log line is a little rough around the edges but I’ll polish it up before release. Right now its main purpose is to guide me towards crafting the correct plot structure (explained in the next chapter).
Now I could have written it like this and it would have been a lot shorter.
“An illegal immigrant fights crime at night.”
What’s wrong with that log line? Well it doesn’t sound like a serious crime-noir story, does it? It sounds more like a comedy. There’s no sense of danger or anything. The only images this line conjures up in my head is of some comical Mexican guy with a huge moustache running around at night in a cape! Now that may sound interesting and some may even consider it a high-concept idea, but it’s not the effect I wanted (although maybe some day if I ever write a silly comedy I might use that theme! ). So the lesson here is to craft your sentences carefully and always have a thesaurus handy incase you need it.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to give you the log line for Anaksha Dark Angel. The problem is, I can’t. *sheepish look* I never wrote one because at the time of writing it (mid 2008) I was still mastering this craft and was just getting round to understanding the importance of a log line. I dove straight into the plot structure and that critical mistake cost me dearly! I spent twice as long on the script as I should have done, simply because I didn’t get the foundations right. I ended up restructuring the main story twice and doing seven drafts before I was done. I learnt my lesson the hard way.
Now on the other hand, my new game, “Grand Larceny: Blackmail” which is currently in development does have a log line and let me tell you it’s made everything so much easier for me. The whole process feels so different and everything seems to happen so much quicker once you lay this critical cornerstone correctly. Here’s the log line. See what y0u think of it.
“On the verge of being promoted to detective after preventing a major jewel heist, an all-American hero cop is compelled into committing a minor, petty crime to save his wife’s one and only chance of college enrolment. But when an ex-con has video evidence of his deeds, he is blackmailed into committing a series of major heists all over the city, which he must now painfully endure to prevent losing his career, his spouse and his reputation.”
Now this isn’t the whole story, it’s just the log line. It only tells you the basic premise of the story and doesn’t give away any plot twists or endings.
So just to recap. Write your log line as a few, short sentences and try to make it sound exciting by adding the irony and conflict and if possible a sense of urgency. The log line will keep your plot structure on course. Remember, this isn’t just your starting point. If you’re writing a spec script to sell to a literary agent then it’s also your main selling point. So make it good.
A great way to test a log line would be to show it off to your family, friends and co-workers. Read out a whole bunch of different log lines and ask them which idea excites them the most. Most people will be happy to give you their honest opinion. Don’t worry about people stealing your idea. This is an unprofessional attitude to have and is highly unlikely to happen. You’re only telling them the log line, you’re not giving away the whole story.
That’s all for now. Til next time.
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