Have you heard about the “elevator pitch”?
I studied screenwriting in college, and my professors talked about it constantly:
“You have to have a two-minute pitch ready, just in case you find yourself in an elevator with a film executive. You need to be able to express, in the amount of time it takes to ride that elevator, what your movie is about and why the exec should buy it.”
I thought that was preposterous until, one day, I found myself in an elevator with –
Just kidding. I’ve never actually had to pitch a project while on an elevator. I’m not even sure I’m onboard with the idea that you should pitch a movie to an exec in an elevator in the first place. More often than not, the ride is silent, awkward, and short-lived.
Elevators notwithstanding, I’ve most definitely found myself in the position of having to speak succinctly about, or express concisely in writing, what a film or script is about! The two tools that have helped me again and again in this are the logline and synopsis. They can help you communicate not only what your project is about, but also what makes it compelling.
Today, we’ll explain the ins and outs of these related, but unique, tools – what is a logline? What is a synopsis? What makes them so useful in the film industry, and how do you actually create each of them?
Logline vs. Synopsis
When a Lights Film School student submits a screenplay for official teacher review, they also must deliver a logline and synopsis. This is true here at LFS, but it’s also true in the film world at large. For example, I’ve personally dealt with loglines and synopses in context of screenwriting contests, film festivals, and managing submissions on behalf of agents, managers, and production companies. Suffice it to say that once a logline and synopsis are written, they make the rounds.
Again, we’re talking about two distinct tools, although many new screenwriters and filmmakers don’t realize or understand the differences between the two. Loglines and synopses differ considerably in both format and purpose.
A logline is a 2 – 3 sentence “teaser,” so to speak. It succinctly communicates what a film is about thematically and story-wise. It is not a beat-by-beat exploration of exactly what happens! Think of a logline more as a top-level summation. Its purpose is to communicate what someone will experience when they pick up your script or pop in your film. It should whet the appetite and inspire people to start reading or watching.
By contrast, a synopsis is a more nuts-and-bolts exploration of what happens in a script or film. This can range from 3 – 4 lines to multiple paragraphs or even pages. Different contexts may ask for different things. For example, some film festivals ask for several synopses of different lengths, ranging from a page to a paragraph. Other entities, like screenwriting contests I’ve judged or our teaching team right here at Lights Film School, ask for a simple 3 – 4 line synopsis.
Jurassic Park | Universal Pictures, 1993
To help clarify, let’s check out this logline for Jurassic Park:
“During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.”
This is a far cry from the lengthy, comprehensive, beat-by-beat synopsis of the same film!
Here’s another way to think about it. A logline is like a description on a menu at a restaurant – it’s meant to paint an overall picture; entice you to order. A synopsis, on the other hand, is more like a recipe. It’s comprehensive; step-by-step. It tells you in greater detail what events occur in order to produce the thematic and narrative impression the logline hints at.
What are they used for?
Loglines and synopses offer a preview of what’s in a script or film. They play a role in influencing someone’s decision of whether or not to engage with a project. For example, when you submit a screenplay pretty much anywhere, someone on the receiving end is going to read your logline and decide whether or not the project seems worthwhile.
This can happen in context of:
- Sending your script to an actor to see if they want to be in it.
- Sending your script to a manager or agent to see if they would like to represent you, or if their client wants to get involved.
- Sending your script to a film festival.
- Sending your script to a screenwriting competition.
- Submitting your script for teacher review at Lights Film School! ?
- Loglines and synopses can be and often are used in promotional materials for film festivals and screenwriting competitions.
As you navigate these contexts, remember that the logline is the shorter and easier-to-digest version of your project’s written summary. Consequently, it is likely to be the very first thing someone looks at. That’s why you must make sure it really dazzles!
What makes a successful logline?
A successful logline is succinct, while giving the reader something to latch onto and get excited about. It usually will:
Introduce who the protagonist is.
…Without necessarily specifying their name. Your word count is limited in a logline, and a characters’ name doesn’t tell us much. Why spend the space? As Raindance puts it, a name in this context “has no intrinsic information and so is a useless word.”
Remember, we’re talking big picture, here! You want to give us a general idea of who this person is in the story. Adjectives can help convey this concisely: “a brilliant scientist”, “a misanthropic physician”, “a brainy beauty queen”.
Introduce the protagonist’s goal.
Tell us what it is we’re watching that brainy beauty queen pursue! Is she running for class president? Opening a hospital? Taking over a beauty salon? Whatever it is, make sure we understand what that person is after, since that will reveal what the film is essentially about.
Introduce what the protagonist is up against.
This can be an antagonist – ie., a person who is motivated to achieve a goal that would prevent the protagonist from achieving theirs – or even a non-human antagonistic force that nevertheless stands in the way of the hero.
Consider these 3 additional tips:
In addition to including the protagonist, their goal, and the antagonist(ic force), there are a few extra ingredients you can add to spice up your logline and make it even more powerful!
- Add descriptive language. You’re already replacing the protagonist’s name with a descriptor – make it even bolder with well-placed adjectives, as already suggested: “a brilliant scientist”, “a misanthropic physician”, “a brainy beauty queen”. Keep an eye open for opportunities throughout your logline to add that extra dash of color!
- Add time pressure. The protagonist has to achieve their goal in (x) amount of time or it becomes an impossibility!
- Add stakes. If the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal, then something really bad will happen.
Django Unchained | The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures, 2012
Some Winning Loglines
Scouring the internet turns up a wealth of excellent logline examples. Here are a few:
- “With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.” (Django Unchained)
- “A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.” (Titanic)
- “An older man is forced to deal with an ambiguous future after he enters retirement and his wife passes away. Ultimately, he finds hope as he comes to terms with his daughter’s marriage and his own life.” (About Schmidt)
Is there a formula for writing killer loglines?
Well, yes and no.
A structure can help to kickstart your experience and inspire your brainstorming, but with practice, you’ll start to find your way to a unique expression that’s true to you and your individual project. To get the wheels turning, though, here’s a fun formula from our friends at Studio Binder:
When [INCITING INCIDENT] happens, [OUR PROTAGONIST] decides [TO DO ACTION] against [ANTAGONIST].
Or check out this one from IndieWire:
When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].
And for even more fun…
Play with this random logline generator! ?
But what about the synopsis?
Circling back, to reiterate, a synopsis is a beat-by-beat exploration of what happens in a film. It is the “CliffsNotes” version of your project, communicating what happens and in what order, and how that propels the story forward. If someone likes your logline, then they’re likely to look at your synopsis for more details.
In context of film festivals, a synopsis can be used in promotional materials such as festival brochures for attendees, as well as press kits. Indeed, they can be especially helpful for members of the press who want to write about a film before it actually screens at, say, a festival. Sometimes, if a reporter isn’t privy to an early screening or advance copy, a synopsis is all they have to go on for their coverage.
As a teacher at LFS and judge at screenwriting competitions, I’ve personally used synopses to gauge whether or not the writer’s intentions are lining up with what I’m reading in the screenplay. I’ve found that sometimes, the things that are important to the writer and expressed in the synopsis don’t come through as strongly or clearly in the actual screenplay itself. In this respect, the synopsis can be a very helpful teaching tool, since it creates a window into what the writer thinks their script is about.
It’s also worth noting that a synopsis is not the same thing as a film treatment. A treatment is, typically, something that is created before the screenplay gets written, to state and/or plan one’s vision and intentions for the screenplay. It can be aspirational and, naturally, sometimes the finished product will not exactly mirror what the writer set out to create before he or she got a few drafts deep.
By contrast, a synopsis is typically created once the screenplay is completed, and it should very clearly express what is actually in the screenplay. Your synopsis should not include information that isn’t in the screenplay itself. After all, an audience most likely will not have your synopsis on hand!