Last year I did a blog post about contests and about composing pitches or ‘loglines’. In that discussion I summarized what I’d learned from my research about loglines, and illustrated how they may be of different lengths and levels of development, depending on what’s required. Now I’m digging a little deeper to explore how to write more effective loglines and also how to use them as a tool for looking objectively at a novel — which, among other things, can make it far easier to tackle writing a query letter and a synopsis.
While revisiting the subject of loglines due to the upcoming Baker’s Dozen auction at Miss Snark’s First Victim, I’ve learned some new things that I feel have given me a greater insight into what makes a compelling logline that will grab a reader’s attention. This is mostly thanks to Holly Bodger, aka ‘The Logline Guru’. In the past few years Holly has imparted her wisdom about loglines at MSFV, both generously offering her comments on all the logline critique rounds and sharing her thoughts in a number of posts about the problems she sees in the participants’ entries.
In her basic guidelines for composing a logline, Holly gives this formula: “When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], he [CONFLICT]. And if he doesn’t [GOAL] he will [CONSEQUENCES].” While this exact order may not be what works best for every story, Holly also stresses that “loglines are stronger when they come in the order that has the greatest effect“. In any case, the capitalized components all need to be included. And in critiquing loglines it sometimes seems that the best advice is to suggest that the writer go back to the drawing board and use that formula to figure out exactly what those components are in their own book.
Frankly, we often see attempts at loglines that are disjointed and vague and that don’t convey the central arc of the story, as well as leaving out fundamental elements such as the stakes or the goal. On top of that, composing a logline may illuminate a problem in the manuscript itself. As Holly says, “If you cannot make your story fit into the required elements of a logline, then maybe you need to re-think whether or not your story has the required elements.”
Not surprisingly, the problems that crop up in loglines are the same issues that also plague many valiant attempts at writing a query. I can’t seem to find the source right now, but I believe Holly recently wrote about how you can take a logline and then flesh out each of the elements in order to construct an effective query. And I confess I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past five years or so learning everything I can about queries, including reading countless query critiques and doing some critiquing on a couple of different forums. (I’m sure it may seem a bit crazy to non-writers that we’re all so obsessed with queries, but I suppose it’s inevitable that we end up viewing them as the ‘magic key’ that opens the door to the world of publishing, seeing as they’re required by virtually all agents and by most publishers that accept unagented submissions.)
Last week I was perusing some queries posted for critique, and I found myself thinking that creating a solid logline first, and then building the query onto that framework, really seems like an awfully good idea. Because one of the major battles I see query writers dealing with is finding that elusive balance between not including enough information and enough specific details to make their story stand out, and including too much information so it’s an overwhelming jumble, full of names and details about subplots that neither contribute to conveying the main story arc nor show the real heart of the book.
Basically, it comes down to not being able to see what belongs in the query and what doesn’t. Since I think the ‘logline first’ approach may really help in solving that problem, on next month’s blog post I’m going to try taking a logline and showing how a query can be built around it. (We’ll have to see if I actually succeed!) 😉
The latest insight I’ve gotten from Holly Bodger relates to the internal vs. external story arc, and I think it’s pertinent in many ways when evaluating both loglines and queries — and even the manuscript itself. I’d noticed that in her comments on loglines, Holly will sometimes ask a question like this: ‘Why does the MC have to be the one who does this thing, and why does she need to do it now?’ This puzzled me when I thought that the answer was apparent enough from the context within the logline.
For example, one story involved a skilled detective pursuing a murderer. My thought was, ‘If you’re a detective, of course it’s your job to solve the mystery, and the need to find a killer is always urgent, since it’s not exactly something you just do when you get around to it!.’ So I asked Holly if she could clarify why she’d raised this question, and she explained it this way: “There must be a need present in the main character that drives them to pursue that particular goal. Otherwise, there is no internal arc.” And she pointed out that in the case of that detective, the story would be much stronger if he weren’t simply being paid to solve the crime, but had some personal grievance or deeper motivation compelling him to solve it.
The reason she’ll ask ‘Why now?’ is that it isn’t clear where the story starts in terms of what emotional reason — something truly personal for the MC — has set the story in motion, rather than an inciting incident that’s purely external. “A story that is only about the selfish need to survive can be done, but it’s never as engaging as one that has deeper motivation. Also, when you add these extra motivations and give them timelines, you add a lot more tension to your novel because the reader knows the clock is ticking and not just for the main character.” She summed up by saying, “Basically, in almost all my critiques, I am trying to get people to expose more of their internal arc (without losing the external one, of course!)”
I find this particularly interesting because one of the things I’ve struggled with is the fact that today’s standard formula for queries is best suited to books that are primarily plot-driven. Consequently, it can seem quite daunting to figure out how to fit literary fiction into that formula. And when I say ‘literary fiction’, I’m using Nathan Bransford’s definition that says that in literary fiction the plot tends to happen ‘beneath the surface’ rather than ‘above the surface’, and that “what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.” By that definition (as well as some others), all of my books are essentially literary fiction that also happens to be SF or fantasy.
And I’ve realized that we’ve all been conditioned to think that the external stuff that ‘happens’ is what a story is ‘about’, so we think that’s what has to go into the query — and the logline as well. The result is that we may end up both misrepresenting our stories and making it sound as if they’re missing something. And I believe this focus on the external elements of the plot is one of the reasons that after hours of studying queries they all start to look the same and get downright dull — which makes me feel awfully sorry for literary agents, since I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I had to read hundreds of queries every week!
But I’ll bet that nine times out of ten the personal element is actually in the book itself (even with stories that are more plot-driven), and it’s just not getting into the query. However, just as constructing a logline can reveal if any of the required elements are missing in the novel, when you start by trying to identify the character’s personal need, this may also uncover problems with the internal arc — it could be that the character hasn’t been fully developed and the story is too superficial.
I often say that the difference between telling stories around a campfire and creating literature is that in a good novel you’re not just telling a story, you’re recreating the experience of being human. I also say that I find stories about finding one’s place in the universe far more interesting than stories about saving the universe. So it makes perfect sense to me that showing part of that internal arc as well as the external one will make both loglines and queries more emotionally engaging and memorable.