Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Premise Line–Log line Conundrum: Aren’t They the Same Thing—NOT!

Wending one's way through the language of the story development jungle is one of the most crazy-making issues faced by new authors and screenwriters. This problem is wonderfully exemplified by the phrases “premise line” and “log line.” Yes—now is a good time to go running screaming down the hall.

We hear these phrases used interchangeably all the time. Well-intentioned advice given by so many writing teachers and gurus becomes migraine material when "premise line" and "log line" are actually used in the same sentence referring to the same thing. I’ve actually heard this done by story consultants, “Yes, you need a great premise line. In fact, the log line is the key to any good premise. So, take the time to develop a great premise line.” Still running screaming down the hall, FYI.

Okay, I didn’t hear this exact exchange; I paraphrase. But this is what happens. Writing teachers mix these two critical concepts up and spew them out as if they were Twiddle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Premise line and log line are two DIFFERENT tools, two DIFFERENT concepts, and two different skills. Okay, stop running down the hall now and listen.
So, what is the difference?

The premise line is your story. Period. The premise line is a complex and subtle construction that reveals not just a main character and an adventure; it actually delivers the basic structure of the story to the reader-viewer. The art of the premise line is the art of precision and clarity of ideas. A well-formed premise will “click” when you read it to someone and they will say, “Yeah, I see that story. I’d read that.” They “see” the story in just a few short lines. But, getting those lines just right might take hours, days, or even weeks. I’ve known some to take months. What is it they “see”?

The premise line gives them a clear vision of a protagonist acting with a purposeful desire toward a goal that is opposed by some force, and all this leading to some dénouement. This is a simplistic definition, but it captures the essence of what a premise line accomplishes. I will be writing a later post that breaks this down specifically with examples, but for now, know that the premise line is the structure of your story told as a single sentence (that’s right—1 sentence; and not a long run-on sentence sprinkled with comma splicing!) that has forward movement and gives a sense of the story’s beginning, middle, and end (no, don’t give away the ending).

Here is an example of a good premise line (three guesses what book/movie):

When the innocent, youngest son of a powerful mafia godfather discovers his beloved father has been shot as part of a turf war, he agrees to join the family to exact revenge and re-establish the family’s honor, until his actions force him to cross a line he was never meant to cross, dooming him to become the next Godfather.

Contrast this to a log line. The log line is your story’s high concept in a short sentence. If you don’t know what high concept means (yes, it means something) then check out my post on this concept.

The log line, unlike the premise line, does not show the overarching shape of your story, it does not give you the action line of the protagonist, nor does it give you a sense of the big picture. No, the log line’s job is to grab you and get your mind and emotions churning. There are seven components to a high-concept idea:
  • High level of entertainment value
  • High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than original)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
  • Sparks a “what if” question
    (Excerpted from my book The Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development. Bookbyte Digital, publication date 2012)
When a story has one or more of these components, then it can say it is high concept. The more the merrier. If it only has one or two, the claim can get iffy. Each of these bullets means something specific and are important to understand. Please refer to my post for more explanation. But, for the purposes of this post understand that the log line exemplifies these seven components of the high concept, and it does so in few words. Here are some examples:
  • A monster shark terrorizes a small coastal town [Jaws, Peter Benchly]
  • A cop battles uber-thieves when they take over an office building. [Nothing Lasts Forever, Roderick Thorp (film: Die Hard)]
  • A young boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. [Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling]
  • A man saves a pregnant woman in a world where women no longer give birth. [Children of Men, P.D. James]
None of these tell you about a hero or heroine, none of them give you any idea about the journey to be traveled, but they do grab you and get you wondering “what if.” That’s the job of the log line.

These are the differences between the two tools. It does not take a rocket scientist to see how they work together to form a powerful effect in pitching a story. One grabs you and the other satisfies the “what if” with a bit more detail. Together they sell the story and get you that next meeting.

So, to summarize: premise line and log line are two different tools that work synergistically to create a powerful image of your story. They were built to work together, not separately. If you build them well, you will take many lunches—and you won’t have to pay either.

Now go be brilliant.


David Klein said...

I really love the way the Godfather story was presented. It really crystalizes the story.

Jeff Lyons said...

Thanx David ... I think it captures the essence of the story pretty well too. The power of the premise line! :)