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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel: Step 1 – Lock in Your Idea with an Effective Logline

Ever dreamed of writing the next great American novel? The truth is, there’s a book in everyone. If you set your mind to it and use the right tools to plan out your process, you can finish a great novel.

I just finished my 3rd novel, Allied Zombies for Peace. As I sat down to start novel number 4, I thought I might post a series of articles along my journey. For every novelist, there is a different way to go about putting down an engaging story. By no means am I saying that my way is the best way. I have merely found a method that works for me.

Each of these articles will detail a step in the process and end with an assignment. If you follow every assignment faithfully, at the end of the process, you will have a novel written by (insert your name here).

Let me be honest. Writing a novel boggles the mind with its scale. Novels are long and every detail must be considered. Novels are also like untamed beasts. Sometimes you have to whip them into submission; other times they react to tender loving care. By the time I finish a novel, I feel like I have a personal relationship with the story. Each novel has its own personality, its own quirks and nuances. They are like adopted children that you are not sure you want to turn out into the cold world.

All that being said, when looking at the mile high, straight up journey it takes to get your novel down on paper, it’s best to take it apart from the beginning and work on it piece by piece. The easiest way to get lost in a story, to write yourself in a corner, is to sit down and start typing away from chapter 1, page 1 with no preparation.

By the time I begin writing word 1 of an actual novel manuscript, I have a detailed roadmap. Writing becomes a dot-to-dot puzzle for me. You might think this method bleeds the story out of its creative, organic nature. For me it has the opposite effect. I don’t have to think about where the story is going as I write. I am free to concentrate on the richness of the scene, on filling the reader’s senses with character, setting,  and conflict.

Artists work the same way. When an artist sits down to draw a picture, he doesn’t start by drawing every detail of the right eye, then move to the left, the nose, the mouth, etc. If an artist works in this manner, he will step back from his picture at the end of the process and see that, although every part of the portrait is rendered in striking detail, the parts don’t work together as a comprehensive piece. The whole architecture of the portrait appears out of whack.

Novels are the same way. Artists start with a simple oval—if he is drawing a face. He draws an eye line across the circle, a perpendicular line along the ridge of the nose to shape in where the face’s features will be positioned and to map out the focus of the final subject.

All that being said, it’s time to get to work. Lets draw a circle, novel wise I mean.

Introducing the Logline

I use an organized mental filing system for every story I write. Novels are long and detailed. It’s easy to lose your place and waste time trying to find it again. To battle this, I take large blocks of information, entire characters, story components, sequences, chapters, etc., and file them away in a kind of mental filing cabinet. This is done by placing like information into mental files and affixing descriptive labels on the file tabs.

An effective logline is like a descriptive label to be placed on the ENTIRE STORY file. By reading the logline, you know exactly what is found inside the file. A good logline reminds you of what you are writing. You should say your logline in your head often to keep you grounded in your story. I use the logline as a kind of ceremony to begin my writing sessions. I sit down at my computer, pull up my writing files and, before I start typing, recite my logline out loud. This ritual takes me out of my normal world and places me into the world of my story.

To write a good logline, it is important to understand the key components of a story. These components are character, conflict, plot, and setting. A good logline directly incorporates character and conflict while plot and setting are indirectly represented.

Character
When one thinks of a character, he might think of a name like Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Atticus Finch, or Napoleon Dynamite. Names are not as important as what defines character. When writing a logline, forget names. Define your character by what she does, by her function in life. Since character is the cornerstone of all great literature, it is effective to start your logline with your main character. Below are a few great starts for effective loglines.

A plumber…

A trans dimensional zombie hunter…

An eccentric florist…

An alcoholic horse trainer…

Each of these starts conveys the functions of their main characters. Some even imply main character internal conflict. Again, names don’t matter. Characters act. Capture this action in less than a handful of words and you have established a starting point for your main character.

Conflict
The great screenwriting teacher Syd Field said: “The basis of all drama is conflict.” How true this is. Hence, conflict must be introduced even in your logline. I will write extensively about conflict later. But at its base, conflict occurs when 2 characters have opposing goals. Both character A and character B want to get the girl. The fact is, only one of these characters can get the girl—that is if the girl has any interest at all in either character.

You can roll conflict into your logline by introducing the goal of your protagonist and pitting it against the goal of your antagonist. Lets build on our logline examples by adding conflict.

A plumber battles a pandimentional super demon and its minions.

A trans dimensional zombie hunter follows a super zombie to Earth, the final battleground.

An eccentric florist falls in love and stalks a woman to whom he delivers flowers.

An alcoholic horse trainer gets one more chance when he inherits an underdog colt.

Along with character and conflict, great loglines indirectly convey plot and setting, 2 other important aspects of the story. By establishing the overarching conflict in an effective logline, hints of plot and setting emerge in the minds eye. Your logline, if written effectively, becomes the label on your ENTIRE STORY file. By repeating the logline verbally or in your mind, you open the file and can peruse the vast information therein.

Your logline: a fastball pitch
Great loglines should engage. Think of your logline as a pitch. When a friend asks you what your story is about, they don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow treatment, they just want a taste. Pitch them your logline and it is more likely that they will want to read your story.

A good logline perks the ears. I know this from experience. I once attended a writer’s dinner. I knew before the dinner that the time would come for all of us to talk about our current projects. I prepared by sharpening up my current project’s logline. I enjoyed the company of several writers that night. We chatted about family, politics, and current events. They were all fine individuals. Then the moment came. Someone said, “Why don’t we go around the table and share what we are working on.”

One by one, each writer fumbled through his story. They tended to explain the opening scenes of their books or give vague notions about character backgrounds. This is the usual approach. Please understand, I’m not faulting these writers in any way; I enjoyed their company and am in each of their corners cheering them on.

When it became my turn to share, I simply delivered my logline, “My current project is about violence that explodes when a zombie civil rights group marches behind the KKK in a 1968 Veterans day parade.” Everyone laughed. They wanted to know more all because of an effective logline.

Your First Assignment
Time to get to work. If you are reading this article, you, no doubt, have a few great ideas rattling around in your head. Time to ground one of those ideas. Write a logline that incorporates your main character and the overarching conflict of the story. Try to naturally roll plot and setting into your logline. Warning: you only get 1 sentence so make every word count.

By the way, it would be fun for you to share your logline as a comment to this article.

If you wish to continue your journey to completing a novel, click here to read the next article.

11 Comments

  1. avatar Aldo Camolez
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Great method. And I feel it can be applied to any kind of writing being it novel, short story, and playwriting, whatever. Looking forward to follow your next posts on the subject.

    • Posted November 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Aldo. I’ve read many of your flash fiction pieces. They are excellent.

      • avatar Aldo Camolez
        Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Craig. Too bad I haven’t find much time to keep up with it.

  2. avatar Brad Snyder
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    My project is about a modern day, oddly powered would-b superhero who craves recognition yet fears violence and confrontation and wants to write the great American novel.

    • Posted November 24, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Brad, this sounds completely autobiographical. Can you give us a rundown of your super powers?

  3. avatar Dave Korba
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Craig,
    Thanks for the suggestions & instructions tips!
    It’s easy to get lost in the leaves & trees and totally loose site of the entire forest.
    Now to apply the advice!
    Sincerely,
    Dave Korba

  4. avatar Andrew Simpson
    Posted December 24, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the tips Craig. I’ll give it a shot. A crumbling empire is destroyed and recreated when schismatic parties seek the meaning of freedom

  5. avatar Andrew
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Wow! I stumbled across this series of articles, and I’ve found it to be a big help… not sure if anyone is still reading this, but thanks again for this great series!

    • Posted January 13, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Andrew. I’m glad it helped. I need to finish it off some day. Although there is enough information here already to get you going.

9 Trackbacks

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