When you start out to write a story I find it helps to have an idea--even if it's a broad, general, diaphanous, sort of idea--about what story I'm writing. Writing a logline can give you this.
First, what's a logline? Briefly, it is a sentence that sums up the central conflict in your story. It captures--or attempts to capture--its essence. (Characters, as well as stories, can have loglines. See: Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo.)
Aspects Of A Logline
1a. Central conflict
What is the central conflict of your story? I think of this as the protagonist's goal, what opposes it, and the stakes of the battle.
For example, this might be a logline for Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:
In a desperate effort to prevent Hitler from using the Ark of the Covenant's mysterious powers to win the war, Indiana Jones embarks on the adventure of a lifetime to find the Ark and bring it to safety.
Or something. It took me three minutes to come up with that logline so I'm sure there are plenty of ways it could be improved, but you get the idea.
That logline gives the object of Indy's quest (find the ark and bring it back to America), who opposes it (Hitler) as well as the stakes (if Hitler gets his hands on the ark the world is doomed).
A great logline also gives the reader an idea of what genre the story is from. In the case of my example, above, the genre would be action/adventure.
Ideally, the logline should contain an ironic contrast. Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says "any definition of irony [...] must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same."
Matt Bird (who writes one of my favorite screenwriting blogs Cockeyed Caravan) shared this definition of irony with me in a comment. He wrote:
"The best overall definition I’ve come up with is this: Irony is any gap between expectation and reality. ...But, in practice, this isn’t quite precise enough. Irony, in common usage, usually also has some additional element of mortification to it. The person experiencing the irony is trying to preserve their false expectation, or is actively working to make it come to pass, and then reality upsets their expectation or their efforts."
(To read more about Matt Bird's views on irony see his article, Storyteller's Rulebook #123: There’s More Than One Type of Storytelling Irony.)
Here's one way of looking at how irony pertains to the logline: there should be a marked difference between the protagonist's intended outcome and the actual outcome.
Die Hard: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists." (That was Blake Snyder's example from his (great, awesome, fantastic) book Save The Cat!)
What outcome does Officer John McClane want? He wants to effect a reconciliation between him and his wife. What actually happens? Her office building is taken over by terrorists and they are, once again, forced apart.
1d. Compelling mental picture
Blake Snyder writes that your logline should communicate a "compelling mental picture." In other words, make it interesting! Gripping! Make it evocative and emotional. Make the reader want to know more.
The following formula is from Nathan Bransford's excellent post Query Letter Mad Lib.
"[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal]."
Let's try this out by putting together a logline for Agatha Christie's short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb.
Description of protagonist:
Famed detective with an exquisite moustache and world-class grey cells.
London and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.
A number of people excavating a tomb in the Valley of the Kings die from what seems to be an ancient curse.
Travel to the Valley of the Kings, discover the true cause of the deaths, and bring an end to them.
Here's my first attempt:
"Hercule Poirot is a famous detective with an exquisite moustache and world-class grey cells who craves order and method. But when a number of people excavating a tomb in the Valley of the Kings die from what seems to be an ancient curse, Hercule Poirot must leave his comfortable home to travel to the Valley of the Kings and discover the true cause of the deaths, stop them, and restore order to the world."
"Hercule Poirot, the most sagacious detective of all time (though perhaps not the most modest), is commissioned by Lady Willard to investigate several mysterious deaths caused, she says, by a mummy's curse."
It doesn't fit the formula exactly, but it's not meant to. The formula is meant only as a starting point, a springboard, from which you can weave words to work your own magic.
Have you made a logline for your work in progress? If so, what is it?
Photo credit: "Fog in the Valley, Candle in the Sky" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.