Showing posts with label one sentence summary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label one sentence summary. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 19

Creating A Logline, Or One Sentence Summary, For Your Story

Creating A Logline, Or One Sentence Summary, For Your Story

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). 

1b. Genre

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.

1c. Irony

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.

For example:

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.

A formula

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.

Protagonist's name: 
Hercule Poirot

Description of protagonist: 
Famed detective with an exquisite moustache and world-class grey cells.

London and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Complicating incident:
A number of people excavating a tomb in the Valley of the Kings die from what seems to be an ancient curse.

Protagonist's quest:
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."

Here's another:

"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.

Tuesday, January 15

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

This is the final chapter in The Starburst Method. It has been quite a journey!

Our goal has been to work from an initial concept to produce a one sentence description that communicates who the protagonist is, what she wants, as well as the central conflict of the story.

For some reason this has been the most difficult of all the posts to write, but the idea here is simple enough. We're going to take the five paragraphs we crafted over the last few days, take the ideas we developed, and use those ideas to craft one gloriously concise sentence that describes the essential concepts in our story. (For an earlier discussion of this see: The Structure Of Short Stories: The Elevator Pitch Version)

Last time, in The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3, I gave an example of the hero's journey using The Firm as an example. Here I'll extend that example and summarize it using one sentence.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Firm

Mitch McDeere is a smart, motivated, young lawyer living in Boston. But when he gets a job with a group of crooked lawyers, Mitch must thread his way between the dual threats of the FBI and the mob in order to preserve both his life and his law degree.
Here's how I came by this (by the way, this is all thanks to Nathan Bransford):
[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]. (Query Letter Mad Lib)
Let's look at one more example, this time using The Matrix.

A One Sentence Summary Of The Matrix

1. Protagonist's name:

2. Description of protagonist:
Office worker by day, hacker by night

3. Setting:
The Matrix, which appears to be North America in the late 1990s. Neo senses some of this, he wants to know the truth, but has trouble believing.

4. Protagonist's goal:
To expose the Matrix and defeat the machines.

5. Antagonist's name:
The machines. The main minion of the machines: Agent Smith

6. Description of antagonist:
Agents are protectors/servants of the machines that built the matrix and enslaved the human race.

7: Antagonist's goal:
To protect the matrix.

Notice some of my answers are long and rambling, that's okay. We're still at the brainstorming stage. Now we take this information and plug it into our formula:
Neo is an office worker by day, hacker by night, who hates his job and is looking for something more: The Truth. When Trinity, an infamous hacker, introduces Neo to Morpheus and the truth of human existence Neo must decide whether to embrace the bitter pill of truth or go back to the comfortable reality created by the machines who ensnared humanity. 
The way I've written this up The Matrix looks like a Character Story. At the beginning we have a character, Thomas Anderson, who is dissatisfied with his role in society and at the end our character, Neo, has found a new role: he is The One.

This Character Story is also, to a lesser degree, a Milieu Story as well as a love story. The other stories are either closed out first or at the same time as the Character Story.

Getting Our Description Down To One Sentence

Now let's be brutal and get our description down to one sentence. No rambling allowed!

What is the main element? Since this is a Character Story the main element is that the protagonist, Thomas Anderson, is dissatisfied with his role in society and, at the end, succeeds in changing it.

Since I don't want to give any spoilers--this is the description you'd give to anyone who asked what your book is about; telling them the ending wouldn't be friendly--I'm not going to talk about the ending.

I'm sure you could do better but here's what I came up with.

My one sentence summary of The Matrix:

When Thomas Anderson, an office worker by day and rebel by night, meets infamous hacker Trinity and learns the true nature of reality--the we are all trapped in an illusion--he wants to free himself and others, but can he defeat the machines?
If I thought this was a Milieu Story I would have summarized the movie this way:
When Thomas Anderson discovers the strange new world of the Matrix he learns humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines and he is the only one who can save the world.
You know what? I like the second way better! Even though I don't think this is a Milieu Story, that's the version I'd tell folks. Besides, the goal is to craft a single sentence that describes the story and both of the above give one an idea of the main theme of the Matrix: The One--Neo--will save humanity from the machines and the prison they have created for us.

Want to try summarizing your work in progress? Please do! Why not share it in the comments.

Other articles you might like:

- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer
- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories
- Link Mashup: The Million Follower Fallacy, Showing Not Telling, Goals Not Dreams

Photo credit: "Shanghai Rollercoaster." by @yakobusan Jakob Montrasio 孟亚柯 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.