Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Using a logline to keep your novel on track

Many of you begin writing your novel with the opening scene and the rough forward shape of the story in your heads. It's the opening scene and that vague hopeful map into the distance that impels you to write.

I have said in a previous article that you don't need to plot your entire novel if you prefer the writing to be a journey of discovery, although I also recommend, if you find yourself always grinding to a halt after a dozen pages, to try doing just that. The choice of these two roads is up to you, but once on it, you want to keep going and finish it.

If you have only a vague map, it's easy to get lost, to start drifting, to find yourself in the swamp of a failed story. But a pre-planned plot is no guarantee that you won't find yourself in the same swamp. Getting unstuck, through being too enthused by some unexpected new thought and following it off the map, or by spending too long paddling along the byways inside a character's head, can lead you deep into swampland. And the failed-story swamp is where no writer wants to be.

With hard work and lots of self-editing, you can rescue yourself from the swamp. Or you can save yourself time, frustration, and despondency by using a logline from the start to keep you on the nice dry track above the waterline.

What is a logline?

A logline is a term borrowed from the film industry. It is a single sentence that summaries the core conflict on which your entire story is built.

Conflict does not mean fights, it means challenges: doors your hero has to thrust through, whether mental or social or physical, either within herself or because of opposition by others, to get to her initial desired outcome.

The logline covers: hero + his/her desire + his/her choices + opposition.

Let's break it down.

1. The hero

The hero has to be described. "Jake" is not a description. But "an insurance salesman" or "the school janitor" is. It will stop you giving him new convenient personality attributes just because you are stuck ("Let's make him a mathematical wizard, too!"). The janitor can be a skilled handyman who is great at fixing plumbing with wire and duct-tape: how cool would it be to have him as your hero: it means that every trap he sets, every escape he makes, is based on the tools of his trade. But you are writing a sentence. The words "the school janitor" in the logline are there to remind you who your hero is and the limitations within which he will act.

2. The desire

The desire or goal (you must be sure it's something that can realistically be reached; "world peace" is a desire that no hero can achieve) has to be something overwhelmingly compelling to your hero, to you, and to your readers. We all have to care. It could be to find one's better self. In a murder mystery, it's to save the innocent (by solving the mystery and exposing the real murderer). In a romance, it's the worthy beloved. In your thriller, it might be that your school janitor wants to clean up a town run by a drug gang.

The goal has to be summarised in a few words, because a logline is a single sentence. You have to boil down the high-level, high-stakes, highly risky desire that will demand the hero's all by focusing on the absolutely necessary words. "Prove a falsely-accused young mother innocent", "Win the girl", "Save the town's kids from drugs". These words will keep you focused on what your hero wants passionately to do.

3. Choices

Your hero has a passionate desire. Now she or he has to choose to make the first step, and keep on choosing the next and the next. The ball keeps being thrown back to him and he always picks it up. He might have moments of fear or doubt, but in the end he always picks it up. This is why he is your hero. In a murder mystery, the detective keeps seeking clues and clarity. In a romance, the hero woos. In a thriller, the protagonist fights to be victorious over his enemies.

What are the two or three words you will use in the logline to capture all this action, this struggle, this increasingly high-stakes strife?

The detective's choices might be summarised as "by revealing ancient family secrets". The man in love might choose "by building the house of her dreams". The school janitor's choices might be summed up with "by defeating the drug gang".

4. Opposition

To be a hero, you must struggle, and you must struggle against something. It could be your own bad angel, the remorselessness of Nature, a girl who resists you, an unknown killer, or a collection of criminals.

What all opponents have to be is strong enough to block your hero's path, and with strong reasons to do so.

How to get this opposition into a few words for the logline? Ask yourself: what is its irreducable core?

In the case of the mystery where the detective knows that the key lies in ancient family secrets, the opposition is someone who will keep killing to keep that secret. So just say that. In the romance, the girl has tragic reasons why she will never trust anyone again. The opponent is not the girl herself, but her fears. In the thriller, the drug gang is backed up by the crooked local authorities (sheriff, mayor).


Mystery: Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Ranley believes a young mother, arrested for murder, has been set up by someone protecting a family secret.

Romance: Fixing tough lawyer Sarah Ashbury's house is challenge enough, but eco-architect Mace McMann is an expert in bringing light into buildings and now into Sarah's closed-down heart.

Thriller: A school janitor fights to save kids from the local drug gang – that is run by the Mayor and Sheriff.

Let's cover that last one again:

A. A school janitor...  [the hero and something about him to pin him in his human reality]
B. ...fights to save kids from...  [his desire and his first choice rolled into one]
C. ...the local drug gang – that is run by the Mayor and Sheriff.  [the opposition]

This is the heart of your story: the central conflict, the hero and villain, the desire and the choices made in the struggle.

And here your logline ends. A logline is about the conflict. You might know how the story ends, or the story will tell you, but the logline is the journey, not the destination.

Using the logline

You have a clear logline. Now what?

Now you write it out or print it out and place it where you'll always see it. Tape it above the keyboard of your laptop. Stick it on the wall or the fridge or on the bathroom mirror. Make it your phone's screen saver.

Because you will go astray. Unless you are a hugely experienced and disciplined writer, you will find yourself heading for that story-swamp. Writing the janitor's story, you might get wrapped up in a character, a scene, a sub-plot (Jake the janitor falling in love with a waitress in the coffee-shop, Jake slowly deciding to finish his machinist training) and suddenly your novel is losing its pace, its compulsion, its direction. You might not notice, not while you're writing your way towards the swamp, but you'll detect its stagnant water as you do your initial read-through. Or when that trusted First Reader of yours confesses she lost interest, that the air went out of the balloon, and she stopped caring, you'll know you've stepped off the path and it's mighty squishy underfoot.

You have forgotten the heart of the story. Raise your eyes and behold your logline. Now go back and ask every single scene – Every. Single. Scene. – "Hello Scene: how are you contributing to the logline? Are you to contributing at all?"

If the scene replies, " I'm not. I'm a descriptive passage" or if it says "I'm pacing" (pacing what?) or "Hey, pal, just adding a bit of human interest here", then it must be cut. All of these scenes are sapping your story of its vitality and they must die. (I know it's hard to delete them. I've done it and it hurts. Read my tear-stained Killing your darlings.)

Like a compass, your logline keeps you tracking true north, and true north is your central conflict. The logline is your tuning-fork that helps you distinguish vibrant scenes from dud scenes. It helps you clear out the unnecessary and identify the necessary. It keeps telling you what your story is.

While doing that, it still gives you plenty of elbow room. How the janitor's opposition fights him, how he finds it in himself to choose the next step, how the story ends: all this is for you to supply. Your imagination will be more abundant and fruitful if it works on essentials rather than having desperately to invent each time you sit down to write. The logline keeps you on point: everything you write has a reason.

If it were for this alone, your logline would justify its existence. But wait! — there's more!!

Logline and your submission

One of the hardest parts of writing a submission letter or email is that first paragraph. In this letter, you begin by telling the agent or editor that you are submitting a thriller entitled [your title here] – and then you have to deliver that one killer sentence, that one thing that sells the novel to them. You already have it: your logline. It's now your elevator pitch, your all-you-need-to-know one-liner. Just add a bit of bait, that final eye-catcher.

Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Ranley believes a young mother, arrested for murder, has been set up by someone protecting a family secret. But on the Yorkshire Moors, families keep secrets for centuries.
Fixing tough lawyer Sarah Ashbury's house is challenge enough, but eco-architect Mace McMann's business is restoring light into buildings and now, he hopes, into Sarah's nailed-down heart, although he knows that knocking down the wrong wall could destroy everything.
A school janitor fights to save kids from the local drug gang – run by the Mayor and Sheriff. All he has is street savvy, a burning anger, and a good knowledge of plumbing.

If I were the editor or agent reading one of these, I would have everything I need to know, and I'd say: "Wow, sounds interesting! Let's have a look."

Your logline has become, with a little flourish, your 'hook'.