could-not-fail

I’m A Lumberjack (Part Two)


Hey Guys!

This is Part Two of a two post series.  Here’s Part One.  Tuesday we spent a little time discussing loglines: what they are, the requisite elements, and we looked at a few templates.  Today we’re going to apply that knowledge.

An obvious question we didn’t talk about the other day is why worry about constructing a logline?  Why is it important to me as a fiction writer?

Understanding Your Story

Here’s my argument: drafting a solid logline will mean you have a solid understanding of your story.  If you haven’t written your story yet, then the logline provides the destination.  If you’re story is already written, then doing a logline after the fact can help you identify the story’s weaknesses.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.  My project last year for NaNo was a MS entitled Daisy.  When I started out writing the first draft, everything was copacetic.  I felt I had a clear sense of the story and where it needed to go.  But about 30,000 words in, something weird happened: Of the two primary characters, I was suddenly unsure which of their stories I was telling.

Now I did put together a synopsis last year (similar to a logline, but 1-3 sentences), and so I thought I had things nailed down, but when I went back to look at it, it became clear that there was a problem.  You guessed it: my logline didn’t clearly outline who’s story I was telling.  I never really had it clear in my head which character was leading and which was support.

The thing is that writing your story in one sentence forces you to make hard choices.  It forces you to define the overall dramatic action of your 100,000 word WIP in one or two verbs (struggled, strives, overcomes), which becomes mighty useful when you get half-way in and lose your way.

Advanced Tips

External vs. Internal:  In the best stories, the MC has both an internal and an external conflict.  In Star Wars, Luke struggles with the Force, and is also chased by the Empire.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss must fight to stay alive within the game, but she also struggles in her relationship with Peeta.  If the best stories contain both an external and an internal conflict, then the best loglines do too.

Offensive vs. Defensive: Avoid loglines where the MC is essentially on the defense, because this makes for a weaker hero, and may mean the stakes of your story are unclear.  Stories where the MC initiates the action are more dramatic–because a choice means the MC is chasing a goal.  So looking back at my Daisy story, this was another problem.  Even though Kodi’s choice to ‘kidnap’ his daughter and flee looked like a strong choice, the reality is that once they got away, it became unclear to me what they still hoped to attain?  You can’t run away from cancer, after all.

Goal vs. Opponent: Well-written loglines (and well-written stories) pit the MC’s goal and the opponent against each other (which results in the battle).  In other words, stories where the opponent doesn’t stand in the way of the MC’s ability to reach his goal aren’t very dramatic.  Even though a goal isn’t one of the key elements I originally listed, it’s inherent in the idea of the life-changing event, which forces the MC to accomplish an objective to either take advantage of new circumstances because of the life-changing event, or put his life back the way it was. 

Putting These Techniques To Work

So I thought I’d quickly walk through the basics of how I came up with my final logline for NaNo this year so you could see blow-by-blow how to apply these techniques.  Here’s the original logline I came up with, based off the template.

When a meek and alienated (flaw) young soldier (hero) fighting in Iraq befriends a soldier new to the unit who possesses the power to calm those around him (life-changing event/ally), he finds the courage (battle) to defy the domineering soldiers in his outfit (opponent) and lead the battle against the enemy to prove his sense of bravery.

I don’t think this is a bad first try, but note that the verbs are weak (befriends, possesses, finds), as is the conceptual link between the life-changing event and the overall arc of the story.  In other words, how does the befriending of the new soldier give the MC a problem to solve?

Also note that the MC’s flaw is not in opposition to the main arc of the story, since being alienated really doesn’t keep him from being brave in the end (which, by the way is his goal).  On the  positive side, I did manage to allude to an internal and an external conflict.

Here’s try two:

After a meek and disaffected (flaw) U.S. Army soldier (hero) fighting in Iraq guns down a local man under questionable circumstances (life-changing event) and befriends a soldier new to the unit with the secret ability to pacify the aggression of those around him (ally), he finds the courage to defy (battle) the intolerant, narrow-minded soldiers in his outfit (opponent), lead the fight against the enemy and restore his own sense of self worth.

This is an improvement, IMHO.  By separating the life-changing event and the ally, the story begins to come into focus.  Also, his flaw is now sorta opposite of what he’s after in the long run, right?  A meek guy trying to go up against his squadmates makes for good conflict, at least on paper.  Still, this one is a little wordy for me, and I felt the connection between the two soldiers was too tenuous.  Plus, battling a group is less specific than facing one antagonist.  Based on those notes, here’s try three:

When a shy and diffident U.S. Army soldier fighting in Iraq guns down a local shopkeeper and suffers a loss of confidence, a fellow soldier with the innate ability to pacify the aggression of others aids him as he strives to defy his intolerant squad leader, bring the fight to the enemy, and restore his own sense of self worth.

This is the one I’m happy with.  With the MC being shy and suffering a loss of confidence, he has a real problem to solve if he wants to “restore his own sense of self worth.”  What’s more, it’s clear that he must overcome the obstacle presented by his squad leader–with the assistance of the fellow soldier with the strange powers–if he wants to achieve his end goal.  Note also that both the internal and external conflicts are clearly defined and conceptually linked–since he must overcome his own flaws to succeed in the external battle and triumph (hopefully) in the end.

So, that’s it in a nutshell!  A logline is a powerful tool for helping you zone in on what’s important in your story and give you the direction required to stay on the character arc until you type “THE END”.  It’s something I’ve added to my writer’s toolbox and I hope this post series has helped you find a use for it also.

BUT, with a title like “I’m A Lumberjack”, you didn’t think I’d let you get away without some Monty Python (I’m a huge Python fan, BTW).  Watch at your own risk!

Have you played around with loglines before?  Any tips to share?  

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Check back tomorrow for my Casting Call Character Bloghop post!  Have a groovy day!