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

Photo courtesy of JM Powers WANA Commons

Welcome to the 5th installation on the topic of structure. As an editor for years, I consider myself somewhat of 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 deeply 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.

In Lesson One, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Lesson Two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from a flawed structure. In Lesson Three we discussed the single most important component to plot, the opposition, 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’m 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 log-line:

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 years ago and it WORKS. Back when I ran a novel writing critique group, every participant was required to tell what their story was about in ONE sentence before we ever started plotting. If the writer wandered too far off track, then we as his teammates knew to do one of two things. 1) Assist the writer in changing the plot to get him back on track. Remember the core idea. Or 2) Change the original idea.

The Fear Factor

Fear is probably the most common emotion shared by writers. The newer we are the more fear we 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! If you want more help and need guidance with your log-line, you happen to be in luck. WANA International’s talented Marcy Kennedy will be teaching Story in a Sentence–Creating Your Log-Line.

Marcy will walk you through how to write a great log-line and then help you shape and hone your own so you will be agent ready. This is a WONDERFUL class to take for those of you who are going to do NaNoWriMo. A log-line will help you stay on track and lay the bones for that 50K words to one day be a successful novel. Marcy’s class is only $40, and the time she will save you in revisions will be priceless.

So, what are some problems you might be having? Do you find you wander too far off your original idea? What are your struggles with remaining focused?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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 once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

Winner from September of 20 page critique is Sharon Leigh Hughson. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen at WANA intl don com.

At the end of October I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I 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 And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the 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 everwalker on October 8, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    Reblogged this on everwalker and commented:
    Ahah! Perfect timing – I was just getting round to worrying about this, and here’s a how-to.

  2. #2 by Melanie Marttila on October 8, 2012 - 2:31 pm

    This was extremely helpful, Kristen. Heading to a pitch conference at the end of October and the log line will be invaluable. I’ve read and attempted to create one, but nothing clicked until today :)
    Thank you!

  3. #3 by Leif G.S Notae on October 8, 2012 - 2:45 pm

    Nothing except excuses to stop me, though a log line is a good idea to get buffed out. Some script writers believe the log line should come first, a buoy in a angry sea of words… But that is for others to decide.

    Good article, thanks for giving me something to think about.

  4. #4 by Amelia Loken on October 8, 2012 - 2:49 pm

    I love this. But I have been struggling with it for one of my WIP.

    I don’t want lots of backstory in the log-line, I understand that. But the second half of my royal protag’s problem is that the girl he wooed two months ago (who publicly humiliated and rejected him) falls in love with him as he’s in disguise as a commoner. Unfortunately, I can’t just use the word “ex-girlfriend” since this is a period piece. Every time I’ve tried to do a log-line for this WIP over the past 6 months, it becomes 2 and 3 sentences and really wordy.

  5. #5 by Tess Harding on October 8, 2012 - 2:54 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. Every writer should start with the ‘log line’. It’s the same as the elevator pitch, but I’m constantly depressed at how many writers respond with ‘I can’t possibly boil my work of genius down to a single line – I need at least a thousand words to get my concept across to the reader’. An actual quote from a thread discussing this.

    Keep hammering this home, Kristen. Keep forcing us to think rationally

  6. #6 by Susan Malone Semadeni on October 8, 2012 - 3:32 pm

    Once again, something I needed to read. :) Thanks. Last week I finally (thought I had) boiled my WIP down to a logline–maybe I have, but it could use more work. This weekend after reading this series of posts you’ve been doing and some other craft blogs, I decided to put the big WIP down and start laying out the bones of my NaNo project. I use Ingerman’s Snowflake Method, which starts with a 1-sentence summary… now I have a formula I can apply to that to gauge it against and pump it full of all-natural steroids. ;-)

  7. #7 by vsvevg on October 8, 2012 - 4:00 pm

    Kristen I really appreciate this series, I am doing nano and will definatley benifit from your generousity, thanks! Abby

  8. #8 by introvertedknitter on October 8, 2012 - 4:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, it has already helped me to figure out the direction I really wanted to go with my story. Narrowing down to one sentence was difficult, but I got there, once again a big thank you!

  9. #9 by Hunter on October 8, 2012 - 5:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Kristen Lamb’s series on structure is worth the bookmark. In this one, she talks about loglines / pitches.

  10. #10 by winn on October 8, 2012 - 6:27 pm

    Thank you. This was so very helpful! Can’t wait to read the rest of your series. Haven’t nailed the log-line yet, but I am circling the camp.

  11. #11 by Rachel Thompson on October 8, 2012 - 7:36 pm

    Good post. However, I must tell you that your construction inspector analogy is flawed. How do I know? 35 years in the construction industry first as a carpenter, then a master carpenter, (Also plumber and electrician) and later, step by step thought the trades, a project manager.
    Virtually all building inspectors come from the field, IE they were workmen first and received their initial code knowledge via OTJ by dealing with inspectors and building codes. Every tradesman in construction, especially lead mechanics, must know the building codes to do their jobs. Also, a great many architects start by working thought collage in a trade; Architects that don’t get their hands dirty often screw up and we in the field then make adjustments based on experience, practical knowledge and the code.
    As for me, I started as an award winning architectural draftsmen who also worked in the carpentry field. I loved field work and became a master builder eventually owning a construction business. I sold the business and went on to run huge businesses as a super and project manager. I started in architecture, worked in every aspect of the industry and will likely end up a building inspector if my writing doesn’t pan out. So far it is.
    Back to the analogy: In writing, as in construction, the most successful writers are those that know the “trade” inside and out-understand it on many levels and perspectives. Perfecting knowledge in one aspect only leads one to pursue the next, and the next craft application. Like construction every part of writing is tied to the rest of it. A few missing nails is one thing but a bearing wall without a header sporting a big hole will not stand much less pass inspection. Holes in a writer’s skills won’t pass the editors’ inspections.

  12. #12 by Camille Eide on October 8, 2012 - 8:18 pm

    I’ve done a similar one-line summary thing over at Randy Ingermanson’s site (www.advancedfictionwriting.com) a few years ago. This is much harder than it sounds. To pull out just the key elements and detach ourselves from what we “think” are important points is tough. I am sort of analyzing the examples you gave and notice how you left things out that I probably would not have realized could be left out. Very well done! Sharp examples.

    Here’s a line I’ve come up with on my budding new story idea:
    A desperate woman is willing to live a lie and keep moving to protect her son from custodial kidnapping, until a family crisis forces her out of hiding and into the path of the boy’s unstable birth mom: her sister.

    But it sounds like a suspense drama, which it isn’t. It’s more of a romantic relational drama. There is more to the story than the threat of kidnapping. This line leaves out several important things, like the cop next door she can’t help but fall for, adding more conflict because of her legal issues, and a quirky cast of characters who I hope will add a little wit and charm to balance out the drama. I don’t see a way to get all that in there.

    But I will keep at it. This is so very helpful, thank you Kristen!! (I’ve been sharing links to these lessons with writer friends and with my lit agency’s FB group)

  13. #13 by MonaKarel on October 8, 2012 - 10:34 pm

    The worst time to do loglines is after your first draft. The best way to fix your book is to reference a strong log line. And the very best way to shut your muse down is to have to create that log line after you’ve “finished” your book. Sigh. I’m using WANA as a guideline in my blogs about building our platforms. Pay it forward and find out the payoff is worth the work.

  14. #14 by tanlee3 on October 8, 2012 - 11:17 pm

    Thanks Kristen. As a fledgling novelist I find your blogs tres helpful. My log-line is: Twelve people living the Tarot. The antagonist and stakes aren’t spelt out but they are kind of included as part of the Tarot experience. I could add: the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Or something else. What do you think?

  15. #15 by tanlee3 on October 8, 2012 - 11:19 pm

    PS Or am I being cheeky asking for such personal advice? In which case, never mind. You still rock!

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 9, 2012 - 7:29 am

      Take the log-line class and let Marcy help you. It will take a bit of work, but I think you have a neat idea.

  16. #17 by Debra Brown on October 9, 2012 - 12:13 am

    I recently wrote a “one-sentence synopsis” or as you call it, a log-line. I went to compare it to your criteria, and found it approvable! But I am glad to have read your article. It will sound the idea down into my mind better for the future.

    I added a link to your blog and the title of your book in my article “Tagged- The Next Big Thing” on my blog at http://authordebrabrown.blogspot.com/. I’d love to win a critique!

  17. #18 by chiquitar on October 9, 2012 - 5:47 am

    I think there’s another new-writer confidence issue involved with the novel-length synopsis. Lack of confidence that our simple plot summary could ever be interesting enough. My last story attempt (before giving up) had all sorts of added complications because I was afraid of it being boring.

  18. #19 by The Hook on October 9, 2012 - 8:05 am

    This post couldn’t have been more serendipitous; I’ve just began to mine the recesses of my mind to begun my first foray into fiction!
    I can’t believe I lost out on a critique again this month!

  19. #20 by Girlie Groove on October 9, 2012 - 10:39 am

    I just wanted to write a quick note to say how very glad I’ve found your site! You’ve inspired me, steered me in the write direction (yes, pun intended) and introduced me to NaNo. I’m actually going to take on the challenge too. I have been a closeted writer for over 20 years.

    Oh log line, easy-peasy. He’s a serial killer who just doesn’t know it yet and she’s going to turn her world upside down to save him from being incarcerated for the rest of his life.

    I suspect you are also an amazing editor (and for that I’m truly grateful – I dred editing … uggghhhh) and I am so happy that there are people like you to make our words, crisp, clean and clearn. I also really like your snippets of humour. I find your writing light and refreshing which makes it so much easier to take instruction.

    So I thank you for my humble beginnings and will definitely give you kudos when I sign that awesome book deal. (Oh and a note aside, I really like your avatar pic, you look editorial – (think it’s the specs lol) and approachable all at once :-)

    Thank you!

  20. #21 by amyskennedy on October 9, 2012 - 12:00 pm

    I can’t get enough of log-lines. They have saved my writing. Well, at least, thrown a life preserver at it. Thanks.

  21. #22 by Verna on October 9, 2012 - 12:04 pm

    HI, thank you for writing such a great informative blog! I wrote about your blog and We Are Not Alone on my blog here http://attherefdesk.wordpress.com/

    • #23 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 9, 2012 - 5:03 pm

      THANK YOU, Verna! I appreciate that :D.

  22. #24 by Daphne Shadows on October 9, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    Doing a logline for movies and novels is a really good idea, thanks! That way I can tell if it makes sense or not…

  23. #25 by Melanie Hatfield on October 9, 2012 - 3:48 pm

    Oh, Kristen! I love following your blog and reposted your structure series on my on site: http://www.melaniehatfield.com.

    I would also like to suggest that fellow writers read “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds” by Michael Hauge. A great log-line means nothing if it’s not followed up with a great pitch.

    • #26 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 9, 2012 - 5:02 pm

      I’ve seen Hague present numerous times and I adore him and his methods. Great recommendation :D.

  24. #27 by David Todd on October 9, 2012 - 4:09 pm

    Good analogy of the difference of the architech (who starts with a blank sheet of paper) and the building inspector (who makes sure what is constructed matches what’s on the paper). The architect puts the concept onto that blank sheet of paper, knowing the code and working toward meeting the minimum requirements where needed and going beyond them where needed. The buliding inspector-editor starts with a completed concept and sees that the construction of that concepts follows established rules.

    I’m between novels right now, seeking direction on which of three to go to next, or to do another short story in a new series. On my noon hour I wrote log lines for my current fiction (I’d done it before, so these were tweaks) and for the three proposed novels. I couldn’t write one for a short story, so that tells me I haven’t yet done enough brainstorming. I’m going to study the log lines of the three novels, and see which one jumps out at me as the next thing I need to write.

  25. #28 by Virginia on October 9, 2012 - 11:36 pm

    Thank you! The log line steered me in the right direction. I posted a link in my blog, http://aspiringtowardausten.blogspot.com/.
    Thank you again, and I’m glad that I came across your blog.

  26. #29 by writing workshop mini lessons on October 10, 2012 - 2:50 am

    Kristen I really appreciate this series, I am doing nano and will definatley benifit from your generousity, thanks! Abby

  27. #30 by writing workshop lesson plans on October 10, 2012 - 2:57 am

    Doing a logline for movies and novels is a really good idea, thanks! That way I can tell if it makes sense or not…

  28. #31 by Heather Wright on October 10, 2012 - 5:12 pm

    Hi Kristen. I’ve just posted a link to your great structure series on my blog at http://wrightwriter.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/thinking-of-nanowrimo/ All the best!

  29. #32 by marsharwest on October 11, 2012 - 11:02 am

    I’ve studied a couple of other log line formats, Kristen. Yours is fairly easy. When I applied it to a recent work, I didn’t get any of the romance part of my romantic suspense in there, but still it worked. Going to try it with my 6th book and current WIP. I have one, but don’t remember what it says. LOL Been away from the WIP for a while. Love your blog. Don’t always comment, but I always save. Thanks for sharing.

  30. #33 by jodenton445 on October 12, 2012 - 9:42 am

    Great post, as usual, full of such priceless advice. Thanks!

  31. #34 by A. Colleen Jones on October 15, 2012 - 5:53 am

    Hi Kristen, your advice always rocks! I have been reposting links to your blog articles on our SCBWI Ireland facebook page, which goes to Twitter as well. And I am referencing all 5 parts in a blog post on our website, where our last meet-up discussion was about plot and structure: https://scbwiireland.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/scbwi-ireland-meet-up-focus-on-plot-and-story-structure/

    I just wrote out my log-line for my latest book. It needs some tweaking but it’s really helpful for clarifying what I’m writing. Thanks so much!

  32. #35 by Sandra on October 21, 2012 - 6:31 pm

    Thank you, this was my favourite post from your series. I now see what’s missing from my structure, just by trying the log-line exercise…it’s not easy. It definitely clarifies everything.
    I also dowloaded WANA on the weekend – I finally have the answer to what fiction writers should blog about. I was on the right track at first, but got derailed by non-fiction (and fiction) writers alike, telling me to write about my process, which I thought would bore the crap out of readers. So thank you for that as well. I’m back to the drawing board but at least I know I wasn’t completely nuts to begin with :).

  33. #36 by Kate on October 22, 2012 - 7:11 pm

    All of these lessons have been informative, but the log-line is something I always dread! My friend and I have worked out one for our novel with the formula provided:
    1) Agni and Milly must 2) strive to 3) master their new-found abilities before 4) the witch who holds them 5) steals their magic and their lives.

  34. #37 by Taylor Stonely on October 23, 2012 - 9:11 am

    I totally agree that the log-line approach works! It keeps me focused on the story, and I recommend it as well.

  35. #38 by R. A. Meenan on August 29, 2014 - 1:17 am

    I have to say, I love that you used several Michael Crichton books as examples. XD He’s one of my favorite authors.

    Back when I was working on my master’s thesis, we did something similar. We had to summarize our entire project in less than 50 words. That’s really hard when you have something so complicated.

    I used the same thing to try and create one of these loglines for my novel. I didn’t really have a good logline though. Now that I know how to DO a good logline, I’m gonna give it another shot. =D thanks for the great post.

  1. Log Lines: Why You Need One and How to Craft It « One Way to Wonder
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  9. Don’t Let NaNoWriMo Kick Your Ass

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