It’s the famous Mark Twain quote, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. When aspiring authors get asked, “What’s your book about?”, it’s usually the time we scrunch up our face and tell people we prefer not to say, it’s bad luck, or we go shy. Most of the time, I think it’s because we can’t reduce what the hell we’ve spent months writing into one or two simple sentences.
Regardless, whether you decide to find an agent/publisher or self-publish, you need to be able to condense your 70,000+ words of prose into a sentence or two you could put on twitter (thereabouts). Easier said than done! So it was great to find a blog post from kidlit.com that helps explain how to do this well. What’s more, it’ll do you a favour to think about this sooner rather than later; it can help to clarify what your story is about!
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Here’s the article in full:
When I talk about a logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.
If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.
Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.
That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:
1) Connect your character to your audience
2) Connect your plot to the market
Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”
Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building. To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”
So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)
Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).
If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.” With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.
With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”
Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).
Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.