Category Archives: One-Line Synopsis

Logline Revisited: Are some components more significant than others?

I got a comment the other day, on the post about NYTBS one-line synopses, asking whether the significance of each logline component varies according to the sort of story it’s describing.  Also requested was a list of the components ordered by most significance. These are great questions, and my answers ended up being pretty long (almost 8,000 words), so I thought I’d upgrade it from comment to post.

To review, a logline is a one-sentence description of your story, often called an elevator pitch, and, as we determined in the logline tool post, the master craftsmen recommend including seven components: World, Inciting Incident, Character, Problem, Goal, Main Action, and Stakes.

So, are some components more significant than others?  Definitely.  Let’s see why.

But first:

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY SIGNIFICANT?

The point of a one-liner is to convey your story as efficiently as possible and in a way that makes other people want to read it.  It’s a balance of limiting the logline’s word count while maximizing its interesting details.

These interest-piquing details are generally called Hooks.  (I don’t think I have a hooks post, so maybe I’ll do one, but essentially:) Hooks are anything about your story that make it interesting or make it stand out in the bookstore or at least on your genre’s shelf.

So I’m defining significance, and, therefore, the most significant component(s) of a logline, as:

the details/components that convey your story’s Hook.  

SIGNIFICANT VS. ESSENTIAL

Now, not all components are going to convey something Hookish, but just because a component doesn’t capture the Hook doesn’t mean it’s not still needed in the logline.

There are two components that, hookish or not, are always essential:  Character and Main Action. This is mainly because, at the very basic level, you can’t write a complete sentence–and a logline is a sentence–without a subject [Character] and a verb [Main Action].  (But see below for some examples that try.) 

Other components may also be essential in a particular logline if, without it, the logline seems incomplete.  A logline might make sense sentence-wise, but it might still feel incomplete if it leaves the reader with questions of confusion (as opposed to questions of interest–forward-looking questions, questions wondering how the story’s going to play out–which are a good thing). The two most common components that might be needed to complete a logline that is otherwise a proper sentence are Goal and Inciting Incident.  (Much more on this below.)

So, again, some components have to be in your logline regardless of whether they’re significant/hookish, because you can’t write a sentence without them.  Other components should probably be in your logline because they nix confusion.  And still other components really, really should be in your logline because they’re significant, they’re your Hook.

So, yes, the significance of each component will depend on your genre and/or the specifics of your story, because sometimes World is the clear Hook and sometimes Character is the clear Hook and sometimes your genre dictates which components should be included because they indicate genre, and so they’re genre Hooks, and so then you’ve got to look to other components that might be significant so you can distinguish your story within your genre, and then . . .

Fun, right?  Examples will help. Let’s start with a couple of the NYTBS examples from the original post

EXAMPLE #1: IF I STAY

The logline emphasizes three components: Character (a young cellist), Inciting Incident (gets into a car wreck), and it sort of glosses over (and in my opinion, gets wrong) the Main Action (she’s in a coma). 

When I was first thinking about this question, about whether some components are more significant than others, my initial gut reaction was, Well, duh, character is the most significant component, because you can’t write a logline without one.  (And, if you look at the NYTBS loglines in the original post, notice that every single one does indeed include Character. But one logline only implies Character–Orphan Train (which also only implies the Main Action, for that matter)–and it makes for a weak logline.)

Anyway, I thought Character would be most significant, and it is important (essential, I say), but If I Stay shows that Character may not necessarily be the most significant component or even a significant component at all.

The character being a cellist is incidental to the plot; the author could have given the character any extracurricular interest at all and the story would have still been more or less the same.  So, the Character component is not significant here, and, I think, as written (to try and give it significance?) actually muddies the logline. It makes me wonder, What does being a cellist have to do with being in a coma?  And I think it would have been more effective if dialed down to young woman

So, while Character is essential, and you shouldn’t write a logline without one, unless there’s some detail about the character that comprises your Hook or your World or that must be included in order for the rest of your logline to make sense, etc., then it’s not a significant component of your particular story, and you might consider leaving the character description vague (and therefore, one might say, more ‘universal’).

Now, what’s super interesting (compelling, hooking, significant) about If I Stay, and what makes the story stand out, is what the original logline omitted:  The true Main Action is the character debating whether to live or die.  So in this story, I’d say the most significant component, the Hook, is the Main Action, and it is the Main Action, the correct main action, that should have been the highlighted component:

After falling into a coma a young woman must decide whether to live or die.

Okay, so this logline has four components:

  • Character (A young woman) – It’s not that significant, and I think leaving it vague works best here. It allows the other, more hooking components to shine.
  • Main Action (must decide whether to live or die)The Main Action is the Hook and, therefore, the most significant component. 
  • Inciting Incident (After falling into a coma)In this logline’s case, I think stating the Inciting Incident is important, essential, because if you don’t, if you only say that “A young woman must decide whether to live or die,” then you leave people wondering why she has to do that (and not in an inclined-to-read-more way, but in a confused way. Not good).  So in this logline, the Inciting Incident is part of the Hook, because it sets up the main part of the Hook. (More on this below)
  • World (implied) – Would you call ‘being in a coma’ the story’s World? I think so, and I think it provides a bit of a Hook of its own, separate from its role in setting up the Main Action Hook, and so, I’d say, the World component has some significance.

You’ll notice this logline isn’t hitting all the components. It’s missing:

  • Problem – The coma isn’t the problem, because she gets to decide whether to live or die, presumably whenever she wants, so what’s keeping her from wanting to live?
  • Stakes – Life and Death are stock stakes, but, as written in this logline, she doesn’t seem to care if she lives or dies, so why should I?
  • Goal – It’s not to live or die, apparently, so what is it?

Now, if this story’s Hooks aren’t interesting to you, then you probably won’t be interested enough in the story to pick it up and read it. But, fleshing out these other components could make it more interesting to more readers–even to readers who aren’t immediately hooked by this genre or these Hooks.

That said, this example is a hard one for me to use to show you this, because the other components (except maybe Problem), even when fleshed out, still aren’t that interesting/hooking enough to warrant the words necessary to add them. IMHO. Her Goal is to be happy, the Stakes are her happiness (which are the least hooking type of stakes), and her Problem is that she’s the only one in her family who survived the crash, so if she wakes up she’ll be alone. So we could do:

After falling into a coma from a car crash that kills her family, a young woman must decide whether to live or die.

More interesting?  Or do the extra works undercut the power of pithy?

Me, I think the details don’t add anything Hookish enough to warrant the extra words–without them this logline is all Hook–but that’s a judgment call.  

Shall we do another example?  This next one better lets me show you how fleshing out more components, especially the hooking components, can add more interest.

EXAMPLE #2: THE ROSIE PROJECT

The original logline emphasizes Character (a genetics professor with Asperger’s) and the Main Action (becomes involved with an unconventional woman). 

Could we make this more interesting by adding more components, more significant, hooking components?  I think so.  The story is a romantic comedy, but I don’t think the comedy part is conveyed in the original logline. So let’s see . . .

The Character component is clear and it conveys the Hook, it’s significant.  The Main Action is, indeed, that the main character becomes involved with an unconventional woman (good word, adds more hook, gives this component significance), but the Main Action could be more specific. The Main Action is more about how he creates a questionnaire to find a suitable wife–to weed out the undesirables–and then uproots his routine in order to find non-romantic reasons to keep seeing this one particular woman who doesn’t pass his test.  (Which is funny. And ironic.)

So, components that weren’t included: His Goal is to find a wife. His Problem is that he likes a woman who doesn’t meet his requirements. His specific Main Action is that he uproots his life in order to help her find her bio dad so that he can keep seeing her anyway. The Stakes are his happiness. And the Inciting Incident is when he mistakes this woman for a practice date (when she’s really in his office to ask about genetics and finding her bio dad).

So, how about: 

A genetics professor with Asperger’s {C, W} uproots his routine in order to help an unconventional {P} woman find her bio dad {A} so that he can keep seeing her {G, Si} despite the fact that she fails his Test {P} for a Suitable Wife {G, S}.

This has six out of seven components (no Inciting Incident), and I think it better captures the story’s comedic quality. But is it too wordy? Too detailed?  Perhaps.  Perhaps we could trim it (delete “uproots his routine in order to” for example).  But perhaps the original version is good enough–great, even, because it’s short and it still conveys the Hook. 

The Hook is that this is a love story about a guy with Asperger’s–a literal guy, a routined guy set in his ways–who falls for a spontaneous woman with alternative style who smokes and drinks and does other things he doesn’t like, an “unconventional” woman.  The original version more or less captures the Hook.  In eleven words. 

Short or detailed. It’s a judgment call.  My advice?  Have both versions ready and whip out whichever one seems right for the moment.  Short is better for the elevator or for the NYTBS list (where people are already buying).  Long might be better for a query or for the Hulu listing, where your intended audience has lots and lots of other options to scroll through, and you need all the hooking-detail help you can get. 

WHAT ABOUT GENRE? DOES IT AFFECT WHICH COMPONENT IS MOST SIGNIFICANT?

In general, the components that indicate your genre–show that it’s fantasy, show that it’s a thriller, show that it’s literary fiction–should be included in your logline.  But within each genre, I think a logline’s most significant components depend on the specific hooking details of its story.

Let’s look at some more examples, other stories, other genres, and see which components were chosen to be emphasized or not and whether those choices are effective. (These examples are taken from the original post as well as the December 14, 2019 NYTBS list. I haven’t read most of these yet, so I won’t be able to say whether other components would have been a better choice.  And, as usual, my critique of a logline should in no way be considered a critique of the story.)

At the same time, let’s also make that list:

A SUGGESTED ORDER OF MOST IMPORTANCE/SIGNIFICANCE

In general, and while giving due to the two components that (I think) are essential, it looks like the order of most significance is: 

1. Character. It’s essential; you can’t write a sensical logline without one (though see below for a logline that tries). State the Character clearly (as opposed to impliedly; see Orphan Train).  Also, consider your details/adjectives. If they add Hook or World or other essential information, great. If they muddy the logline or distract from the more hooking components, then consider keeping the character description more generic. 

Emphasizes Character:

  • Cullen Post {C}, a lawyer {C} and Episcopal minister {C}, antagonizes some ruthless killers when he takes on a wrongful conviction case. – The Guardians by John Grisham (Legal Thriller)

Murder and Law and Killers are hooks typical of the Legal Thriller genre, so this logline emphasizes character details to distinguish this story from others in the genre.  Hitting Character three times makes Character appear to be the story’s most significant component.  Not having read it, I don’t know whether it really is, or whether some other, even more interesting, component could have been emphasized.

Implies Character:

  • A historical novel about orphans swept off the streets of New York and sent to the Midwest in the 1920s.  – Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (Literary Fiction)
  • Also see The Institute by Stephen King

No Character:

  • New relationships, including a second marriage, are encountered in a seaside town in Maine – Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Literary Fiction or not, don’t you think these last two loglines would have been stronger, more interesting, if they specified a particular character?  Olive Kitteridge enounters new relationships, including a second marriage, in a seaside town in Maine.  Such an easy change. So much easier to understand.  And it gets a great Hook in there: This is a sequel about Olive Kitteridge, a beloved character whose name was the title of the previous book, which was a big bestseller and a movie.

2. Main Action. It’s essential. And it’s probably more significant, in general, than Character (but I still list them in this order because they’re kind of a 1-2 punch: Character Acts). I say Main Action is probably more significant, maybe even most significant (again, in general), because it is the ride that the reader will be taking for four-hundred pages, and readers want to know up front if they’re going to like that ride. (For example, you, as a reader, may be all about probing the murder of a big-game hunter with Rizzoli and Isles, but not so interested in being swept off the streets of New York and sent to the Midwest in the 1920s with the orphans of Orphan Train.)

As for how specific you want to get with this component, that will be a judgment call, a balance of providing Hookish details while keeping it short (see The Rosie Project, above).  Whatever you decide, state the Main Action clearly and actively. (More on this, and a bunch more examples, further below).

Emphasizes Main Action:

  • Children with special talents are abducted and sequestered {A} in an institution where the sinister staff seeks to extract their gifts {A} through harsh methods {Ai}. – The Institute by Stephen King (Horror)

Special kids and Sinister bad guys are typical hooks of the horror genre, so this logline distinguishes this story with the Main Action, specifically, for me anyway, “extracting” their gifts.  Cool, I wonder how they will do that . . . (Harsh Methods?  Cool . . .)

Why no {A} on abducted, you ask?  I considered it the Inciting Incident, implied. I haven’t read this, so I don’t know for sure.  As is, it could probably go either way.

No Main Action:

  • The lives of a blind French girl and a gadget-obsessed German boy before and during World War II.  – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction)

This one emphasizes Character and World, which will definitely tell those who like WWII novels that this is a book for them.  But for those who aren’t necessarily drawn to these Hooks (or are turned off by them) but who might still like a story that happens to include them (Here’s looking at you, The Book Thief), I find myself thinking, “Yeah, unique characters in a bummer world . . . And? So? What about them?”  Telling those people what these two do in this story could pick up more readers. (The book’s doing fine, but still . . .)

3. World.  If it’s your Hook, make sure it’s clearly included, but even if it’s not your Hook, imply it as best you can.  At the very least, setting gives a reader context. Invoking the imagination is the goal of a Hook, any hook, and whether World is your capital-H Hook or just a setting–either way–World helps the reader imagine your character in a place doing his main action, not just in a void.  World or just setting, it helps your logline hook your reader. So (I say) get it in there.

Emphasizes World:

  • In a quiet town {W} on the North Carolina {W} coast {W} in 1969 {W}, a young woman who survived alone {C} in the marsh {W} becomes a murder suspect {I, Pi, Gi, Si}. – Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens (Literary Fiction, possible crossover with Thriller)

Hooks of literary fiction are great writing, great character, probably great sense of place, and so adding murder distinguishes the story, as does making an unlikely person the suspect.  If Thriller is the dominant genre here, then showing all that World component tells readers that this is potentially a crossover novel with the drive of a thriller but the sensibilities of literary fiction.  Or something like that. =D  It’s hitting both genres and yet distinguishing the story within both genres as well, so while there are some components missing, this logline is doing it’s job.

Interestingly, that missing component is Main Action.  One might think it’s implied–duh, she tries to prove her innocence–but having read the first part of this story (I failed to finish before it was due back at the library), that’s not the Main Action I read, and what action I did read was hard to convey succinctly, so . . . ?  Glossing over Main Action was probably a good choice here.

Most significant component: Definitely depends on your story.

No World:

I didn’t find any stories that don’t at least imply the world.  A couple young adult novels rely on the genre, not the logline, to imply the world (YA = high school), but they all at least imply, somehow, the World.  Probably because of it’s imagination-inducing powers.  Hence why it’s so close to the top of this list.

4. Stakes.  Honestly, I’m surprised Stakes isn’t higher on this list, and if you don’t have a strong hook, then stakes will probably increase in significance for your logline, because, as I mentioned in the original post, and assuming your story has bigger stakes than just hero happiness, stakes can help you reach readers who aren’t already interested in your genre and its typical hooks.  Now, as you can read about in the original list of NYTBS examples, implied stakes aren’t as effective as clearly stated stakes.  That said, if you have a strong Hook, you can probably get away with implying stakes or even leaving them out. 

Emphasizes Stakes:

  • Copycat crimes make the detective, Alex Cross, question whether an innocent man was executed. – Criss Cross by James Patterson (Thriller)

James Patterson and his stakes. *Shakes head in awe.*

That possibly innocent man . . . He isn’t just in jail, he’s already been executed.  The stakes aren’t life and death here; I would say they’re even bigger: Our humanity is at stake.  A fate worse than death, for society as a whole, is at stake.  Goosebumps.  

No Stakes:

  • Fallon Swift goes up against an old foe. – The Rise of Magicks by Nora Roberts
  • Old secrets bring three women together as the Republic of Gilead’s theocratic regime shows signs of decay. – The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

” . . . And?  So? Why should I care?”

Lots of loglines leave out stakes. A couple genres imply stakes–love = love/happiness, thriller = justice/life and death–so the stories in those genres can get away with leaving out stakes. But other genres are way too broad in the kinds of stories they can include to automatically imply what’s at stake in any given story. For these kinds of stories/genres, I think it’s a mistake to leave out stakes.  And look at James Patterson: His genre implies his stakes for him, but I don’t think he ever relies on that. He gets them in there. Usually explicitly. And he makes them BIG. And, though I’m not a big Thriller or James Patterson fan, I’ll probably go read his book. Again. That’s the power of stakes.

5. Problem. Problems create conflict, and conflict imparts interest.  So, again, if you have a weak Hook, look to the Problem, in addition to Stakes, to add interest.  Unlike Stakes, Problem can often be economically implied to powerful effect.  (In The Rosie Project, it is the single adjective unconventional that provides the Problem. That single word also creates the irony that completes the main-character-has-Asperber’s Hook.)

Emphasizes Problem:

  • A sibling relationship is impacted {Pi} when the family goes from poverty to wealth {P} and back again {P} over the course of many decades. – The Dutch House, Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

The only component explicitly stated here is Problem, and it’s hit three times. It’s definitely not a crisp logline, but it does give a pretty complete overview of the story. I’m not confused.  That said, I am in limbo. The first question that comes to mind is a context question: How is this relationship impacted?  Given the answer, I might be super interested or I might be indifferent.  But just in case I might be interested, don’t you, as the writer, want me to know how, specifically, the relationship is impacted?

I’m not sure how to component-classify “Over the course of many decades,” but I’d say it has significance, because it gives the reader an idea of the story’s scope. It tells us this is a saga, which can be a hook for some readers.

Anyway, I feel like this logline could be improved, probably a lot, but not having read it, I don’t know where to start. Or maybe I do. I think I can safely say that changing “is impacted” to “suffers” would be an improvement. 

No Problem:

  • A historical novel about orphans swept off the streets of New York and sent to the Midwest in the 1920s.  – Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (Literary Fiction)
  • New relationships, including a second marriage, are encountered in a seaside town in Maine – Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

(Interesting that these are also the two examples for No Character . . .)

So, one could say that some kind of Problem is always implied because stories are about problems, they’re about conflict, and so you can’t have a story without one.  Very true.  But there are so many kinds of problems, genres, even, of problems.

These Orphans could be swept off to some rich estate in the Midwest or they could land in the gutter.  These would be very different stories. Olive could encounter her new relationships because some sassy lady joins her book club or because a storm washes pirates ashore in their seaside town.  These too would be very different stories.  (I’m noticing my Problem examples are inciting incidences. Lets see if I can think of some that aren’t . . . Ah!)

Olive meets a new man for her second marriage. One Problem could be that he’s already got a wife. Another Problem could be that he’s got an adult child who fears for her inheritance, or an infant who needs a mother, or a special needs child who will never be independent. Or he’s got a terminal diagnosis. Or a long-running debilitating one.  All very different stories.  And I, as a reader, might be totally interested in the emotional ride of a cheating-bastard or a selfish-brat-child story, but not interested in the almost certainly tear-jerking ride of an infant who needs a mom or a special needs child or an illness.  Other readers feel the exact opposite.  And that’s the point.  Your story has readers. Help them find you.

Just saying. Problems help a reader know what kind of ride they’re in for.

6. Goal.  Goal is generally a story’s driving force, but quite often it’s not what’s most interesting about the story.  If it’s not what’s most interesting about your story, and if you can state the main action without people wondering why the main character would do that (more on this below), then you can probably get away with implying Goal or leaving it out altogether.

Emphasizes Goal:

  • Alexandra Wickham, an espionage agent during World War II, must keep her secret hidden {G} into the Cold War. – Spy by Danielle Steel (Historical Fiction, Spy Fiction)

World and Character (which, in this logline, implies a Main Action if not the Main Action [spy craft]) are genre identifiers and genre hooks, so Goal interestingly (There’s a secret!) distinguishes this historical spy story from other historical spy stories, making Goal significant to this story.

I haven’t read this story, but I think there’s a good chance this logline could convey with just a couple extra words how she goes about keeping her secret hidden (Main Action, Goal implied), and not just tell us that she needs to keep a secret (Goal only), which would give us a better sense of the story’s journey and make the logline more effective.

No Goal:

  • Jack Reacher gets caught up in a turf war between Ukrainian and Albanian gangs. – Blue Moon by Lee Child (Action Adventure)
  • A downsized Wall Street lawyer joins a legal clinic in a small Virginia town.  – Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Legal Thriller)

In the first example, one could say his goal is implied–duh, he wants to survive–but in the Action Adventure genre, characters often go looking for trouble or they’re super skilled, so even when trouble finds them, we’re not too concerned for their safety. The action is the Hook, and the goal is just an excuse to have that journey. And for Lee Child, that’s enough (especially because his character is also a Hook).  If you were trying to break into this genre, though, including the Goal (which would likely imply stakes) could set your story apart.  (Unless it’s to “Save the Princess,” as my significant other calls it, which for the most part has worn out its hooking factor.)

In the second example . . . what does he do when he gets there?  What does he want?  Does he want to dig right in, get to know his small town, help the local folk–his new people–with their small-town problems (which may actually end up being big news-worthy problems) using his big-time-lawyer skills, and so he finds that he can make a difference anywhere?  Or is his goal to return to the big time? Or does he think that these people are super naive and easily manipulatable and so he tries to take advantage of them?  Different stories. Just saying. And while some people will read any John Grisham/legal story, non-Grisham/non-legal story readers might be drawn in with more details.

7. Inciting Incident.  If you can write a sensical logline without stating the Inciting Incident, then good on you. If you need to state the Inciting Incident in order to make your logline make sense, then that’s okay too.  However, if your Inciting Incident is your Hook (ex: Aliens take over Earth), then it’s significant, and you should include it.

Emphasizes Inciting Incident:

  • Old secrets bring three women together {I} as the Republic of Gilead’s theocratic regime shows signs of decay {I}. – The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. (Literary Speculative Fiction)

Both chunks of this logline seem to emphasize the Inciting Incident component (and imply World), suggesting the Inciting Incident is most significant to the story.  Is this an effective choice?  Well, I’m not confused by this logline; I think I have a sense of the ride: secrets, downfalls. But I’m also not imagining how this story might play out.  What I find myself wondering is ” . . . and? So?”  So I guess I’m asking for some hint of the stakes. Why does this matter?  Why should I care?  Inciting Incident alone, it seems, can convey the essence of a journey, but it can’t tell me why I should care. Let’s see if that’s true.

Let’s go back to the “Aliens take over Earth” example, and let’s put the hook of Aliens aside for a moment.  Even if Aliens take over Earth, I’m not necessarily sure why I should care. Add that the aliens are, say, weapon-toting or radioactive or injured even, and now I’ve got a hint of what I, as a potential reader of this story, am supposed to root for. I’ve got a reason to care. I can imagine how this might play out. (And yeah, sure, for some people “aliens” will carry an evil connotation built into its meaning, and maybe you can rely on that, but aliens aren’t necessarily sinister to me. Best to clearly convey their antagonism–or vulnerability or heroism–if you can.)  But yeah, Inciting Incident alone doesn’t appear to be enough for an effective logline. We readers need at least a hint of the Problem or the Stakes or the Goal. We need a hint of what to root for.

No Inciting Incident:

  • In this fable, a Spanish shepherd boy ventures to Egypt in search of treasure and his destiny.  – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • In Depression-era Kentucky, five women refuse to be cowed by men or convention as they deliver books. – The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

These examples show why this component is last:  You don’t always need it.  As I read these, I’m not confused. I have a sense of the journey and, with the details that are included, I can understand why these characters want what they want and are doing what they’re doing. Any questions I do have aren’t from confusion or disbelief.  And, even if the questions coming to mind are also not forward-looking (Ex: Why does the shepherd think his destiny is in Egypt?), they are, at least for me, questions I’d be willing to read to get answered. 

So there we have it:  Character, Main Action, World, Stakes, Problem, Goal, Inciting Incident.  But, as we’ve seen, this isn’t necessarily the order of significance for any given logline.  (Where the Crawdad’s Sing especially comes to mind.)  All this said, I still stand by what I said in the original post that including all of these components, at least by implication, will make for a strong version of your logline.  Readers will be less likely to be confused.  They’ll be able to decide if they might like the story’s journey (even if the biggest Hooks aren’t usually their thing). And they’ll be able to imagine how this story might play out.

Again, I reiterate, you don’t have to explicitly include each component.  Implying a component is often enough.  And implying the less-hooking components while explicitly stating the hooking components is probably a good goal.

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE LOGLINE’S VERB: MAIN ACTION VS. INCITING INCIDENT

An Inciting Incident is a quick moment in story time.  It happens in an instant, moments at most. The Inciting Incident happens . . . And then the Character embarks on his Main Action. And the Main Action continues for many, many moments of story time, 400 pages worth of story time.

Now, some of the loglines in the NYTBS list rely on the Inciting Incident as the logline’s verb (examples below). I think this choice makes for a weak logline, and here’s why: It is the Main Action that shows the reader the journey he will be taking if he reads this story, and that’s what readers need to know in order to decide whether this story is going to be worth a try.

Your Hooks may help you get away with relying on the Inciting Incident as the verb (and if so, good for you). But, like Stakes, conveying the Main Action can help you reach readers who may not usually respond to the typical Hooks of your genre.

Inciting Incident as Verb Examples:

  • A boy with a facial deformity enters a mainstream school.  – Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • A downsized Wall Street lawyer joins a legal clinic in a small Virginia town.  – Gray Mountain by John Grisham
  • A robot signs up for a fifth-grade class.  – House of Robots by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
  • In a quiet town on the North Carolina coast in 1969, a young woman who survived alone in the marsh becomes a murder suspect. – Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens

  • Jack Reacher gets caught up in a turf war between Ukrainian and Albanian gangs. – Blue Moon by Lee Child

I don’t know about you, but even though some of these have interesting hooks that might get me picking up the book anyway, they all leave me kind of wondering “. . . and? So?”  (But, again, Where the Crawdad’s Sing seems like an exception.)

Main Action as Verb Examples:

  • After a dust storm forces his crew to abandon him, an astronaut embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive on Mars.  – The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Fallon Swift goes up against an old foe. – The Rise of Magicks by Nora Roberts

This logline, while a complete sentence, still seems incomplete to me, and I think it would benefit from adding either the Inciting Incident or the Goal to tell us why the character is doing this. He’s an old foe, yeah, okay, but why are they going up against each other right now?

  • Cullen Post, a lawyer and Episcopal minister, antagonizes some ruthless killers when he takes on a wrongful conviction case. – The Guardians by John Grisham

This one gets me wondering what the ruthless killers are going to do to him. It’s an example of provoking good/interested questions (as opposed to the previous example, which provoked, in me, a confused question).

  • Zachary Ezra Rawlins fights to save a labyrinthine underground repository of stories. – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

This one gets me wondering what’s threatening the repository, and this question is interesting–and is about to give us some insight–because I’m not confused as I wonder this–I’ve already got a sense of the story–but I’m also not wondering it from a place of forward-looking interest.  And I think I know why:  The question isn’t me imagining how this scenario is going to play out; it’s me asking for more context. (Notice in the previous example how we were given complete context, and so my next logical question was: How is that scenario going to play out?)

So, if this repository is threatened by, say, pirates, and if that detail is somehow conveyed to me, either in the logline or because the author is right here telling me, then my next logical question is: Cool, how’s that going to play out?

But . . . my question might not be everyone’s next logical question. Someone else could further wonder: Okay, but why does he care about these stories? What’s so important about them? For this reader, the story’s Main Action/Goal is hard to believe without further context–he needs some Stakes. And Stakes are something you could clear up for him.  Someone else could wonder: Why is this character seemingly the only one trying to save the books? Like in The Book Thief, this reader says, is it really even about the books at all? Or are they just a symbol of something else? Cause if it’s just books in a maze, this reader’s out, but if the books are a symbol, he’s in.  This reader’s looking for something you probably can’t give him in a logline, and that’s okay.  You won’t reach this reader, at least not with your logline.  But you could have reached the reader who just needed to know the Stakes.

The point is: Some people just aren’t going to be interested in certain hooks, and no amount of context is going to convince them otherwise (unless that context includes a year spent on the NYTBS), and that’s okay. But for those readers who might be persuaded to read if they had a complete picture, make sure you at least reach the point where their next logical question isn’t coming from a place of confusion.  (I don’t know what you call that limbo place of not confused but not totally interested either, but maybe some insight about that will eventually come to me too).  Anyway, point is, you’re quite often not going to be around to fill in any context questions, so it’s best to make sure it’s all there in your logline.

  • In Depression-era Kentucky, five women refuse to be cowed by men or convention as they deliver books. – The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  • The Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and the medical examiner Maura Isles probe the murder of a big-game hunter.  – Die Again by Tess Gerritsen 

Admittedly, probe seems like an odd verb choice to me.  Then again, investigate has limited hooking power, and probe caught my attention enough to comment on it, so . . . ? As usual, it’s a judgment call. 

Passive Verb Examples:

  • New relationships, including a second marriage, are encountered in a seaside town in Maine – Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout  (Passive Verb)
  • Old secrets bring three women together as the Republic of Gilead’s theocratic regime shows signs of decay. – The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Passive Inciting Incident Verb: The secrets are acting on the women, but what are the women doing?)

I notice both of these are sequels to big bestsellers.  The Hooks of these books aren’t anything to do with the story at all. The Hooks are that these books are just more material, any material, about previously loved stories. The author names, too, are probably Hooks . . .

. . . like Stephen King. Regardless of what it’s about, there’s a good chance you might pick up a Stephen King . . .

No Verb Examples:

  • The continuing relationship, over five decades, between a disgraced clergyman and a drug-addicted musician.  – Revival by Stephen King (No verb)
  • The lives of a blind French girl and a gadget-obsessed German boy before and during World War II.  – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (No verb)

So I guess the lesson here is: Lazy loglines are fine once you’ve already proven you can deliver (in which case, good for you).

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS AND RULES OF THUMB

1. Avoid confusion/disbelief.  Sometimes a Main Action can be a bit far-fetched, leaving a reader to wonder Why would anyone do that?  The last two components, Goal and Inciting Incident, may be essential to your logline if it’s not clear to the reader why the character would do his Main Action unless you also explain that either (a) the Inciting Incident compels him to do the Main Action (If I Stay, rewritten logline) or (b) he’s driven to do the Main Action because that’s how he can achieve his Goal (The Alchemist).

Similarly, a story’s Goal can sometimes be unbelievable or unrelatable. Why would anyone want that? Why is having that so important?–It’s not.  In this case, including the Inciting Incident–or a few more details about the Inciting Incident–can explain why, in this story, it does make sense for this character to want what he wants, it is important–even to you, Dear Reader.

The reason including Inciting Incident and/or Goal solves confusion/disbelief issues is because doing so will almost certainly give a hint of the Stakes. Once people understand what’s at Stake, they’re more willing to believe a character would do or want the otherwise unrelatable or confusing action or goal.

And yes, by all means, feel free to resolve any confusing/unrelatable Goal/Main Action issue by just stating the Stakes.

*Whoo! Team Stakes!*

2. Know your genre.  Know which hooks/components your genre dictates, in that they identify the genre, so that you can be sure those components are included and are doing their work to attract your genre’s readers to your story.  But also know which hooks/components are typical of your genre so that you can find another component/aspect of your story to include in your logline–or a slightly different angle on a typical hook/component, like Patternson did, above–so that you can distinguish your story from the rest of the stories in your genre AND possibly even draw readers who aren’t usually readers of your genre.

3. Lead and End with your Hooks.  Chronological order isn’t necessarily the best way to present your components, because the parts of a sentence (or paragraph) that stand out to a reader, that stick around in the reader’s memory–that are read with most emphasis–are the first and last bits.

Look at that second rewrite of If I Stay. (After falling into a coma from a car crash that kills her family, a young woman must decide whether to live or die.)  I could have instead said:

After a car crash kills her family and puts her into a coma, a young woman must decide whether to live or die.

Here we’ve begun the logline with its weakest or least significant component.  How she ends up in the coma might be needed in order to convey her Problem, but it’s not as significant as the coma itself.  (Or that she’s deciding to live or die–the Hook is actually a two-part Hook.)  Journalists call this burying the lead (or lede). We’ve buried the Coma component in the middle of the logline and started the logline with something less interesting.

Alternatively, you could say:

After falling into a coma, a young woman must decide whether to live or die when the rest of her family dies.

Here we’ve landed the logline on the weakest component. This component might be helpful, necessary even, and it even lands on a strong word, but it’s still the weakest way to end the logline.  Why?

In addition to thinking of loglines as having leads/ledes, think of loglines as being a kind of joke.  Jokes end with a punchline.  All the context to understand the punchline is given first so that when the punchline finally comes–it lands.  And then that’s it; no more words come after the punchline.  Because they would be anticlimactic.  Cause if you have to explain the joke, then it loses power, and it’s less funny.  So too with loglines. It undercuts their impact.

So, to beat this dead horse deader, this story has a two-part hook:  She’s in a coma, and she has to decide whether to live or die.  How do we choose the order of those two hooking components?  Well, let’s see . . .

A young woman must decide whether to live or die when she falls into a coma. 

Or

When a young woman falls into a coma, she must decide whether to live or die.

Meh.  These two loglines are all Hook–and short–so, while I like the second one better, you can probably go either way. Lets see what happens when we add the other details:

After falling into a coma from a car crash that kills her family, a young woman must decide whether to live or die.

Or

A young woman must decide whether to live or die when, following a car crash that kills her family, she falls into a coma.

I know which one I like better, but you be the judge.  Me, I think that in addition to being the better punchline (it lands well, “die” is a very strong word), the first seven words of the 10-word Main Action are very ho-hum words, giving it a slow start, and so using it to lead off a logline gives the whole logline a slow start. 

This example isn’t showing what I hoped it would.

What I was hoping to show is this: If you want to capture someone’s interest right away so that they’ll want to keep reading, because there’s lots more you’d like them to read (say, the rest of your query), then you might want to lead with the story’s strongest Hook.  If, however, the logline’s goal is to seal the deal, because the reader has already shown some interest (say, by liking the book jacket and flipping it over), then you’ll probably want to land with the strongest Hook.

Or, if your main concern is to keep people from being confused, then you might want to lead with the most hooking component that gives context, then add whatever other components are needed for context, and then land with your hooking punchline.

And yes, we could be splitting hairs here. Then again, that’s what we do. We try to find the best words, the best sentence construction, the most significant components, the best details and so on to delight the reader.  That’s what we do.

So anyway, in sum: lead and land with your hooks. And play with the order of your components. See which order best provides immediate interest and ends with power.

4. Keep your Character Active.  You’ll notice in the last rewrite I could have said:

A young woman must decide whether to live or die when a car crash kills her family and puts her into a coma

I don’t think this is as strong. We readers tend to prefer characters who act, who have agency–even when things beyond their control, like car crashes, are acting upon them, we still like the illusion that our characters are the ones doing the acting.  That said, if you prefer a component order that reduces the commas and the hitches in delivery, the pauses, I hear ya.  This is why writing my own loglines takes me SOOOOO LOOOOONG.  That said, I usually do end up going with the logline that follows these guidelines, so . . . ?

Maybe one day I’ll learn to trust the craft. =)

***

Phew.  This was a long one, and it just kept getting longer. I hope it read okay. I had to balance continuous tinkering with answering as quickly as possible. Anyway, I hope it helps. Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions!

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UP NEXT

I’ve been MIA again for a lengthy period of time (sorry), but I’m feeling inspired to do that post on Hooks (plus there’s Scenes to do, and that Da Vinci Code post), so maybe I’ll see you soon . . .

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Filed under One-Line Synopsis

Writing–and Improving–The One-Line Synopsis

Today we’re expanding a couple of last week’s concepts into synopses and then trying to improve them. Continue reading

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Filed under Concept, One-Line Synopsis, Own Work Friday

The One-Line Synopsis: How the Best Sellers Do It (Or At Least the People Who Write the List) (Updated 10/16/18)

I’ve lifted these synopses from the January 18, 2015 New York Times Best Seller Lists.  In each one, I’ve identified any synopsis components with:  {W}orld, {C}haracter, {I}nciting Incident, {G}oal, {A}ction, {P}roblem, and {S}takes.  I’ve also indicated if the component is {i}mplicit…to my ears anyway.  And, if I wasn’t sure if a word or phrase indicated a component, I added a question mark.

They’re ordered from most amount of clear (no ‘?’) components to least amount of components, with each component counted only once.  Ready?  Which grab your attention… Continue reading

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Filed under Concept, One-Line Synopsis, Story Master Wednesday

The One-Line Synopsis: What is it and how do you write one? (Updated 10/16/18)

Time to expand the concept into a one-line synopsis. Continue reading

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Filed under Concept, Monday Tool Day, One-Line Synopsis