Let’s start by saying what it isn’t.
It is not a tagline. It is not really a one-paragraph synopsis either. (and it’s definitely not a slug line)
The Australian Film Commission says:
“filmmakers are often asked to supply a one sentence version of their film story. This one sentence should give the most concentrated version possible of the story, or at least its key event.”
This definition is – to say the least – problematic. Do you know what a story’s ‘key event’ is? I don’t.
“For example, here is a one sentence plot premise for Somersault: “A teenage girl runs away from home, hoping to find herself through love, but the people she meets are as lost as she is…”
If this is the best logline possible for this film, the film does not have a story. There may be some sort of an inner journey but that is not enough for a successful film. The AFC document continues:
“This sentence is one way to describe what happens in Somersault. In this case, it gives us the starting event, implies further events and states the protagonist’s predicament.”
The writer of this statement should not give advice to filmmakers. Not only is it confusing, it is plain wrong. ‘A teenage girl runs away from home’ is most definitely NOT a ‘starting event’. It is a deliberate action by that character, therefore it can not qualify for a strong inciting incident.
The Unknown Screenwriter (Unk) has a far more useful definition:
“Protagonist’s main character trait + Protagonist’s main function + main story conflict + central question + Antagonist or forces of antagonism + Protagonist’s goal and arc”
I found this for Gladiator, which is a perfect example of the above:
“The brave General Maximus, heir to the throne, is stripped from his powers and made a fugitive slave by his arch rival Commodus. In order to restore the power of the Roman Senate and avenge the murder of Marcus Aurelius he will have to fight and survive as a gladiator and ultimately confront Commodus.”
Because we have two sentences, it is not the ideal logline. But with some work, you can tighten this further without losing the essence:
“When the brave General Maximus is made a fugitive slave, he has to fight as a gladiator to confront his arch rival Commodus and restore the power of the senate.”
Unk also calls it a compass logline because:
“it’s the logline I create before I ever ever start writing. It always leads the way for me. It keeps me on track when I get off track and I tend to get off track ALL THE FUCKIN’ TIME.”
Next: Examples of loglines >>
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.