Structure Part 5–Keeping Focused & Nailing the Pitch–Understand Your “Seed Idea”

Today is the start of National Novel Writing Month. Yay! I hope those of you participating will take some time to read these posts on structure to help maximize your chances of success. Normally I blog about craft on Monday, but we had a special guest abduction interview with Nationally Best-Selling Author James Scott Bell.

So here we are posting on Tuesday. Thank you for your patience. Back to structure!

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself an expert in spotting and fixing structural problems. Sadly, over the course of doing this many years, I have run into far too many novels that had plot problems that ran so deep there was no saving the manuscript. Like a building with massive structural flaws, the best course of action was simply implosion. Rebuild. Start from scratch.

I used to try to teach from the perspective of an editor, but I found that my thinking was flawed. Why? Because editors are like building inspectors. We have skills best used on a finished product. We are trained to look for problems. Is that a good skill? Sure. But do building inspectors design buildings? No. Architects do. Architects employ creativity and vision to create a final structure. Hopefully, they will have the necessary skills to create and design a structure that will meet code standards.

Creativity and vision are not enough. Architects need to learn mathematics and physics. They need to understand that a picture window might be real pretty, but if they put that sucker in a load-bearing wall, they won’t pass inspection and that they even risk a fatal collapse.

Aestheticism must align with pragmatism.

This made me step back and learn to become an architect. When it comes to plotting, I hope to teach you guys how to have the creative vision of the designer, but with the practical understanding of an inspector. Week one, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Week two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. Week three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the Big Boss Troublemaker, and last week I gave you a tested method to make sure your core idea was solid enough to be the foundation for an entire novel.

Today I am going to show you how to construct your novel’s core—the log-line. I learned this tactic from NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. If you can ever get the opportunity to take his novel writing workshop, please do. It will change your entire career.

So what’s this log-line thingy?

Basically, you should be able to tell someone (an agent) what your story is about in one sentence. That is called the “log-line.” Log-lines are used in Hollywood to pitch movies.  In fact, a book that should be in every writer’s library is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on screenwriting, but every writer can benefit enormously from Snyder’s teaching.

In the world of screenwriting there is a tenet, “Give me the same, but different.” This axiom still holds true when it comes to novels. Our story cannot go so far off the deep end that readers cannot relate, but yet our story needs to be different enough that people don’t just think it’s a retread. We as writers have to negotiate this fine balance of same but different, and that is no easy task.

So let’s look at components of a great logline:

Great log-lines are short and clear. I cannot tell you how many writers I talk to and I ask, “So what’s your book about?” and they take off rambling for the next ten minutes. Often why writers are so terrified of the pitch session is that they cannot clearly state what their book is about in three sentences or less.

Here is a little insider information. When we cannot whittle our entire story into three sentences that is a clear sign to agents and editors that our story is structurally flawed. Not always, but more often than not. Your goal should be ONE sentence. What is your story about?

A good log-line is ironic. Irony gets attention and hooks interest. Here’s an example:

The Green Mile is about the lives of guards on death row leading up to the execution of a black man accused of rape and child murder who has the power of faith healing.

What can be more ironic than a murderer having the power of  healing? Think of the complex emotions that one sentence evokes, the moral complications that we just know are going to blossom out of the “seed idea.”

A good log-line is emotionally intriguing.

A good log-line tells the entire story. Like a movie, you can almost see the entire story play out in your head.

During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Didn’t you just see the entire movie play out in your head with that ONE sentence? Apparently Steven Spielberg did, too and that’s why he took Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and made it into a blockbuster movie.

A good log-line will interest potential readers.

Good log-lines exude inherent conflict. Conflict is interesting. Blake Snyder talks about taking his log-line with him to Starbucks and asking strangers what they thought about his idea. This is a great exercise for your novel. Pitch to friends, family, and even total strangers and watch their reaction. Did their eyes glaze over? Did the smile seem polite or forced? If you can boil your book down into one sentence that generates excitement for the regular person, then you know you are on a solid path for your novel.

Yet, if your potential audience looks confused or bored or lost, then you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. But the good news is this; you just have to fix ONE sentence. You don’t have to go rewrite, revise a novel that is confusing, convoluted, boring, arcane, ridiculous, etc.

Think of your one sentence as your scale-model or your prototype. If the prototype doesn’t generate excitement and interest, it is unlikely the real thing will succeed. So revise the prototype until you find something that gets the future audience genuinely excited.

You Have Your Log-Line. Now What?

Your log-line is the core idea of your story. This will be the beacon of light in the darkness so you always know where the shore is versus the open sea. This sentence will keep you grounded in the original story you wanted to tell and keep you from prancing down bunny trails.

Bob Mayer taught me this tactic a few years ago and it WORKS. In my novel writing critique group, every participant has to be able to tell what their story is about in ONE sentence before we ever start plotting. If the writer gets too far off track, then we as his teammates know to do one of two things. 1) Change the plot and get back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer you are the more fear you will feel. A side-effect of fear is to emotionally distance from the source of our discomfort. The log-line will help you spot that emotional distancing and root it out early. I have seen two behaviors in all my time working with writers.

Either a writer will wander off down the daffodil trail because he is afraid he lacks the skills to tell the story laid out in the log-line, OR the writer will water down the log-line to begin with. Through future plotting the writer will realize hidden strength…then he can go revise the plotting or revise the log-line.

The best way to learn how to write log-lines is to go look at the IMDB. Look up your favorite movies and see how they are described. You can even look up movies that bombed and very often see the log-line was weak and the movie was doomed from the start. Look up movies similar to the story you are writing.  Look up movies similar to the story you want to tell.

Solid novel log-lines will have 1) your protagonist 2) active verb 3) active goal 4) antagonist 5) stakes.

Here is a log-line I wrote for Michael Crichton’s Prey.

An out-of-work computer programmer (protagonist) must uncover (active verb) the secrets his wife is keeping in order to destroy (active goal) the nano-robotic threat (antagonist) to human-kind’s existence (stakes).

Hopefully you can see how this log-line meets all the criteria I set out earlier.

This log-line is ironic. An out-of-work programmer will uncover the robotic threat.

It’s emotionally intriguing. The main gatekeeper to the problem is his wife. This spells logistical and emotional complication to me.

It will interest potential readers. Considering it was a best-seller, I think Crichton did well.

So here is an exercise. See if you can state your novel in one sentence. It will not only help add clarity to your writing and keep you on track, but when it comes time to pitch an agent, you will be well-prepared and ready to knock it out of the park. Practice on your favorite movies and books. Work those log-line muscles!

What are some problems you might be having? Share in the comments. Maybe you have a tactic or a resource you would like to recommend.

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Winner’s Circle

Last week’s winner of 5 page critique is Laura Rae Amos–Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

Last month’s winner of 15 page critique is Ashley Prince–Please send your 3750 word Word document to my assistant Gigi. Her e-mail is gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com

also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

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  1. #1 by H.L. Banks on November 1, 2011 - 9:22 am

    Enjoyed your post – thanks. Off to work on a one liner for my book.

  2. #2 by August McLaughlin on November 1, 2011 - 9:26 am

    It took me a while to come up with a solid log line for my first novel…so helpful once I did. What helped me most were practice out loud, scribbling a brainstormed list of potentials and answering the good ‘ol “What if…” question. (“What if aliens from Mars ate all the world’s socks?” or what not–*not* what my novel’s about…lol)

    Thanks for the great post, Kristen! And good luck all you NaNoMoWri-ers. :)

  3. #3 by Sarah Ketley on November 1, 2011 - 9:30 am

    My NaNo preparation involved reading James Scott Bell’s book from the start to finish. Then going back over his book again with notes on one side and my MS plot outline on the other. I binned 1/2 of it before i even started. BEST thing i ever did!

    Thanks for the advice to read the book!

    Sarah

  4. #4 by susielindau on November 1, 2011 - 9:32 am

    Great advice. I think I will post it on my blog~as a synopsis of my WIP.

  5. #5 by Gene Lempp on November 1, 2011 - 9:38 am

    Love Blake Snyder’s view of the log line and the “little things” that build off of it, such as the title (as a mini-log-line) and “a guy with a problem” (character + conflict).

    Great post, Kristen. Love this series!

  6. #6 by Melinda VanLone on November 1, 2011 - 9:41 am

    Thanks for the post Kristen, it came at just the right moment (NaNo and all that). August, I think a story about Mars aliens eating all the socks sounds perfect! lol. I’m quite sure something like that is going on.

  7. #7 by Marcy Kennedy on November 1, 2011 - 9:44 am

    My co-writer and I still aren’t entirely happy with our logline. Part of the problem we’re having is that we have two protagonists. Should we try to include them both in our logline (which is currently “An Amazon princess must produce a daughter with the heir to Scythia’s throne, but he’s been ordered to produce a son”) or do we focus on just one protagonist in order to bring in the antagonist?

    • #8 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 10:18 am

      Getting pregnant is the goal of the novel?

      • #9 by Marcy Kennedy on November 1, 2011 - 12:44 pm

        The goal is to each get the heir they need, but only one can succeed. The other will lose their kingdom, and possibly their life, unless the winner can figure out a way to save them.

  8. #10 by EllieAnn on November 1, 2011 - 9:55 am

    So you mean to say that when I tell people my log line, and they’re eyes glaze over…that’s a BAD thing? I thought it meant they were so amazed by my brilliance they went into shock. Hm. Will have to re-work my log line.

    • #11 by EllieAnn on November 1, 2011 - 9:55 am

      I did just write they’re instead of their. *leaves to drink more coffee*

    • #12 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 10:16 am

      LOL. We have all been there.

  9. #13 by coquetosammy on November 1, 2011 - 10:04 am

    Log line. Not a problem.

  10. #14 by Callene Rapp on November 1, 2011 - 10:32 am

    I’ve been struggling with this as you well know. It’s ironic that something that seems so simple can give you so much difficulty, but I can definitely see how it is the core to the whole apple. I also just started reading Save the Cat, so this is great timing.

    Thanks, Kristen!

  11. #15 by Kathryn Roberts on November 1, 2011 - 10:34 am

    I guess one of my concerns is how much I want to give away in the log line. One part of the conflict is a secret that the MC uncovers later on. I guess it’s okay to add that to the log line? Or just put the most obvious conflict?

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 11:12 am

      Be careful of secrets. But the information of the secret can be the goal. Often “secrets” are a warning sign that the plotting is weak and the secret is actually a Luck Dragon. Refer to Lesson Two.

      • #17 by Kathryn Roberts on November 1, 2011 - 8:17 pm

        So, have what she is trying to discover come out in the log line, but don’t be overly secretive in the plot?

        • #18 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 8:18 pm

          Pretty much. Like Skywalker finds out the secret that he was Darth’s son, but that ain’t the goal. It is key, but not the objective of the story.

  12. #20 by Reetta Raitanen on November 1, 2011 - 11:35 am

    Condensing your entire novel to about 30 words is really difficult. Doable but it takes time and fiddling with many versions or angles of the same elements to make every word of the pitch shine.

    The tip of including the stakes to the pitch was really useful. Thank you. Snyder’s book is now on my to-read list.

  13. #21 by Tameri Etherton on November 1, 2011 - 11:38 am

    This is awesome. Seriously. I thought I had a good log line, but your 5 simple steps proved me wrong. Now I have a clear picture of what exactly needs to be in that one sentence. Thank you! I’ve never heard of Save the Cat, but will pick it up. My library is getting very crowded with craft books, which is always a good thing.

    Callene, I love that picture!

    • #22 by Callene Rapp on November 1, 2011 - 12:04 pm

      Thanks! Some days it’s a complete mirror to how I feel!

      Good to see you, Tameri!

  14. #23 by Annalise Green on November 1, 2011 - 12:06 pm

    I love the idea of the logline because it makes you think about your story in an organized way, and it cuts right to the heart of things. But I guess I’m a bit stubborn – I just feel like delivery matters too, you know? Like, someone could have an amazing logline but the writing is not that good. And someone could have a boring logline and it could be the most amazing thing since ever because the writing is just *that* good.

    I have to agree though that the worst-case scenario is to not have any logline at all, or to have a story that’s incapable of producing a logline. Then you’re just kind of a mess. Although sometimes I don’t understand how that can really happen – if you have a character and a world and a problem and a goal, then you have a logline. And I would hope that most people would have that?

  15. #24 by Anne R. Allen on November 1, 2011 - 12:17 pm

    Simple advice that can save years of trying to save a novel that has no focus. I spent nearly a decade on mine. Wish I’d known about loglines when I started.

    • #25 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 12:25 pm

      Preaching to the choir. I spent five years trying to fix a doomed story. I learned things the hard way so others don’t have to, LOL.

  16. #26 by Brinda Berry (@Brinda_Berry) on November 1, 2011 - 12:40 pm

    Your posts always seem to have the right information at the right time. Amazing.

  17. #27 by ScottTheWriter on November 1, 2011 - 2:28 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been enjoying this whole series on structure, and not just because it jibes with what I’ve been writing in my blog.

    I checked my novel, and it has a log line, although I admit I only clarified it after reading this post. What do you think of this for a different kind of YA fantasy:
    “During the Dark Ages, a disabled boy, shunned by his own people, discovers he holds the key to saving civilization from the deep powers of the Earth itself — but he doesn’t know how to use it.”

    As for the name in your hat, what’s your hat size? I’ve been following you for quite a while.

    Keep ‘em coming, Kristen!

    • #28 by Claudia Handel on November 9, 2011 - 10:04 am

      Sounds great! Let me know if you finish it!-sorry, WHEN you finish it!:)

  18. #29 by Bob Mayer on November 1, 2011 - 2:31 pm

    Good post. I don’t ever really worry about someone stealing my idea because idea is not story. Every idea has been done, but it evolves as it’s developed into story.

    Another fun exercise is to try to discern the idea from every book you read or every movie you watch.

    • #30 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 1, 2011 - 8:35 pm

      Thanks for the compliment. I gladly support your workshops. The stuff you teach is certainly career-changing. Log-lines make life harder…but in the end, WAY easier. Thanks for sharing your knowledge so freely with us.

  19. #31 by Julie Glover on November 1, 2011 - 2:45 pm

    This advice from you, Bob Mayer, and Blake Snyder is great! The log line is a wonderful place to start, a way to get down to the most important plotline in your story, and a springboard for querying and marketing your idea. It has really helped me to do this with the novels I already wrote and the ones I’m working on.

  20. #32 by the writ and the wrote on November 1, 2011 - 3:24 pm

    This is great. I find myself analyzing the shows and movies I watch. I learn so much from seeing the things I read about brought to life on the screen.

  21. #33 by Tamara LeBlanc on November 1, 2011 - 3:53 pm

    I’m one of those authors who worries, frets and agonizes over log-lines.
    Hell, I struggle keeping my synopsis at 5 pages and my queries at a paragraph. So it’s no surprise I tear my hair out trying to condense the entire gist of my story into a single sentence.
    But this post just gave me a little ahaa moment. I never thought of making my log-line ironic. And actually my heroine’s situation in contrast with the deadly power she was born with is pretty darn ironic.
    I’ll have to work with it and see if I can’t do my novel some one sentence justice…and also save an editor or agent from hearing me say, “And, umm,” thrity thousand times during a one on one pitch.
    Thanks so much!!
    Have a fantastic evening:)
    Tamara

  22. #34 by skewednotions on November 1, 2011 - 3:53 pm

    From your mouth, Kristen, to the ear of every novelist in town! I’ve read some novels I couldn’t summarize in a page-and-a-half, much less a sentence because they wandered all over the universe.

  23. #35 by Jennifer Wilke on November 1, 2011 - 7:38 pm

    Thank you. Very helpful guidelines. I’ve spent the last few weeks on the 1-sentence log line for my final draft first novel, preparing to query agents. At “my” Starbucks, the baristas and regulars have been watching over my shoulder because I promised them a vote. Yesterday I got thumbs-up: “The story of an Ohio boy, the girls he loved, and the Civil War that stole their innocence as it forged America’s soul.” I started with the entire English language and had to find the two dozen words I needed! In the same spirit as your post, I recently read the suggestion to write the query letter before you write the novel. I am totally doing all of these before I start writing my next book.

  24. #36 by Renee Schuls-Jacobson on November 1, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    It has been really amazing working with people in WWBC and seeing how everyone’s loglines have developed. Getting your story idea down to a few sentences ain’t easy, but it is necessary. It’s also nice to be able to rattle if off when people ask! ;-). Thank you for everything, Kristen.

  25. #37 by tomwisk on November 1, 2011 - 8:49 pm

    Excellent blog. Got a call from a self-publish firm. I noticed that I began to ramble (The story is about a Beta male,yada,yada,yada). It needs to be gutted and rethought. After NaNoWriMo the sucker is toast. Thanks.

  26. #38 by Karen McFarland on November 1, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    Thank you Kristen for the Structure posts. They’re great to fall back on. I just finished Bob Mayer’s class in September and learned a lot about conflict and of course, the all important Log Line. So after I’m done focusing on your current class, I will start the editing process of my MS. BTW, I did mention you in my first blog, “Hanging On For Dear Life” at karenmcfarland.com. Oops, I hope that wasn’t too tacky. Okay, off I go into the twittersphere!

  27. #39 by Donna Amis Davis on November 2, 2011 - 8:12 am

    Thank you for this great post, Kristen. I just spent an hour or two crafting my log-line. It’s harder than it looks. And that was after spending time last night looking at movies on IMDB – great tip – and scribbling down potential log-lines. And then I realized you said to make it ironic and emotionally intriguing – the bar gets higher and higher. But your advice is so helpful. I’ve had a hard time telling what my novel is about in one sentence up til now. I’m writing a blog post about this.

  28. #40 by Amelia Loken on November 2, 2011 - 12:32 pm

    I have just discovered your blog, Kristen. Wow!

    I’m a regular follower of janicehardy.blogspot.com. Today, your friend, David Walker did a blog exchange with her, so I wandered over to his blog, then wound up here. So glad I did!!!

    Such great advice! And l loved the steps and WHY. I need to have reasons given to me before I can create. Otherwise it turns in lumpy oatmeal.

    Can’t wait to come back when I have a little more time for browsing! :)

  29. #41 by Laura Rae Amos on November 2, 2011 - 6:23 pm

    OMG I won something! *squee* How fun! I’m very much looking forward to the critique! :)

    Back on topic, I have had some trouble summarizing my literary fiction novel – I hope not because the structure is flawed (I’ve spent a lot of time nitpicking the structure, and I don’t think it is), but like someone above noted, I think the trouble comes from having three POV characters, each with their own fully-formed and intertwined story arcs. I have no problem summarizing each of the individual story arcs, but it becomes too long and complicated to summarize the three into one log-line. But then, it also feels sort of vague and flighty when I try to gather them all under one encompassing idea.

    I will try the IMDB trick with some movies featuring fragmented storylines though, and maybe that’ll help. Thanks for this!

  30. #42 by successbmine on November 3, 2011 - 4:09 pm

    Thanks for this post, Kristen. It is timely. I am in the process of crafting a query letter for a book that is almost finished, and this is very helpful. I knew about the log-line though by a different name – elevator pitch. But I have never seen it broken down in the 5 points as you have done. This makes it so much easier to create the pitch. I immediately wrote one for my novel, and have attempted to write one for my non-fiction book. That wasn’t quite as easy.

    Does a novel need an actual plot? I know a mystery needs a plot, as do certain other genres, but do all novels need one? Mine doesn’t have what I would call a plot, but it does have a purpose. And that purpose is a thread that runs through the whole story and is resolved in the end.

    • #43 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 4, 2011 - 12:03 pm

      Yes, I have to say that a book with no plot is like an animal with no skeleton. The plot is the supportive frame. A theme is like collagen. I would recommend you get a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. That should help you remedy your problem.

  31. #44 by ccmackenzie on November 8, 2011 - 10:51 am

    I’m late to this particular party, Kristen.

    But this is a fabulous post and helps all writers in a clear and logical way. It’ll be even better for the newbie. I shall be spreading the word.

    Great job,
    Christine

  32. #45 by Claudia Handel on November 9, 2011 - 10:01 am

    I’m newbie working on my first novel. Have pretty much every scene written in first draft and things are moving along. Problem-I’m stuck with the meeting of the H and h. A few things I wanted to happen first and honestly, he can’t be swept away by her green eyes until later in the day-who takes off their sunglasses on the beach at noon? Is there an accepted time frame this needs to happen for an 80,000-100,000 word novel? Thanks!

  33. #46 by Lesley Coburn on November 10, 2011 - 2:45 pm

    Catching up on your fabulous advice.

    Having written scripts and log lines, you’d think applying it to book/story writing would be an obvious connection to make. Funny how whenever someone asked me sum up my story I would take half an hour to ramble incoherently at them… I started this NaNoWriMo with a log line and it’s like having a satnav instead of hand drawn archaic map. I know where I’m going.

    Thank you so much.

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