If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
- Albert Einstein
A log line is a brief summary of a book that states the central conflict of the story, providing both a synopsis of the plot and an emotional 'hook' to stimulate interest.
A good log line introduces three elements: the main character, his/her goal, and the antagonistic force which prevents the main character from achieving that goal. You could also include the stakes (what will happen if your character succeeds or fails) though sometimes this will be obvious from the context.
Examples of good log lines:
Through the Civil War and its aftermath, a willful southern belle fights to save the home she loves. (Gone with the Wind)
As darkness threatens to enslave his world, a simple hobbit and his companions must battle the forces of evil to destroy a powerful ring before it destroys him. (The Lord of the Rings)
A fast-living demon and a somewhat fussy angel band together to prevent the apocalypse. (Good Omens)
In a future North America, where the rulers maintain control through an annual contest in which young people are forced to fight to the death on live television, a resourceful 16 year old must use all her skills to survive when she takes her younger sister's place in the contest. (The Hunger Games)
Why do you need to create a log line for your story?
It might feel as if you're unable to do your story justice if you have to reduce it to only one sentence, but there are four good reasons why you need to be able to distill your story into a single sentence:
The log line is a crucial part of the query letter to agents and editors, and is a necessary requirement for being able to sell your book. If you cannot whittle the story down into a couple of sentences, it's a clear sign to agents and editors that the story is flawed.
If you plan to participate in Twitter pitches such as #PitMad or #PitchWars, you'll need a log line that fits into a single tweet.
Have you ever been asked by someone what your novel was about and watched their eyes glaze over five minutes in? Being able to succinctly summarise your book will not only save you from getting a reputation as the most boring person at the dinner party, but will also prepare you to pitch your book should you find yourself in the presence of a publishing professional. (Log lines are also known as Elevator Pitches, because you should be able to pitch your story in the 15-30 seconds it takes to ride in an elevator with a Very Important Person).
Creating a log line will help you to identify possible weaknesses in your story. If you struggle to boil your novel down into a single log line, the problem might not be with the log line, but with the book. As Albert Einstein said, if you can't explain it, maybe you don't yet understand it!
How to write a good log line
A good log line should be brief - and by brief I don't mean one paragraph long. It's called a 'log line' for a reason! Usually, log lines are only ONE sentence long, and the optimal length is around 25 words.
Log lines should be written in present tense, and from the perspective of the protagonist (main character)
A good log line identifies the genre (as in the Good Omens example above) and setting (eg. the South during the Civil War), and perhaps even adds a timeframe to instill a sense of urgency (such as 'before the last petal falls' in Beauty and the Beast)
Ensure the character's goal is clear, and something that any reader will be able to identify or sympathise with.
Use active verbs which show that your main character is pro-actively driving the story. "A hobbit is sent on a journey to..." is not as strong as "a hobbit sets out on a journey to..."
In a two-sentence log line, the first sentence usually describes the outer goal/conflict, and the second sentence describes the inner conflict (emotional barriers).
What NOT to include in your log line
The purpose of a log line is to intrigue the reader so they want to find out more, so don't give away the ending.
Don't waste precious words on names. A 'willful southern belle' or 'plucky teen' says so much more to someone who doesn't know the character than 'Scarlett O'Hara' or 'Katniss Everdeen'. When introducing your main character, use adjectives which describe the character's inner conflict.
Avoid writing long, convoluted, run-on sentences. Trying to squeeze in too much information will only result in confusing sentences, and might leave the agent or editor thinking your entire book is written the same way!
Do not include back story or explanations. If you need to add an explanation for the reader to understand, then your concept may be too complicated.
Do not include more characters than you need, or any sub-plots.
Tips for creating your own log line
Write your log line using pen and paper. This will slow you down and give you time to think.
Place your character's main goal as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible.
Try several options, no matter how bad you think they are. This will give you several options to mix & match.
Try out your log lines on people who know your story and on people who don't, and use their feedback to improve your log line.
Finally, I highly recommend that you write your log line before you even start writing the book. This will help you stay focused on the core story while writing, and prevent you from wandering off at a tangent (especially if you're a Pantser). You'll most likely need to re-write the log line when you reach the end of the book and discover what it was really about, but having that log line before you start will at least prevent you from wasting months writing a book that doesn't have a core story.
Over the next couple of weeks' posts, we'll look at the differences between tag lines and log lines, as well as book blurbs.