[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] So, today what I want to talk to you about is plot, and log lines. This is very, very important stuff, and I want to talk to you about how these things are related together and how this can help you as a storyteller.
[00:00:23] And the reason that I'm talking about this today is because of a conversation I had earlier this week with a very dear friend of mine named John Alsop. So John, if you're out there, this one's for you. And John did something that is very, very typical of a lot of artists who are trying to tell a story.
[00:00:42] He called me up and said, "Hey, you know, I'm having some trouble. My brother and I are trying to write this story together. We seem to be stuck. We don't know where to go from here. I wondered if I could pick your brain."
[00:00:52] And then I proceeded to ask questions and the answers that he gave me relate to the very issue that I want to talk to you about today. And the thing is what you need to understand is that this is not unique to John. This happens across the board, this sort of conversation that I want to relate to you.
[00:01:11] So at the end of the day, what we're going to talk about is plot, how to flesh out your story, and log lines, and how that plays a very important role in helping you do just that.
[00:01:23] Alright, so going back to the conversation I had with John. So I asked him, "Okay, what's the first question I'm going to ask? I'm sure you can anticipate. What's the story? What's your story about?"
[00:01:35] And instead of being able to give me a quick answer, he said, "Well, you know, it's kind of, there's like this many different characters, and here's kind of the scenario that it's happening in, and you know, we talk about this, and then this, and this, and this."
[00:01:48] And I said, "Okay, stop, stop, stop. What is the story about?"
[00:01:53] "Well, that's what I'm saying. I mean, it talks about a lot of different ideas. You know, my brother's really smart in the education system. He's a professor, and he talks about some stuff that's going on in Florida, in that particular area, and we talk about slavery."
[00:02:07] And again, I stopped and I said, "Okay, tell me who your main character is."
[00:02:13] "Well, I mean, we haven't really decided that yet. We have, you know, there's like eight characters that represent different students in different sorts of situations. Like, with different sort of disabilities or challenges. That's one of the main components. Like, each kid has sort of a disability that they have to deal with. And, you know, we haven't really decided. We have storylines for each of them."
[00:02:35] And I said, "Okay. Stop. Again. Who is your main character?"
[00:02:40] And that's when he said, "Well... I guess that's part of the problem. We don't know."
[00:02:43] And I said, "Yes, that's absolutely part of the problem. You don't know." I said, "Unless you know who your main character is, you will never have a story that actually makes sense from beginning, middle, and end. And so it makes sense to me that you guys are struggling with the plot because you don't know who the main character is. And the main character, of course, has to drive the action."
[00:03:04] And I said, "So, let me ask you a different question. What's the inciting incident in your mind? Like, you don't have a main character, but you apparently have an event that happens. So, who's the event happening to?"
[00:03:20] And he said, "Well, it happens to all of them."
[00:03:22] I said, "Okay. Well, what's the event?"
[00:03:25] He said, "Well, it's a hurricane."
[00:03:27] I said, "Okay. So, a hurricane happens. And then what?"
[00:03:34] "Well, that's where we're kind of stuck."
[00:03:36] And I said, "Okay. Well, let's talk about that then."
[00:03:39] Because here's the thing, when you are looking at your story, the very first thing you need to have is an idea of who is driving the action of your story. Who is the character that that event affects the most? Because whatever the event is, it's what launches the character onto their journey. It's what thrusts them into action. It's a call to action.
[00:04:08] So one of the things I said to John is, "Well, what if you have this group of eight misfit characters? They kind of don't fit in in the typical situation. But there's one character who sort of gets put in charge of leading that group."
[00:04:23] And then the question is, you know, there's a couple of different ways you could go, but if there's a hurricane— okay, so now this unlikely leader has to somehow lead his band of misfit kids back to safety and through the lands of Hurricaneville and where things are out of control and bad, and all these things.
[00:04:42] So now you have an adventure. Now there is something for him to do. The first question you always have to ask yourself is, who is that main character and what is it that they have to accomplish over the course of the story?
[00:04:58] Okay, so now let's switch gears for a second and talk about something called loglines.
[00:05:04] Loglines get a really bad rap from writers. They hate to write them. They hate to write them. And therefore, they wait until the story is over to actually try to write a logline.
[00:05:15] And I'm here to tell you, that's a mistake. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to identify your logline early on because what your logline does is it actually gives you your roadmap. It helps you to figure out what your story is about so that you don't go off track, so that you don't go off mission.
[00:05:39] And the challenge, of course, is to write a good logline that actually captures what it is you're trying to talk about.
[00:05:47] And here's what often happens. Most of the time when I ask people, "What's your book about?" Guess what. They don't go to the logline. They go to theme. Well, it's a book about good and evil and how when we confront the evil in our lives, it means that we have to battle the deep wounds of our childhood and da da da da. Okay, that's theme. That isn't actually telling me what's happening in the story. The story is the story. The theme is separate.
[00:06:20] So, my first challenge to you, right away, is when you're trying to write your logline, leave out the theme. That doesn't have place here. You need to keep it about the story.
[00:06:31] So, to that end, what do you have to do? Well, there's four component parts I'm going to say to a logline. If you want to write a good logline, you need to come up with these four component parts and it will keep you on track for your entire story.
[00:06:47] So, number one. Who is the main character? Now, there's a nuance here. We don't care about the character's name. We don't care that the main character is Keith Mosley. We don't care. What we need to know, when I say who is your main character, I mean we need two bits of information.
[00:07:12] One would be related to occupation, status. You know, what do they do in life? Who are they in their essence in terms of the role that they're fulfilling?
[00:07:22] So, for example, it might be an only child or it might be a brain surgeon. It might be a police officer, right? You want to give us an idea of their occupation. What role they fulfill in society. What role they fulfill in their lives, but you also need to give us a little indication of personality.
[00:07:47] You want to give us some sort of personality quirk or some sort of insight into their issue, their wound, whatever it is that they struggle with.
[00:07:56] So it might be an only child responsible for the care of his ailing parents, or it might be a disillusioned police officer who's just been put on desk duty.
[00:08:12] Whatever it is, you're giving us some indication as to their personality quirk. We need to understand who this person is.
[00:08:20] Maybe it's somebody, you know, a hyper- controlling comic book writer. I'm making these things up as I go along, but you can pair it with anything, right? A Mensa level stripper. I mean, whatever. I mean, that's kind of an oxymoron or a paradox right there, and those types of things are good.
[00:08:39] But you want to give us an idea of who they are, in their role, but also their personality quirk. And you want two. You want two. You can have three, if there's three it might be... A black disillusioned police officer, or it might be, you know, there might be another qualifier, but no more than three.
[00:09:00] So when I say who are they, you're trying to capture their essence for us. Give us a clear picture of who this person is in terms of their occupation, a personality quirk, and maybe one other qualifier.
[00:09:15] But then you have to include in your logline number two, which is the event that happens. And by the way, you might have to rewrite the logline in different orders depending on what is the most important thing to emphasize or how it all comes together.
[00:09:31] So it might be something like, "When a hurricane hits the small town of such and such, outcast straight-A student, so and so— so right there, we've got the event and the main character that it happens to.
[00:09:48] So the point is you have to give us an indication of the event. "When his wife is tragically killed in a car accident, workaholic lawyer, James—" and then we'll get there in a second.
[00:10:04] So you see how I'm giving a context for what is the event that launches the character on their journey, which means you need to know what that event is. It's called the inciting incident. You're trying to put that into the log line. we have to know what the story is about, which means we have to have that event somewhere.
[00:10:25] "After his grandmother's body is found in the park, proving that Grandma didn't run away after all—" Okay, right? You have to figure out what your event is in the story.
[00:10:39] Then you're gonna include component part number three, which is, then what? What happens as a result of that?
[00:10:47] Now, here's the important thing. This should be the part where you're showing the character taking action. What does the character do as a result of that event?
[00:10:57] Now notice the event could have happened to them.
[00:11:01] After surviving a horrific plane accident or being the sole survivor of the train accident, like in the movie Unbreakable, right? He's the sole survivor of a terrible train accident. Right?
[00:11:15] So, whatever that event is that happens to the character, now the question is, what does the character do as a result? That's the journey that they launch on. And this is where a lot of people get confused. Because they're dealing with theme. They want to explore all these nuances and they're not thinking in terms of character action.
[00:11:36] But you need to think in terms of character action. What does your character do? What is the goal? And that's where you can go. What is their goal? That's what you want to identify for us.
[00:11:48] So, in my friend John's story— "After a hurricane sweeps through Florida, wiping out most of the population," I'm making this up, I don't know that that's his story, but "Billy, a high school student loner, has to lead this band of misfit students through the debris and back to safety."
[00:12:09] Boom. You've got it. You've got it. Right? That's the story.
[00:12:13] So now you stay with that story. You, oh, that's my story. It's about Billy leading a band of misfit students to safety. Oh, okay. Now I stay on track. Now I know what I'm writing. And now the logline helps me to stay on track in my story so I don't go off on too many tangents.
[00:12:34] Or any tangents, preferably. Although you can go off on some in a novel. You really shouldn't do very much. It helps you stay on target.
[00:12:43] So you need to give us an idea of the character's goal. What is he now after? What is he going to pursue as a result of what's happened?
[00:12:53] And the final thing you have to include in this logline— and by the way, there's a lot of different theories about log lines. A lot of people are going to say different things. This is my trick. This is what I do for me and I'm passing it on to you. I think it's very, very helpful. So the last thing is you have to give us some idea of stakes. What's at stake?
[00:13:14] So if it's some sort of thriller situation, you know, "Retired Navy SEALs officer, So-and-So, has vowed to stay in the boondocks for the rest of his life. But when a bomb threat threatens the entire West Coast, he must don his leadership hat once again and save the day before nuclear fallout wipes out North America."
[00:13:48] I mean, I'm making this up. But the point is, you see how that gets us the stakes. What's at stake? Well, if he doesn't do his job, if he doesn't do what he is called to do and what he is uniquely gifted to do, then there's going to be nuclear fallout or something.
[00:14:04] I mean, I'm making this up as I go along, so that's probably not very good, but you get the idea.
[00:14:08] So you always want to give us an idea what's going to happen if they fail? So, if you need to adjust the story, you know, "Billy has to lead a band of misfit students back to safety before they all die?"
[00:14:27] I mean, I don't know. I mean, it's always life and death stakes, but, "before the stress of the situation causes their minds to fray and they all go insane."
[00:14:36] I don't know. What's at stake? It might change according to the genre. Maybe it's some supernatural force that's threatening to get them and take over their bodies, you know, invasion of the body snatchers.
[00:14:48] You have to give us an idea of what's at stake if they fail. I mean, what is invasion of the body snatchers? It's basically when aliens start taking over the human bodies of people on Earth. "During their sleep, a group of rebels must try to stay awake, else the aliens take over them as well."
[00:15:10] What am I missing? The main character, which should be, you know, identified.
[00:15:15] So, you need to identify the main character. You need to identify the event that happens. You need to identify what their goal is now, what they're trying to accomplish. And then you need to identify what the stakes are.
[00:15:28] Those four things are the component parts of a logline that I think you need to have. And again There's gonna be lots of theories, but hopefully this will be helpful to you. If you can stick to this, then you can write a good story and you can pitch it and that's the important thing. We want to be able to pitch it.
[00:15:46] Now, the final thing I want to say about this is that that means that everything that happens in the story— and this is what's helpful to somebody like John, right, who calls and he says we're kind of stuck on this story.
[00:15:58] Well, once you have that outline then, you know who the main character is, what he's after, what he's trying to do, what the stakes are. Now, where John said, "Well, you know, they all have kind of their own storyline." Now, it's about, okay, what are their personality quirks, these other people in this misfit band of students.
[00:16:15] But then how does that play into the narrative? How does that make it a challenge or a struggle? How does that make it an obstacle for the main character? Right? And also how does that maybe help? Maybe it's, it's a good thing. Like he said there's one character who figures out storm patterns and he knows what's going on and he knows what's caused and he knows what's coming next.
[00:16:35] Okay, great. So now that plays into the narrative, but the main character is the one who has to then act on it, that information. So see these supporting characters bring their gifts to bear on the story. They bring their gifts to bear. You have one character who's able to see these patterns. Fantastic. But he's gotta bring that information to the leader, and now the leader has to decide what to do with it, how they're going to respond to this information.
[00:17:05] It is the leader, or the person that's leading this group, or the main character of this particular story, who has to act on it. Who's the one acting on it? So, that helps you to know what parts to even bring in.
[00:17:20] It sounded to me like John and his brother had so many fabulous ideas, but they didn't all fit into a narrative.
[00:17:26] So that's actually helpful for you to know, so that you can just eliminate the ones that don't play in. And it's hard. I realize it's hard. You have to kill your babies. Sometimes there's these story threads you really want to explore. But they don't fit the narrative. That's the way it is. You either do that or you find a way for it to fit the narrative.
[00:17:46] So for example, one of the things that John brought up is that there was Down syndrome student who was part of that group and they wanted to talk a lot about how, you know, the benefits or the, the beauty parts of maybe that sort of a character. And I said, okay, so then you have to construct a scene that shows that so that you're not telling us you're showing it through constructing a scene.
[00:18:12] So maybe you have a scene where the kids are on the beach area, you know, they're trudging their way through. They're tired, they're hungry. They all want to give up. It seems hopeless. They're at that point of wanting to give up, sit down and just be like, it's over, it's over. And suddenly the Down syndrome kid sees these jellyfish that are glowing in the water right there.
[00:18:36] And he looks at them and he's noticing them and he starts laughing and he starts enjoying them. And pretty soon the other kids join in and before you know it, they're all laughing and enjoying it. But it was the Down syndrome kid that triggered that. The joy, the pure unadulterated joy of that particular moment. And it ends up bringing hope back to the rest of the group. Something to that effect.
[00:18:59] So now you take that kid's particular issue or his particular disability and you use it to show those ideas, but it plays into the narrative. Everything that happens in the story must play into the narrative.
[00:19:16] And by the way, this is why I have an issue sometimes with this idea of like, well, you've got the A storyline and the B storyline and the C storyline.
[00:19:23] And I know that that's just a way for writers to organize it in their own heads, to kind of keep those threads separate. So if that works for you, then don't change that. But what you need to do is always realize that at the end of the day, all of those threads are playing into the same overarching narrative.
[00:19:43] And if it doesn't, then it should be cut. If it doesn't somehow play into the main story, then it's really not important for your story.
[00:19:55] So, at the end of the day, the logline becomes a great way for you to have a miniature roadmap for your story. Something that's going to keep you on target and help you select the events, the characters, the things that are supposed to happen in the story for that main character to accomplish, or have obstacles to overcome in order to accomplish their goal.
[00:20:24] I hope this is helpful to you.
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[00:20:57] All right, so check that out, there's a link
[00:21:00] In the meantime, I want to thank you for joining me on the Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.