Tuesday, August 12, 2014


I used to avoid telling people I enjoy writing books. I’d meet people and they would ask me what I liked to do and I’d throw any hobby out there except for novel writing. Why? Well, as soon as I would mention that I like to write books, I would be required to answer one of the most horrifying questions a writer can ever be asked:

What is your book about?

*screams*

How was I supposed to answer a question like that? A couple months ago I had no idea, so I was left mumbling an answer kind of like this:

“Well, it’s…uh…there’s this desert elf and he wants to…er…well then there’s this evil guy who…but he doesn’t know…uh….gee, it’s super hard to explain.”

And then, after cutting myself off after a minute or so of rambling, I would just have to stand there, ears burning, as the person smiled and politely told me that my novel seemed “interesting.”

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. At least I hope it does, because I really don’t want to be the only idiot who can’t explain her novel in one clear sentence. Wait, let’s revise that to the only idiot who couldn’t explain her novel in one clear sentence. That’s right. I’ve finally figured out how to explain my book quickly without sounding like someone who either has a horrible book or horrible communication skills. Or both.
In case you didn’t know, a novel (or movie) explained in a single sentence is called a logline. I have no idea why, it just is.

Loglines aren’t just good for explaining your book at a party. Every writer who wants to be published is probably going to have to write one because they're often required for query letters, pitches, and book proposals. And that’s a bummer because they are hard to write. We spend years slaving over a novel. We know it inside and out. We have entire paragraphs memorized. We know every single back story like it is our own. Heck, we even know the back stories to the back stories. And now we need to condense all of that awesomeness into ONE sentence. Not fair.

But it’s got to be done. So go get a piece of paper and a pencil with a large eraser and get ready to start writing your killer logline.

But first, let me show you some examples of great loglines for movies. I chose to use loglines for movies instead of books because they are easier to find and I'm lazy. Here are some that I got off of the IMDb website and then tweaked slightly:

Gladiator - When a successful Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor's corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

Captain America – after being deemed unfit for military service, a regular guy volunteers for a top secret research project which turns him into Captain America, a super-soldier dedicated to protecting his country against his power hungry counterpart.

The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl: A young blacksmith teams up with an eccentric and roguish pirate to save his love, the governor's daughter, from a crew of undead buccaneers who believe she is the key to lifting an ancient curse.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - A reluctant hobbit sets out to the Lonely Mountain with a spirited group of dwarves to reclaim their mountain home - and the gold within it - from a blood-thirsty dragon.

Now that you know what loglines are supposed to look like, here are some rules:
  1. Don’t use the character’s names. Nobody knows your character, so what good would it be to use their name? Names, at this point, are of no help. People want to know who the character is and what makes them awesome. 
  2. Don’t mention more characters than necessary. You can talk about your main character and your antagonist, and that’s about it. If it’s a romance, then sure, you’re going to need to mention the love interest. But that’s about the only time it’s alright to mention three people. It’s extremely important to use only a few characters, preferably only two, otherwise things get confusing. 
  3. Don’t go over one sentence. This just isn’t acceptable. 
  4. Don’t stretch your sentence into a run-on sentence because somebody told you that you couldn’t have a two-sentence logline. 
If you look at the above loglines, then you’ll see that all of them follow these rules. You’ll also see that they each do three things. They introduce the main character, they introduce the bad guy, and they introduce the conflict. They don’t go into side-plots or back-stories because that’s not what they are for. They are for describing the overall main plot in a simple and straightforward way, but also in a way that sounds interesting.

And that’s what yours needs to do.

I spent about four hours working on writing a good logline – not counting the numerous hours of research – and I found one method that seems to work better than the others. Here are the two rules:
  1. Do it the old-fashioned way with a piece of paper and a pencil. It slows down the process and gives you time to think. 
  2. No matter what, always finish the sentence that you start, even if it’s a lame sentence. Then you’ll end up with a ton of loglines to mix and match. 
Finally we can get started:

First, fill in the white spaces:

Choose your protagonists (preferably only your MC, but you can mention more if completely necessary):

Choose main antagonist (the biggest bad-guy character): 

What the hero wants (go ahead and list all of them, even if there are a lot):

What the antagonist wants (again, list everything that comes to mind):

Names/titles for the hero (eg: 'adventurous farm-boy' 'shy viking'): 

Names/titles for the antagonist: 

Themes throughout the novel: 

What's at stake throughout the novel:

Now that you have these bits of information down on paper, start piecing them together to form a coherent sentence. No, there is no formula for this. It’s just trial and error. However, it does help if you remember to use strong, forceful words. Instead of ‘kill’ use ‘slaughter’, instead of ‘talented’ go with ‘elite.’ Get it? Also, avoid using cliché’ terms like ‘now only he can stand between…’ and ‘it is up to her to…’ or ‘they must fight to…’

Yes, the first logline you write will be horrible, but keep writing, mixing and matching the information above to make a pleasing sentence. Remember, your logline MUST convey the conflict, otherwise it will be completely useless. I ended up with twenty or so different sentences, some almost identical, some of them mixes of each other. I eventually came up with one that is usable for explaining my story quickly and easily. No, it’s not poetry, and yours probably won’t be either. Just go look at some of the professional ones used on the IMDb or Netflix. Even they aren’t anything amazing, but they do get the point across, which is all that matters.

I hope this helps you find a way to describe your novel in a quick and clear manner. Please don’t hesitate to post your logline below in the comment section. I would absolutely love to see what you come up with!

Related articles:
How To Write An Awesome Jacket Blurb For Your Novel
Things That Make For A Good Book Title

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28 comments:

  1. Omg Hannah I loved this article. This is something I have really needed help with, and I know the summaries for my books need just as much help. I was dying laughing at the beginning of this post because I totally know exactly what you mean- I've had that conversation like a million times, and each went exactly the same. Thank you for this invaluable post, really great stuff :)

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    1. Yay! I'm glad the whole 'awkward writer response' isn't unique to me. So happy that the article helped you out. If you ever need a second pair of eyes with your novel summaries/loglines, just let me know!

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  2. Ahh - that was interesting. Kidding. Great post, my first time here and as Arnold said, "I'll be back."

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    1. Ha! I'm glad you enjoyed it and I'm glad you're coming back, but The Terminator reference totally made my day. Looking forward to more comments by you! =)

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  3. Nice, enjoyable read! Knowing the ins and outs and all the details of my story makes it difficult to condense, but I'm up for the challenge of trying this!

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    1. Awesome! I'd love to hear how it goes.

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  4. This is awesome, Hannah! And I can totally relate to the beginning of the post. One time a guy at my bank asked me what my book was about, and I think I rambled for a solid five minutes. My cheeks were red for hours after! :)

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    1. Haha! Yes. I usually either ramble for 5 minutes or mumble something incoherent and then run for it. =) Thanks for the comment!

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  5. Great post! I just had this same conversation with my grandad yesterday and ended up saying "It's kinda like Harry Potter meets the X-Men..." just because I had no idea what else to say. Writing out a logline would definitely help.

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    1. Hm. Harry Potter meets X-Men actually sounds really cool, but yeah, a logline would be helpful. =) I'm sure you'll come up with something great!

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  6. Thanks, I was going for concise, you got it right, one sentence, really great advice.

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  7. Thanks hannah! This is great!
    I'm wondering if you have some specific advice for the sprawling epic fantasy. The Hobbit helped give me some insight, but the book I'm working on right now has 2 story lines that don't directly intersect until further into the series. And another (which can possibly be called a side plot) that has an important character, but his mission has nothing to do with the main antagonist (until the end). The main antagonist is still the common thread, but I'm making one of those George R.R. Martin too-many-characters-for-my-own-good stories. The book is somewhat like 3 novellas wrapped into one long novel.
    Should I just pick a character and stick with his or her journey?

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    1. Hey Jim! That is a great question. There are a few options, but, having never read your book, I'm not sure which is best. So here are a few for you to chose from:
      1) If there is truly a main protagonist, then follow his story and goal even if it means cutting out other important characters. You can mention other characters (not by name) if it helps the logline flow. This is generally the recommended way. However, it sounds like you might have two main protagonists, in which case:
      2) Use the end game as the common point of the logline. If there are 2 protagonists who are both fighting the same antagonist, then use that as the central point/glue for the logline. Even if they are fighting the antagonist for different reasons, common end goals are a great base for a epic fantasy one-liner.
      Remember, you don't have to go into detail: only absolute essentials like the main goal and the 'why' of the goal. It just needs to be interesting enough to get someone to want to know more. Your synopsis can, and should, explain about having 3 different POVs, but you don't have to worry about your logline doing so. =) Hope this helps!

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  8. This is fantastic. I've found myself in those situations several times now, and I'm so glad I'm not the only one! And that I now have the antidote. :)
    So figuring out the logline for my current WIP actually helped me figure out some things about the plot, so thank you very much!! This is what I came up with:

    "When a new master buys him, a young, mute slave finds himself forced to discover and betray his new-found extended family's secret in order to free his father."

    I can't decide what I think of it. Do you think I should add that he's an educated slave, or just leave it that he's mute? His being educated is quite important to the plot, though of course his muteness is important to his character. Also, does the phrasing make sense? Is it obvious that its the slave's father, not the master's? Also, do you think the "and betray" part is necessary, since it implies he is forced to betray the secret, when in fact he may or may not be, and it takes most of the story for him to discover the secret anyway.
    Also, this story is a Fantasy, set in an invented world; however, the logline sounds like it could be a historical fiction, or something. I notice that all your examples in the post do reveal their genre. Should I try to add something that makes it obvious its fantasy? Or does that not really matter?

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    1. First off, I think that's a really good logline. It would definitely make me take a closer look at the book. As for your questions:

      I don't think that adding that he's an educated slave is necessary. The fact that he's mute is already very intriguing. Also, when I think of a mute character, I immediately assume that this character is going to be more observant, listen more carefully, and spend a lot more time in his head than others because he is mute. So I just naturally assume that he's fairly intelligent, so adding that in is probably unnecessary.

      Also, I was thinking it's probably best to leave out the "to discover" and just go with, "forced to betray..." This is because “betray” flows better and is a more eye-catching word. Also, even if the book is mostly about him trying to discover the secret, I’m assuming that he’s trying to discover the secret with the intent to betray the family. Am I correct in that? If so, betray is probably the way to go. =)

      And, finally, I don’t think you need to mention that it’s in a Fantasy setting. Your blurb and book cover can convey that. The logline is just to draw a person in. It doesn’t have to encompass ever part of the book.

      Sorry for the long comment. I hope this helps! Your book sounds very interesting based on the tagline, which is hard to do, so go you! =D I would definitely read it. Keep up the awesome work!

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    2. Yay! Thank you so much! This helps immensely.
      Hm, yes, I see what you mean about not having to mention he's educated. Also, I didn't think about it at all till I read your comment, but my readers don't have the context of the story world in the logline, so mentioning that he is educated really doesn't tell them anything (In world, very few people know there is an alphabet at all, so his being able to write, and his master read, are terribly significant, because it means they can communicate in detail without any guesswork, no one can listen in, and Kelpe (my main character) can't tell anyone what they wrote of.) Thanks for the insight!
      Ooo, I actually like that, now that you say it. I hadn't thought of leaving it as just "forced to betray", mainly because of what you mention, the plot being mostly focused on the discovering of the secret. But you're right, the betraying is the point of the discovering, so yeah, makes sense. And sounds better and more gripping.
      Okay, good to know! I'll leave the conveying of genre/setting to the book jacket, then. :)
      And not to worry about the long comment; I write them quite long myself, haha. Thank you again! For the blog post, the help, and the words of encouragement!! Its awfully good to know it sounds interesting to someone besides myself. :)

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  9. Hey thank you for this post! I've been struggling for the longest time to really understand my story and make it easy enough for others to understand without explaining the entire plot line. Here's what I wrote:

    Caught in the grip of slavery two Elven brothers and a young Marsinian boy struggle for survival and the fulfillment of an age-old prophecy.

    It sound pretty good but I'm still trying to decide if it is intriguing, your thoughts?

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    1. Whoa. That sounds very interesting! I'm intrigued. I think one way to make it just a bit stronger would be to cut the "Marsinian" bit out. Your readers won't know what a Marsinian is, so would it be possible to describe this young boy using another characteristic? Maybe some other word that conveys who he is, such as "reckless young boy" or "scarred young boy" or some other key part of his personality.
      Anyway, just a thought. But slavery, Elven brothers, a prophecy, survival? All epic buzz words that immediately make me interested in learning more. =) Keep up the amazing work! This is certainly a story I would read.

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  10. This helped me summarize the plots of my two manuscripts [totally unrelated to each other aside from the fact they take place in different parts of the same fantasy world]. Thank you for the help! :) I want to see what you think of the loglines, like if I need to make it more interesting or more concise somehow?

    Manuscript one:
    An embittered assassin is forced to work together with his volatile, vampire prisoner in order survive the agonizing punishments of his corrupt superiors.

    Manuscript two:
    A flight-obsessed angel kid must choose between giving up his individuality and blending in with the crowd, following in his famous father’s footsteps, or charting his own path in the sky.

    What do you think? oxo Should I redo certain parts? Take out unnecessary bits? Add in some more clarification somewhere? Adding in "vampire" was a last second change because I thought it might intrigue someone who likes vampires, and it's the closest term for what the prisoner is (he needs to drink blood but he also needs to eat normal food and drinks too). And I'm not sure calling the first MC a "Hunter" like he is in the book would help so I settled on the closest thing that a random person would understand without help - assassin.

    Another last second addition was "following in his famous father's footsteps" as one of the options the second MC had to choose from. I'm not sure if I should just leave that there or what?

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

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  11. This is some amazing advice thank you so so so much! (Not really anonomous but it won't let me post as me! rayhneatess.wordpress.com)

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  12. Thanks so much for this post. I am having all kinds of trouble with my logline. Your advice really helps though.

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  13. Hi great article. I'm struggling a bit with a logline myself (obviously since i'm here) I wonder what you'd think of this attempt:

    "A haunted man’s thirst for vengeance against the men who destroyed his life will force him to conquer harsh wilderness, battle gangs of vicious slavers and face his own darkest impulses. He will shake the foundations of his world, draw the attention of an ancient force of destruction and be dragged into a war millennia in the making."
    I'm unconvinced when I reread it but uncertain how to improve it.

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  15. I like it how you explain the process easily understandable and step by step. Thanks!

    By the way, I think there is an even crueler question than to ask the author what the book is about. It is asking kids the same question, who just had to read the book, are way too young to truly understand the subtext, and are forced to answer exactly as expected by their teacher, who has understood only a little more than the kids, but is always right. That is why I help kids to figure out the answer (and find out what the teacher wants to hear) when I come across such a situation.

    Astonishingly I found that writing a letter to the teacher that the kids are close enough with their answers, from my point of view as the author, does not actually help their grades. Hell hath no fury like a teacher advised. :)

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  16. Thank you so much for this explanation!
    I was lost before reading your step by step instructions. I'm prepping for my first NaNoWriMo and have found trying to explain what my story is about to be the hardest part. It's my first official logline so it could be better, but I now have something not mortifying to share with others.

    "Knowing her enemies masquerade as friends, a seventeen year old dancer from LA must align herself with magic wielding freedom fighters to save the spirited women of her mother's ancient Scottish Clan from modern day slavery."

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