When I lived in England, one of my friends called Beef (he was the butcher’s son) showed me how you make sausage. It’s true, it’s one of those things probably best unseen, but I’ll never forget him cutting the fat away from the meat he was preparing at the counter and throwing it, together with bits of gristle and other “stuff”, across the shop and into a sausage making machine. There’s probably a name for such a machine, but I was more impressed with Beef’s aim, because he didn’t miss. However, with a smile he confirmed that it’s true, I probably didn’t want to know how you make sausage, or more to the point, I didn’t want to know what was in them.
This little flash from the past is your trigger warning. If you don’t want to know how I begin my stories, then look away now. 🙂
One of the modules of my degree was Screenwriting, and of all the modules I took it is the one that has had the greatest impression. I use one aspect of it regularly, and always at the start of a new project, just to see if it has legs. That module was my first introduction to loglines, but as you might know, we see them all the time. If you are a movie-goer then loglines are used to help you decide which movie to see. If you watch Netflix or any other streaming service, that same logline is used to help you decide what to stream. In fact, if you’re like me, you might spend more time reading the damn loglines than watching anything, begging the question – just how helpful are they?
My answer is really helpful.
Basically, a logline is 25 words to describe the gist of a story, usually the plot of a movie. I use them to figure out if my idea for a story is viable, and – sausage making alert – this is how I do it.
The 1st Pass
I try and write my idea in 25 words. So, for example, right now I am putting together short stories for my Kickstarter campaign. I’ve already teased the idea to the backer of this story and revealed the title, so here’s the logline for The Ice Breaker Quandary (yes, icebreaker in two words):
When a nuclear-powered icebreaker’s captain threatens to blow the reactor if Greenland won’t help him defect, Constable Petra Jensen enlists a passenger to stop him.
That’s 25 words, with an assist by the hyphen.
I’ve written a lot of loglines over the years, but often they start around 30 words or more. The trick is to be economical with your words. In this example, I’ve chosen to “spend” three words on Constable Petra Jensen, but I could have used two words: a policewoman, choosing policewoman instead of police officer to save a word. The loglines are for me, so I don’t worry about inclusive language. Also, I could have written a middle-aged American passenger, but even with an assist, that’s still four words when all I really need is one: passenger. I could also have written When the captain of a nuclear-powered icebreaker…, but When a nuclear-powered icebreaker’s captain is more economical, using five instead of seven words.
It takes some time, but I enjoy the process of dialing in to my basic plot, and I’m not worried about details. They come later during the writing process.
I’m not using my loglines like they do on Netflix. They are just for me. However, many of my loglines often end up in my story description, sometimes with no added words. I try not to embellish the logline because all I want is the roughest of outlines.
I like to know where I’m going in the story, who with, and why.
Some writers might say that’s amateurish, and one should write into the dark, starting with little more than a blank page. There’s nothing wrong with that, and neither is there anything wrong with having a detailed outline of every step of the story including comprehensive character notes and world-building “stuff”. But it’s a bit like the sausage machine, for God’s sake don’t show anyone. 🙂
My approach – closer to the dark but with a tiny candle in front of me – works for me.
A quick aside – the original photo (inverted for the cover) is taken from my kitchen window in Qaanaaq, Greenland. And yes, that’s a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker (icebergs and glaciers in the background), now used as an adventure cruise ship for folks with far more money than me. And yet, they came to visit me (kind of), so it all works out in the end.
Stress Test 1 (or several)
I used to have a lot of passes and a lot of stress tests. I don’t anymore. I’m happy with the bare bones of the logline, but I do want to satisfy the demands of the logline I picked up from the screenwriting module.
According to somebody’s rules, a logline must include the who, what, why, when, where, and how of the story. Six things that, if present, ultimately suggest that the story “has legs” as I put it. At this point I could dive into what each of the things actually means, but let’s keep it simple:
- Who is your main character
- What is your problem or conflict (or subject)
- Why is the reason why your character must act
- When is the time in which your story is set (often the most difficult to write economically, so I cheat)
- Where is your setting
- How is the way your character solves the problem, or not (I also cheat with this one)
If you’re wondering about what comes first, yeah, keep wondering. I used to think that was important, but honestly, each element gets points just for showing up.
So, continuing with my own example:
When WHEN a nuclear-powered icebreaker’s captain WHAT threatens to blow the reactor WHY if Greenland WHERE won’t help him defect, Constable Petra Jensen WHO enlists HOW a passenger to stop him.
- When is a pain, so I cheated. It takes far too many words to write On a blustery summer’s day in 2018 so I don’t. Nor do I need to know exactly when. I’ll figure it out along the way.
- What is my problem to be solved, and that’s the captain going crazy in the reactor room. Or is he/she on the bridge? It doesn’t matter. That’s something else I’ll figure out along the way.
- Why is the reason to solve the what. Petra needs to get a wiggle on if she’s going to resolve this problem.
- Where is my setting. Perhaps the easiest part of the logline, although for the story description I might add something like in Qaanaaq, in the far north of Greenland but I don’t have room for that either.
- Who is dead easy. It’s hero time, and Petra is a star. But I like that she is a constable, so I spend a few words on her title, but drop her Greenlandic name: Piitalaat. I use it plenty in the stories! 😉
- How is where I cheat to the max, often because I don’t know how Petra is going to fix this one, and I’d rather not know because it’s more fun to find out. Often the candle I’m holding snuffs out long before this point, and I’m trying to keep up as Petra puzzles it out and saves the day. So the enlists is enough to let me know she’s going to get a passenger to do something, probably putting their lives at risk, but … nuclear-powered icebreaker??? … I’m guessing it’s worth it.
And that’s it, sausage made, ready for consumption, or in this case writing.
I used to have very detailed notes for every project, but the more I write the more I like to be surprised. However, I still like to know if a story works before diving in, and the logline helps.
Dave Bennett says
This is fascinating . . and FANTASTIC to get a peek inside your creative process! I’m no longer too enthused about eating sausage . . but I am intrigued that there are NUCLEAR-POWERED Icebreakers, and that they can carry ‘passengers’! Now I want to be one! (and all I have to do toward that goal is wait until late December!) When I told my wife the title you had chosen for the story, with ICE BREAKER sans hyphen, she said, “Oh, it will probably focus on one of your corny opening lines at a party.” But I know you better – and can’t wait for this!! (another great cover, by the way!)
Christoffer Petersen says
Ah, corny opening lines! Brilliant! Thanks, Dave. No more spoilers from me, I promise. 🙂
Ana Catarina Palma Neves says
I totally agree with Dave Bennett: it’s great to get to know the creative process of authors. I remember that when Jack Jackson was filming “Lord of the Rings” he regulary posted on facebook comments or backstage videos. It was amazing to follow up the whole process: the problems they had to solve, the techniques they were using, the makeup, … Incredible. We have no idea what it takes. And we have this idea that writers just sit in front of the computer and write until they have a book finished (yeah, they don’t eat or sleep…) Knowing it’s hard work gives us a different perspective. Please, tell us more (not about the content, of course, about the process… althought I’m not sure how would you do that…)
Christoffer Petersen says
Hi Ana Catarina. I love the behind the scenes stuff for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit! 🙂
Graham Williams says
well,why use 2000 words when 20 will do it?I can think of plenty of authors that do the opposite!! 😉
Christoffer Petersen says
Very true! 🙂