Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Log Line Pitches, or, How to Tweet Your Novel

I've been mulling over the best way to present this topic because, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about log lines in pitches. When they've worked, they've worked very effectively. When they haven't, well, the results are usually confusion and distraction. Probably on both sides of the table.

So that got me thinking about what makes a log line pitch work effectively, but before we get into that, I want to make some attempt to define a log line.

Log lines come to fiction by way of dramatic writing -- tv and movies, that is, where pitching is a regular business activity. My exposure to this corner is a bit limited, so I might have this wrong, but my understanding is that they call them "log lines" because somewhere in a production corner, assistants keep logs of works in development, and those logs generally contain one-line summaries of the story in a page header.

Chances are, if you can encapsulate your entire book in a sentence, you've got a good handle on that book. If you start talking about your book and get lost in details, subplots, secondary characters, ideas for scenes you've cut -- well, that feels a bit uncontrolled and makes me wonder whether the finished product will be coherent.

So that's the first reason log lines are good. They can convince me of the coherence of the finished book. The second reason? They can provide a convenient frame through which I can view the rest of your pitch. In other words, present the log line first and use it to highlight the key aspects of your book. It can be my road map as I'm listening to the deeper details of your pitch.

But which details should you choose for the logline? That's the tricky part, isn't it? Someone, somewhere, got the idea to use a "this meets that" format as a way of shorthanding the process.

I really hate those.

For one thing, it presumes we've seen the same shows -- these almost always draw on movies and tv shows as examples, rather than books, which strikes me as odd because you're pitching a written story, not a filmed one. And you're pitching to literary people, and most of us are women, and frequently the family's entertainment needs trump ours. This creates some little anomolies. For example, I can sing the words to SpongeBob SquarePants from heart, but I haven't been to the movie theatre yet this year.

DVD rentals? I have what I call my Blockbuster mantra. No soldiers, no chainsaws, no jokes about vomit, no severed limbs, no car chases, and especially, please God, no World War II. I reserve the right to ignore any part of this mantra based on the whim of the moment. But I hardly ever do, because who's got time to watch movies you only halfway want to see?

TV shows? Good luck pitching to me on the basis of a tv show. I watch The Office. Jim's a classic beta, but we don't publish many beta male heroes. Beyond that -- honestly, it just dawned on me recently that The Gilmore Girls and The Golden Girls are two different shows.

Do you see where the problem lies? Unless you want to draw comparisons to Chowder's attempt to cook Sing Beans or Squidward's love for his clarinet, we might not be speaking such a common language, after all. Not all editors are quite this out of touch, but I'm willing to bet that as a group, we log fewer than average hours of tv and movie watching.

When it comes right down to it, you're better off with a log line that is specific to your book and doesn't draw on material generated by other people.

And it's a lot easier than you might think.

Here's the first step. Take out a sheet of paper. We're going to start with a homework assignment. Your job is to fill in these blanks. I'll provide you with a few tips along the way.

The protagonist: ________________
(Use an adjective plus a common noun rather than his name. "Laidback wanderer" tells me more than "Bob Gomez.")
(Romance writers need to do this twice, once for the hero and once for the heroine.)

The goal/reward: ________________
(What's the best, biggest thing the protagonist wants to happen? Aim for something tangible. "Find true love" is less compelling than "convert her garage into mother-in-law quarters.")

The obstacle(s): __________________
(Again, be concrete and specific. "She needs $10,000." Not, "she has low self-esteem and is afraid to love.")

The antagonist: __________________
(Doesn't have to be a person. Should be tangible. Snidely Whiplash or a blizzard.)

Consequence of failure: ___________
(If she doesn't get ten grand to build separate quarters for her mother-in-law, then That Woman will be in her house. All. The. Time.)

Motive: ________________________
(This can be a bit more abstract. Motives are often based in emotions.)

Challenge to self-image: __________
(How does all this make your character question his character? Put another way, fill in this blank: "Until this all happened, my character used to think he was______.")

Inciting Event: ___________________
(The first event that kicks everything off. Nursing home kicks m-i-l out because she keeps stealing the other patients' candy.)

Ticking Clock: ____________________
(What do you mean, your character doesn't have a deadline? Give her one.)

Important steps taken: ____________
(Three things the protagonist does to achieve her goal. Take out a bank loan, hire a contractor, pick out appliances.)

Final reversal : __________________
(The last bad thing that happens before everything flips around and becomes happy again. Sometimes referred to as the black moment.)

Outcome: __________________________
(What does your protagonist get in the end? Might not be what she wants. Scarlett wanted Ashley for like eleven thousand pages, but in the end, she wanted Rhett.)

If you have questions about particular items on this list, fire away in the comments. But save your list for later. We don't need your answers just yet. Only you need them now.



Riley Murphy said...

Okay, about inciting event. In the list is it always there? What if the 'inciting event' is the reason for the story to happen? The hero or heroine wouldn't have a goal until they processed what was needed. And couldn't there be a reaction to that which forces growth and an eventual resolution?
Am I over thinking this? Man, I was prepared to be prepared! Crapatolla!

I did enjoy (under consequence of failure) your: All. The. Time. Now that's how to drive the point home!

Signed Murphy, who it appears, is never gonna be able to parse the pitch!

Julie Harrington said...

Murphy, I didn't take the order of the questions asked in the list as the order in which things had to actually happen in the timeline of the story. Just points in the pitch development to be aware of.

Yes? No? Maybe I missed something on that.

Anyway, it's funny because, reading through the list of questions, I was automatically filling in the blanks with my past MS info. Easy to do since I had to pitch it at the RWA conference a couple of summers ago. Since that's already sitting on an editor's desk... um... I might want to actually think about my current WIP and answer those questions, eh? *G*


Edittorrent said...

Murphy, the list is not in any particular order. I'm just trying to get you to make a list. We're going to be playing with the order of the items on this list later, so don't worry about how they flow now.


Ian said...

Delicious homework! I must eat it!

Laura Hamby said...

My brain exploded. Okay, this may be because I read this while, in the other room, my husband is watching TV. On a volume level so the neighbors two houses down can hear what's being watched in our house. And now, my oldest son has come in to announce the Current Drama In His Life. Yep. LOUDLY. Sigh.

This looks very fascinating, so I will be back to read it again. When it's quiet at my house again.

Riley Murphy said...

JT thanks! You are right. And Theresa, what can I say? After the twitter debacle I'm on a mission.:) I'll work this out if it kills me!

Anonymous said...

A writing list I'm on was just discussing this very thing. I'm disappointed to hear that "this meets that" isn't really necessary, though. I spent ages trying to come up with such a description for my cozy novel about murders at a music festival, and was very pleased at finally coming up with "Festival Express meets And Then There Were None."

Um... maybe not such a loss, at that. Thanks for the useful outline for a successful log line!

Wes said...

Thank you for shooting down the "this meets that" approach. I always felt a writer was selling herself/himself short by relying on this, and since I only watch an hour of TV per month, I didn't understand many of them.

Babs said...

This is brilliant! I can't wait to get started.

Tana said...

Thanks, I'm going to give it a try.

Lisette Kristensen said...

I use "Save the Cat" beat list and the scene outlines. It's based on screenwriting and allows me to get my story down and in a loose framework. This is a great compliment to it, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this list. It gets away from all the cutesy stuff and to the nuts and bolts of the story. The one that produced particularly interesting results was the one about the antogonist. It made me think about it in a different way. True, I do have two bad guys in my book, but answering the question made me realize that my antognist for this book is publicity (also an aspect of the theme).

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I adore The Office and think Jim makes a fabulously sexy hero! :) But I'm weird that way.

Love your list! I need to link to it.

Edittorrent said...

I believe I have already called dibs on Jim. And I'm not sharing. *ggg*