Monday, February 23, 2015

Log Lines, Tags, & Hooks

I recently received the following question from a reader.

Hey Dr. Stan, 
Can I get your reaction to my tagline for the script I'm currently working on (and constantly re-working).  It is: 
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American female rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die.
Any feedback from you would be greatly appreciated. 
Thank you,   
Lady Writer

Lt. j.g. Lashanda Holmes, the first female
African-American helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard.
Dear Lady Writer,

Well, that’s not a tag line, but it’s a pretty good log line. A tag line suggests the emotional arc. For your story a “tag” might be: “Hope that Transcends Desperation.” or “Called to Save, Forced to Let Die.”

But as a story and a log line... you have several layers of outer conflict or potential story hooks:

  • Becoming a person who saves lives in desperate situations
  • Becoming a rescue swimmer
  • Being a female
  • Being African-American

Any ONE of those engenders social conflict and potential difficulties. Any ONE of them can become the basis of a movie's hook, because each has a perceived disadvantage.

A person that wants to become a rescue swimmer is prejudice against by her friends for being an a physical fitness junkie and courageous. That bias is not very different from how society’s patriarchal majority at times dismiss women, and white racism marginalizes blacks.

Putting all four together creates greater interest (and greater jeopardy) but also creates a bigger problem for the story. Significantly dealing with ONE of those issues, or perhaps TWO is enough for a screenplay. Dealing with all four suggests to me a novel. Dealing with all four in a screenplay will be difficult, and that difficulty is evident in what you have to do with the log line. (see below)


But there is a solution. PICK ONE to be the spine of the story, and dramatically reduce the importance of the others to subplots. My recommendation is to pick the spine that has the broadcast audience appeal, and let the others tag along—their very presence will reinforce their validity. For instance, of those four story sub-plots, which do you think will appear to the most people? That then becomes the focus of your story, and the focus of your log line.

Put it another way, I have no problem with seeing all four in a story as your log line suggests, but if you focus principally on Susan's blackness as your main plot, you’ll make the film for only 18% of the American audience that identifies with being black, and you’ll be telling the rest of your potential audience that their lives matters less. If you focus the spine on the fact that Susan is a woman, you’ll marginalize 49% of your potential audience and tell them (the men) they don’t matter. If you focus the spine of your story or being a rescue swimmer, then you have marginalized 99.9% of your audience. But I think everyone in your potential audience would identify with the human need to help others and the moral dilemma of helping others in situations where you are useless to do so.


At the same time, the most successful stories are “underdog” stories, or as Disney labels them, “fish out of water” stories. These are stories where the protagonist can easily be identified as one with the audience. They are just like everybody else, filled with fears and anxieties, and a lost sense of “What can I do?” When you put such a character into a situation that seems impossible you have the biggest interest, the deepest hook.

So my story and log line recommendation would be to focus the story on someone who wants to help others in desperate situations but has to overcome their insecurities of doing so. Keep their motivations high and noble that all your diverse international audience can identify with. Second I would focus on the technicalities of the difficultly of becoming a rescue swimmer. This will intrigue everyone. That Susan happens to be female and black will raise the noble pursue of her in an otherwise male and white world. And while you can make some minor points about her being female and black, you don't want to become so politically correct that you miss the point and open your story up to mockery.

The regular audience goer will believe (coming into the theater) that Susan should become a rescue swimmer ONLY if she can be a good one. Her sex and the color of her skin should not enter into her success of failure, although you can show her struggling with her black-female identity. Just keep it a subplot. This is where Martin Luther King's call for judgment to be made on character not on skin color comes in. If you make gender or race an issue then you suggest that Susan should become a rescue swimmer BECAUSE she is female and black. If you make Susan female and black but don't make a big deal about it, then you reinforce the idea that gender and race are not the issue—character qualities counts. This was part of the success of THE KARATE KID I worked on with Will and Jaden Smith. While Jaden is black, the story was not about his blackness, but about the cultural issues between American and Chinese. Overbrook did the same thing with last year's ANNIE. Both were successful and appealed to broad audiences because race was not an explicit issue in the promotion or the plot...yet it was there.  A gender example would be KILL BILL where Uma Thurman's sex is an implicit not an explicitly issue, and it attracted a male audience.

Now, since Susan's story is a true story, and being female and black WERE issues for her, you will want to still deal with them. Just remember the more you bring them to the forefront of your story, the more you limit your audience to just black females, which would be about 9% of your potential audience.  If you don't made a big deal about then you garner a larger audience who will see black females as fully capable and you'll win their respect from a faithful portrayal of a rescue swimmer's difficulty of rising to that level.


If you want to make all four elements a significant part of your story then you'll have a log line that reads like this:
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American, female, rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die among the crew of a sinking ship who are a mix of men and women, whites and blacks. 
This log line is fraught with racial, class, and gender overtones and what becomes lost in such political messages is the remarkable universal nature of anyone becoming a rescue swimmer in order to save another's life. The audience is narrowed and the message debatable.

But if the log line is:
After defying incredible odds to become a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, the newly certified swimmer is sent on a death-defying mission where the swimmer must decide who will live and who will die.
Then the log line has universal appeal. And when the trailers and poster comes out and we discover the swimmer is a black woman, the appeal for the story will skyrocket. People don't like to be preached at about any political issue, but they subliminally understand the gender and racial undertones.

Also notice this minor point. Proper nouns are never used in a log line. Use generic descriptions to (again) keep the appeal broad.


Lady Writer said...

Thanks for distinguishing between log lines and tags. If I've got it right, log lines identify a specific physical challenge a protagonist will confront within the scope of a story while tags address the emotional elements associated therewith. Am I on track?
Also, having the percentage breakdowns for specialized hooks vs. universal appeal was a real eye-opener.

Stanley D. Williams said...

Yes, you got it.