In my last two posts, I’ve introduced you to how to make a log line as an outlining device to make sure your plot has all the necessary elements, and how to use your log line to develop a thirty-second marketing pitch (called an Elevator Pitch). Today, we’re going to talk about how to use the Log Line to figure out what might be wrong with your story.
I’m not suggesting that you go around looking for all the things that are wrong with your story and micro-analyzing it using the log line. That’s not productive.
No, most writers have an innate sense when they’re story isn’t quite what it should be and needs help.
This often manifests in floundering or getting stuck, not knowing what should happen next, or getting bored with your project. Sometimes, it manifests when you give your story to friends to read and they avoid your eyes when you ask how they liked it.
Out of frustration, you kill everyone off in a cataclysmic meteor strike, write “the end,” and set your computer on fire while laughing maniacally. (Or, you know, delete the file and consider giving up writing to become a Buddhist monk.)
BREATHE! There are alternatives to arson and asceticism in your writing career, thankfully, and they involve learning how to fix your story. (And alliteration. Always alliteration.)
Today, we’re going to talk about three common causes of “project flame-out” and how you can use the log line to fix them. (So, if you’re following my mixed metaphors, we want the flames burning because of your brilliant ideas setting the world on fire, not flickering in the remains of your manuscript. Got it? Good. Let’s go.)
The first step is to check your log line. Did you include all the elements?
(If you missed my previous post, get a more in-depth exploration of the log line here.)
While the required elements can vary slightly by genre, did you (or can you, if you haven’t done this yet) create a complete log line for your current concept? If so, great! That means you can skip the rest of this post, because you shouldn’t be having any problems.
Okay, if you’re here, you’re probably having a few issues. Maybe your log line is not as solid as you think. Best read on.
Log Line Problem #1: It Addresses the Wrong Conflict
Take a look at this sample log line:
A girl wants to prove herself ready to be chief to her traditional father, so she runs away with a selfish demigod to fight the lava monster that threatens to kill the entire ocean before her people starve to death.
Not bad, right? Sounds interesting. We’ve got a girl with a need, an antagonist or three (father, demigod, and lava monster. Whoa, cool!), and some stakes and a ticking clock (death of everything and everyone that matters to her, time limit of the death being imminent). But if you’re familiar with the movie Moana, you may already have spotted the problem with this log line: It addresses the wrong conflict.
One reason your plot may be struggling is that you are not absolutely clear about what your character’s conflicts are. To help you narrow this down, ask this about every character with an arc:
What is the Lie this character believes that is holding them back from achieving their goal?
What happens in the story that makes them confront this Lie?
What Truth do they need to learn to overcome the antagonist?
In fact, sometimes it’s helpful to think about the third question first.
Understanding a character’s Lie (or, in other words, their inner conflict) can be a tricky business to ferret out. But once you understand what Truth they need to know in order to win at the end, the Lie that kept them from doing that before becomes more obvious.
And once you are clear on your protagonist’s Lie, you should have a better idea what they really need, which lets you address their actual conflict in your log line.
Moana’s problem is not “trying to prove herself able to her father.” He knows she is able. Her problem is that she has two callings that seem to conflict at the beginning of the story: being her people’s chief, which her father insists must be done by staying on the island, and following the call of the Ocean to go beyond the safety of their island to accomplish great things and learn more about the world (first on the list: save her people from starving). Her Lie is that these are mutually exclusive callings and she has to choose between the two sides of herself, and because of this, she is not sure if she is fit for either one of them.
Her Truth is that these are both part of her, and she can be both a good leader and an explorer with her people, just as they used to do. In fact, the arcs of all the primary characters (Moana, Maui, and the “lava monster” goddess) all deal with the theme of identity, purpose, and what makes us who we are.
Try this log line for Moana on for size:
A Polynesian princess struggling with her calling must convince an imprisoned demigod trying to reclaim his former glory to help her save her people from starvation by restoring the heart of a goddess—which he stole in the first place.
The problem with using the wrong conflict in your log line is that you get stuck trying to force a story to fit a shape different than the story you originally wanted to tell. So if you are hitting your head against a wall, go back and look at your conflicts. Do you know what your character’s real problem is? And by this, I mean their Lie, not whatever external goal they are trying to achieve that is forcing them to confront it.
If not, figure it out.
I talk more about using the Lie and the Truth to help you with plot problems in my 5 Point Plot Structure class. You can download the notes for free here.
Log Line Problem #2: The Stakes are the Wrong Scope
The bigger your initial problems, and the more characters involved in them, the longer it’s going to take to tell the story.
Are you trying to write a short story? You probably don’t want to write about preventing the apocalypse—unless it’s about the actions of one character doing something relatively small and simple with a relatively uncomplicated personal arc who does something to prevent the apocalypse.
However, if you’re trying to plot a series, you need to have a problem big enough to carry a series. For instance, this is not enough:
A twelve-year-old orphan boy with magic and his clumsy best friend must drive a magical flying car to school before the term starts and they are expelled, but neither of them knows how to drive.
You may have recognized part of the beginning of the second book in the Harry Potter series in that description. While that concept alone could have covered about 5,000 words (hmm, it probably got close to that, actually) and could have made a short story if written properly and that was all the story that was meant to be told, the stakes are not nearly high enough for a seven-book series.
For that, we need world-ending (or equally high, genre-specific) stakes and more characters involved. Like:
A young misfit orphan boy with special abilities finds out he is part of a secret world of magic threatened by the dark wizard who killed his parents—and he and his new friends from wizard school might be the only ones who can stop the wizard and the forces of evil from taking over the world.
That means if you are trying to write a short story, you probably don’t want to have stakes of world-ending proportions. You also don’t want to have four different story arcs or six POV characters.
But if you’re 30,000 words short of your word count goal for that novel you are drafting, take a look at your conflict and stakes and characters. Does something need to be amped up? Are your stakes high enough? Could you add another plot thread/character arc that would complicate the plot and require more words? (Only do this is if it will actually benefit your story. Words for the sake of words are filler, and if you don’t love the ideas you add, your readers won’t, either.)
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. These are just guidelines. But they are a safe place to start.
Log Line Problem #3: It’s Boring or Has No Urgency
I’ve mentioned several times that some elements of the log line are optional, depending on genre. While this is strictly true, no matter which genre you are writing in, your story will be more compelling if you use all the elements, including the Intriguing Twist and the Ticking Clock.
One of my children’s favourite board books when they were little was Goodnight Moon, a sweet illustrated poem about a young rabbit “getting ready for bed” by saying goodnight to everything in his room before finally falling asleep. Okay, there isn’t a whole lot of intriguing twist or ticking clock there (unless you count the minutes his grandmother was counting until he finally fell asleep). But the point of the book is to lull a child to sleep and help them learn to love language, not engage their mind so they can’t fall asleep.
But once you get to a slightly more complex story line, say a Robert Munsch book like The Paper Bag Princess, we get into more interesting territory. A log line for that story could be:
A princess must rescue her fiance, who has been captured by a dragon.
The Twist is inherent in that story—typically it’s princes rescuing princesses. So is the urgency—someone captured by a dragon does not typically have a long life expectancy, so she’s going to have to be quick about it.
However, we could tweak this log line even more:
A princess must rescue her dream-boat fiance from a dragon while wearing nothing but a paper bag but discovers his true character in the process and lives happily ever after without him.
Twist upon twist! Not only does the prince-rescuing-the-damsel trope get overturned, so does the happily-ever-after-because-of-true-love trope. And this is all for a children’s book with only three characters. No wonder it has stood the test of time.
If your story is falling flat, check your stakes. Check your twist. Check your sense of urgency. Could any of those be improved in some way to make your story more compelling?
Remember, good storytelling is driven by conflict. All of the elements of a log line are simply a way to define what your primary conflicts are. If one of those elements is missing or pointing in the wrong direction, then you need to fix it so you can get clear on what your story is about. Once you understand your conflicts clearly, the ways those conflicts interact (or are failing to interact) in your story should become clearer.
Ready? Flame on!
What about you? Are you struggling with a plot problem? Did addressing issues using the log line help? If so, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below. If not, I’d still love to hear about it! Leave a comment or send me an email. Your questions help me know what you need help with.
I look forward to hearing from you!
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Talena Winters is a freelance editor, independent author, magazine writer, and tea and silver lining addict. As an editor, she specializes in making story magic with self-published authors, helping them develop their diamonds-in-the-rough manuscripts into stories that glitter and shine. See her editing services here.