A Formula For Selling Your Script Before You Write It

I had prepared another travel update, then realized that you guys are probably craving another craft article. And given the fact that I will mention the importance of loglining in this next article, I might as well give it its due focus.

by Karel Segers

I first mentioned the art of loglining in the Writer’s Development Kit. Since, I have further refined the segment and incorporated it in the Online Workshop. Now it has become a key component of some of my training course

My friend Lee recently mentioned how he thinks it is ‘insanely infuriating’ how few people recognize the importance of a logline. He is so right.

If you can’t logline it, you can’t sell it

If you can’t immediately give your story’s logline when asked for, this is a symptom of either one of two problems (or both):

1. You can’t sell your story
2. You don’t have a story

The absolutely essential components of a good story are a character that wants to achieve something (the goal, the desire) and the major event prior to this, leading (directly or indirectly) to the desire.

Check this with your favorite movies and you’ll find that each main character has at least those two story points in their journey. These are the exact story points that audiences will mention when talking about your movie.

The Inciting incident (or Call to Adventure) is the ‘what if’ factor. “What if a New York cop gets stuck in a building with a ruthless gang of robbers?” or “What if a shark attacks swimmers in a quiet coastal town?” The answer usually gives us the hero’s goal.

The formula

I have read many loglines that fluffed around about theme and character but didn’t manage to capture what the heart of the story is. When deciding what movie to see, only an insignificantly minor part of the audience will look at a movie’s theme. They’ll all ask about those two major story points. What is it about? “It’s about a paraplegic marine on a remote moon, who can get his legs back if he helps forcefully relocate a tribe of blue people”.

If you’re the type of writer who runs for the exit when you hear the word ‘formula’, feel free to leave now. I like to stir the pot. Here comes a formula that may well save you major headaches – and help you refine a story that would otherwise be doomed to oblivion.

When [a major event happens],
[the hero] must [pursue the goal].

This is the bare bones version. It may sound clunky at first but it will contain what is essential to your story. For Jaws, you’d get something along the lines of:

When [a shark attacks swimmers],
[the sheriff] must [protect the town from the killing monster].

With some tweaking, you can make it sound a lot better and still keep it under the “25 words or less”:

When a small coastal town is shaken
by a deadly shark attack,
the local sheriff has to take responsibility
and stop the killing monster.

If you’d like to see some examples of loglines, both successful ones and flawed ones, check out our series The Judges.

Development and Sales

I should have really categorized this post under the label ‘Story and Structure’ because loglining allows you to thoroughly test whether your story has the two main structural components. Of course you can use the logline when you’re pitching your story but usually at that point it is way too late to make fundamental changes – or you may be pitching something you have not written.

In a follow-up to this, I will show you how you can build further on this basic logline and elegantly incorporate your theme, antagonists and stakes.

Can you give us the logline of your own story? Like, immediately?

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia. Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens. He is also the boss of this blog.

3 thoughts on “A Formula For Selling Your Script Before You Write It”

  1. Not meaning to be pedantic or belittling of the content here, but in LA the preferred logline model is:

    A [protagonist description] who [wants/desires/dreams] to [possess/acheive/become something interesting] despite [whatever critical opposition he or she faces].

    E.g “A stuttering, unkept, loner fisherman wants to win the heart of the new bubbly blonde in town despite having to compete with the town’s suave, charismatic, Country Club prince.”

    It is not only Michael Hague who preaches this. Gary Goldstein advises this basic model to his students as well.

    More importantly than simply being the LA-preferred model, I think it emotively/empathically works better. As it places the protagonist first. Which is where he should be from an empathy and reader-identification point of view.

    But, apart from that, I agree with Karel’s essential points.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Steven. I should have clarified that I wasn’t copying any existing formula.

    I am not familiar with Gary Goldstein’s teaching but Michael Hauge has indeed an excellent reputation and his book on pitching is a standard.

    Still, I believe that my basic formula is more cinematic. In an Aristotelian way it focuses on the action and is more dynamic than the formula you quote, which sounds like merely a character description. My formula works for the screen as it includes the visible goal rather than the desire (visible or not) and it includes the inciting incident.

    In INCEPTION Don Cobb’s desire is to see his kids again but the unique concept of this film is the goal he needs to achieve to get this: to implant an idea into someone’s dream. In THELMA AND LOUISE it is the women’s desire to become independent from the respective men in their lives but it is their goal to escape the police by fleeing to Mexico.

    In my logline classes I go a lot further into the thinking behind this formula and in the Writer’s Development Kit, I expand to include theme, obstacles and antagonist.

    My logline tests whether you have an inciting incident, which after 20 years in this industry I still find a crucial test.

    The truth is, of course, that there is no formula for a GREAT logline. But the structural foundation of my logline makes sure you cover the essential story points and it is action-driven.

    Check out http://storyseries.net. I am covering this on the first Saturday (4 June) and would like to invite you as a guest.




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