What’s your book/essay/short story/project about?
This is the question authors are most frequently asked.
But how do you distill art into a few lines—especially when you’re mid-project?
Most writers, including myself, tighten their neck scarves when hearing the words logline or elevator pitch. The stakes can feel so high—especially if you’ve worked for years to create something.
To keep the stakes low, Blake Snyder, belated author of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, believed writers should create their loglines before writing their first word.
Whether you agree with him or not, learning to craft a logline or elevator pitch is an important skill all writers must learn. Effectively summarizing your work will help you understand your story and spend less time awkwardly rambling to fellow writers and agents.
You don’t need to become a screenwriter to learn from Save the Cat! In fact, I encourage all fiction writers and memoirists to study screenwriting. It helps you develop lean, page-turning prose.
According to Save the Cat! all pitches must contain irony, a compelling mental picture, and a killer title.
When summarizing your story, think about the protagonist’s main conflict and the stakes for failing to achieve their goal. Ask yourself the following questions: What does my character want above all else? How do they change? What are they afraid of?
You don’t have to stuff everything into your logline, but the stakes and conflict should be baked into your sentence.
Here are a few movie examples Snyder shares in his book.
“A newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parents’ homes—4 Christmases”
“A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him—The Retreat”
After identifying your conflict and stakes, your next job is to look for irony or a major plot twist we wouldn’t ordinarily expect.
According to Snyder, “irony gets [your] attention…. it hooks you with interest.”
Here’s another one of Snyder’s examples:
“Businessman falls in love with the hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend—Pretty Woman”
To build irony into your plot, ask yourself the following questions:
- What does the audience expect to happen?
- What wouldn’t they see coming?
- What reversal could I insert into a key plot point that capitalizes on my audience’s expectations?
If your current draft is low on irony, crafting a logline with a plot twist can help you create a more satisfying narrative arc.
Struggling to come up with ideas? Check out this blog post on twelve ironic situations.
Compelling Mental Picture
According to Snyder, “the second most important element that a good longline has is that you must be able to see a whole movie in it. Like Proust’s madeleine, a good logline, once said, blossoms in your brain.”
He uses the pitch for Blind Date as an example. “She’s the perfect woman—until she has a drink.”
Even if you don’t like the premise, I bet you can imagine the potential hijinks.
As you create your pitch, think about how you can establish a situation that creates a visual image that blossoms in the reader’s head.
A Killer Title
The last ingredient for a good logline is a killer title. Snyder says the logline and title are “the one-two punch that makes a good sale.” A good title should “nail the concept without being so on the nose it’s stupid.”
Here are a few examples:
The Silence of the Lambs
Fast and Furious
If the story has already been written, search your document for the most compelling lines. Many great titles have been found inside their manuscripts. If you’re working strictly from a logline, make a list of contenders then pitch them to friends and see which one fits Snyder’s definition. But don’t let yourself get stuck. You can always change the title once your project has been written.
Synder considered the world his test market and regularly pitched coffee shop patrons while waiting for his latte. As he shared his ideas, he paid attention to the listener’s reactions. Wide eyes and questions, he had a winner. Yawns or shifty looks, he moved on to his next pitch.
If cold pitching in a coffee shop sounds daunting, consider attending a writing conference. Conference attendees are nice people who will be genuinely interested in hearing about your work. They won’t shun you for a bad pitch. Instead, they’ll ask questions that help you devise a better one. Plus, listening to other writers’ loglines can serve as inspiration.
If you’re interested in a couple of great conferences, consider HippoCamp or the James River Writers Conference. You can also check out AWP’s conference directory to see what’s happening in your area.
Because loglines take practice, creating them for books and movies you love can help you build the skills needed to create your own.
And, if you don’t have any works in progress, Snyder has some great suggestions.
Here’s an exercise from the chapter titled “What Is It?”:
“Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy. Example: Funny Christine – The haunted dream car of a teenage boy that ruins his life now becomes a comedy when the car starts giving him dating advice.”
If you’ve purchased the book, try some of his exercises then pitch me one of your ideas. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Who knows—the outcome might lead to a new project.
If you’ve spent time in the logline-writing trenches, what obstacles did you face?
If you’ve successfully completed one, what advice do you have for other writers?
And, if you’re feeling unmotivated right now, you’re not alone. Burnout is currently rampant. Take time to step away from your work and your computer screen. Rest. Find unique ways to enjoy your days and trust that your writing life will be there when you’re ready to reconnect with it.
Need a quick pick me up? Check out NPR’s Joy Generator.