How to Write a Logline

by Lisa Alber

I recently completed the first draft for THE SHADOW MAIDEN. As first drafts go, it’s cleaner than usual (for me) because I’d overhauled it as I was writing maybe a dozen times. I’m happy it’s done, to say the least!

I’ve got it out to a reader for developmental feedback. Meanwhile, I started to think about my agent after a few years of being incommunicado. I started to worry. It’s one thing to fret over the writing process — that’s creativity at work. It’s another thing to fret when it comes time to consider the world *out there.* The world out there begins with one person: the agent (unless you’re self-publishing).

So many questions: Is she still my agent after so long? Will she like the book? If not, what do I do then? Does she remember me? How come I didn’t receive an agency Christmas card last year? Specifically, what will she make of my storytelling choices? Do I already have a strike against me since I’m not writing the most popular thing — the first-person, domestic suspense-thriller?

First things, first: contact her. Seemed simple enough. Nothing formal, because that’s not the way I roll. More like, Hey, Agent, remember me? Remember that book I was telling you about a long time ago? Like that, with the addition of a decent summary of the story.

Sad face emoji here — 😩 — because when it comes to the *out there* stuff, I dread coming up with what a friend calls the “logline” more than anything else in this pesky business. I can write an entire novel, but developing a pithy summary description? HAH!

I give you my friend’s formula, which I shamelessly stole and now pass on to you. Actually, with a little research, I discovered that the formula comes from a writing book called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It’s a screenwriting book, but fiction writers use it, too.

On the verge of STASIS = DEATH,
a flawed hero BREAKS INTO 2;
but when MIDPOINT happens,
they must learn the THEME STATED
before ALL IS LOST.

Uh-huh — what? Since I haven’t read the book (yet?), I did a little research, and this is the way I think about it:

  • STATIS = DEATH: Protagonist’s beginning state. Basically, she must already have problems in her life.
  • BREAK IN 2: Protagonist makes a choice and enters into a new, unforeseen journey.
  • MIDPOINT: Significant plot event that changes things. An obstacle, a twist, etc.
  • THEME STATED: Related to protagonist’s internal arc. How they must change.
  • ALL IS LOST: The stakes.

Here’s a made-up example:

Bankrupt and homeless, an investigative journalist returns to her hometown to bury her mother, who committed suicide, and pick up the pieces of her shattered life; but when a freak flood unearths a skeleton in the basement, she realizes she must face long-buried secrets in her family’s past and learn to forgive herself before she becomes the next “suicide” in the family.

Hopefully you get what I’m illustrating. Having a formula helped me write my logline. I came up with:

Reeling from her headmistress mother’s murder, troubled trauma survivor Tessa Alexander returns to the one place she vowed never to see again—fog-enshrouded, cursed Greyvale Academy for Girls—to find answers; but when a childhood friend is found dead on campus, the lines between past and present blur, and ever-more-fragile Tessa realizes that she must face her own truth to discover why vengeance came calling to slay her mother and make Tessa its next victim.

That’s one long-ass sentence, but it works well enough. I could never write a logline before I begin writing, but I can see how attempting it while writing might help me figure out where my story needs work. For example, if I can’t figure out what the theme is, I probably need to beef up my character’s internal story arc. If I don’t have a good midpoint event, it probably means I have a saggy middle.

In the end, I sent this:

Gothic-inspired story reminiscent of Tana French’s THE SECRET PLACE and Carol Goodman’s THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES: Reeling from her headmistress mother’s murder, troubled trauma survivor Tessa Alexander returns to the one place she’d vowed never to see again—fog-enshrouded, cursed Greyvale Academy for Girls—to find answers; but when a childhood friend is found dead on campus, the lines between past and present blur, and ever-more-fragile Tessa realizes that she must face her own truth to discover why vengeance came calling to slay her mother and make Tessa its next victim. Retribution comes in many forms, and sometimes Greyvale girls have the most to hide.

The point was to provide Agent with as much information as possible, succinctly, and excite her interest. Including comparable books (or, comps) is always handy for agents. That last sentence isn’t needed. I just liked it.

The good news is that Agent responded the same day(!!). I’m apparently still on her roster, and she looks forward to reading the manuscript when I’m ready. Revision, here I come!

Ghost Story or Scary Story?

Eric Witchey

During the late spring and early summer Samhain story submission season, my attention occasionally turns to the WordCrafters-sponsored Ghost Story Weekend. Every year near the holiday most people call Halloween, I am the writer in residence responsible for helping a group of writers bring stories, usually ghost stories, into the world. When my mind goes to that space, I often find myself considering the differences in types of ghost stories because every year someone shows up with the erroneous idea that a ghost story must also be a horror story. That’s normal because most people, including writers who don’t normally work in the cloth of horror or ghosts think ghost stories are a subgenre of horror.

I do not.

Horror is a genre that includes the reader pleasure of fear survived (sometimes only by the reader). A ghost story can be horror, but it does not need to be. Ghosts can be spirit guides, like Marley in A Christmas Carol, or the “revered ancestors” that appear in the tales of many of the world’s cultures. Ghosts can be random encounters that influence a character’s thoughts and motivations. Ghosts can be comedic, like Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter series. Ghosts can also be terrifying, like the spirit in the film The Ring.

As near as I can tell, ghosts stories exist in almost all genres and cultures. Consequently, I think of ghosts as story characters who have the special attribute of being dead and disembodied. We wouldn’t want other undead folk to be subsets of ghost.

However, many readers, non-ghost writers, and non-horror writers think of the phrase “ghost story” as synonymous with “scary story” or even “horror story.”

So, what makes a story scary?

I will unilaterally and quite arbitrarily dismiss “splatter horror” from my considerations. Scary stories that rely on splatter don’t feel scary to me. They feel like weak attempts to shock. Shock is not nearly as delicious as fear. Shock is too quick. Shock is too empty and leaves too quickly without adding to the experience of life and thought. Shock deadens emotion rather than enhancing emotion and helping the reader to gain understanding from it. In textual story, if the lead-up to the horrific end of a character is done well, the actual event need not be displayed. It can be implied or represented symbolically to allow the reader to provide their inferred and projected level of gore, which will be much more potent to them than a detailed representation of anatomical disassembly. If the event must be displayed, the lead-up was probably not done well.

Fear, however, includes delicious development of anxiety into nervous anticipation, which turns into agitation, near fight-flight, and then glorious release. Once the release happens, fear lingers as a deep memory that comes back to us over and over to support new thoughts and considerations.

When I was a child, we went to my grandmother’s house every year to watch The Wizard of Oz on her color TV. That was a big deal when I was between three and eight. The green-faced wicked witch and her flying monkeys scared me so much that I hid behind a sofa clutching my teddy bear when she appeared. None-the-less, it was a highlight of my year. Even more than being a good boy for Santa, I was a good boy for Wizard of Oz night. I needed to see it again and again. I wanted to be scared. I anticipated heading to Grandma’s house for weeks before we actually went. Once there, I psyched myself into a state of near fight-flight so that the moment when the witch appeared would launch me across the living room and behind the sofa.

Early life adrenaline addiction? Maybe. Who cares? It was one of the great pleasures of childhood—being safe and terrified at the same time.

So, what does it take to make a good scary story?

Safety. The reader must be reading in a context where they feel safe. If people read scary stories in the middle of combat zones, it is because they want to return to a place where they felt safe enough to read scary stories. Yes, I know that sounds a bit nuts, but talk to a few combat soldiers who read horror as an escape while on duty and it starts to make sense.

Sympathetic Identification. The characterization of the main character allows the reader to feel like they are the character or they care for the character as an analog for self, family, or tribe. My favorite for this idea is Odd Thomas in the Dean Koontz series. Odd is a fry cook who has lost the love of his life, Stormy Llewellyn. Oh, and he sees supernatural entities. We can all feel his pride in blue collar work, his simple and loyal love, and the creepy sense of his separation from the people around him that goes with seeing ominous things that are real but just beyond the perception of others. Isn’t that all of us?

Anticipation. A good scary story lets the reader look forward to being scared. The anticipation isn’t just about expecting to be shocked. That’s not enough. The anticipation is about knowing we are going to be surprised and then being surprised by what surprises us. Which leads to the next element.

Benign Violation Theory. BVT is at work when we are surprised by what surprises us. This is the same thing that makes good jokes work. We see or hear the setup and expect a particular ending even though we know it’s a joke and won’t end the way we expect. Then, the ending of the joke goes a very different way that is both a surprise and makes perfect sense. The joke gives us the pleasure of being surprised by what surprises us. In a joke, the surprise releases anticipation tension as laughter. In a scary story, the surprise releases tension as a jump, a scream, a gasp, an expletive, or hiding behind the sofa. The easiest form of BVT to see is the paraprosdokian, which starts out with a phrase, an idiom, or a clichĂ© that we recognize. That start sets up an expectation. Then, another phrase continues the thought by bending the meaning in a new direction that surprises and makes new sense of the whole.

  • Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like honey.
  • “He is a modest man who has much to be modest about.” Winston Churchill
  • That woman has the heart of Mother Theresa. I’m going to skip her dinner party.

Culture. The last, and perhaps the most important element, of a good scary story is culture. Scary stories exist in the context of the culture in which they are told. They offer pleasurable fear experiences that validate or refute our beliefs about our culture. A ghost does not make a story scary. The ghost, or the actions of the ghost, must mean something that either validates the reader’s beliefs about the virtues of the culture (a heroic scary story) or/and criticizes the culture in a way that allows the reader to understand and believe in the object of criticism. It is the combination of the other factors combined with the reader’s perception of the significance of the cultural meaning of the ghost character that makes a story with a ghost in it scary.

And that brings us back to Nearly Headless Nick, who haunts a middle school. Also, consider Moaning Myrtle, who haunts the same school’s bathroom. Nearly Headless Nick is an outcast from the headless hunt because his head hasn’t quite come off. He is a metaphor for the alienated life of a middle school student—like the others but not quite. Myrtle, who haunts the bathroom, is the epitome of the bullying victim. They represent experiences we can all identify with. They are not scary at all. However, they do enhance the emotional power of scary moments in the story because we can understand them and feel for them. Their circumstances echo the living middle-school students’ failures to belong and the damage of prejudicial bullying presented in the larger story.

Consider the same idea of ghost and meaning in culture and apply it to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Who is the Headless Horseman and what does he represent? In that scary ghost story, Ichabod is a schoolteacher—an intellectual. What does that make the black Hessian horseman on a shadowy steed carrying his flaming jack-o-lantern head? A case can be made for that story being about the battle between the rational and the irrational—between acceptance of or rejection of reason in community and culture.

Consider variations on folktale ghost stories like La Llorona. What does her story represent? She is the lost woman or girl who, depending on the region and roots of the tale, lost a child or died tragically near the place where she manifests—usually water or a bridge. Sometimes, her story is about warning people against dangerous circumstances. In that case, she is a tale of tragic love and transcendent compassion for others. Sometimes, her story is about luring strangers into her arms, in which case the story is a commentary on lonely death, temptation, and the weaknesses of the living heart. Sometimes, she is a child stealer, which makes her story a cautionary tale of loneliness, loss, and the consequences of failed judgment and respect for the warnings of elders.

A ghost story need not be a scary story, but the ghost will be central to the tale and have an effect on character arc. A horror story can have ghosts, both scary and benign. A mainstream tale of justice can include a ghost, as can a fantasy series. Consider The Lovely Bones, Hamlet, and Harry Potter. When we set out to write a ghost story, will it also be scary? When we set out to write a scary story, does it need a ghost? Will we write a story that is both? Will we write a scary story that is also funny or a funny ghost story about trying to be scary? These are things to think about before and during composition and revision.


The D Word

by Christina Lay

Discipline. Okay, there, I’ve said it. Most creative types I know recoil at the word. Discipline invokes loveless toil, stern teachers with knuckle-whacking rulers, and a sort of relentless grind that seems the very antithesis of the artistic flow. However, I’ll let you in on a secret. The artistic flow is much, much easier to achieve if one has discipline. It’s a drag, I know, but sitting around waiting for the muse to twiddle on her magical flute is about the most effective way there is to get nothing done.

This is actually not news for anyone who’s written a novel, completed a painting, or mastered just about any craft, but I thought it would be worth talking about again in this era of day pajamas, and an endless stream of Blursdays.

I’ll go ahead and admit right now that when my boss informed me that we wouldn’t be coming in to the office for at least a month (ha, ha), I didn’t not gasp in dismay.  I have spent most of my working life yearning and scheming for more time to write, so the prospect of an entire shiny month of setting my own schedule, of not doing the commute or the nine-to-five zombie shuffle, didn’t sound too bad. I mean, if we had to live through a pandemic, why not do it at home, where the cats and the readily accessible tea and the home computer surrounded by a tsunami of novel notes reside?

Those first weeks at home were quite productive in the writing department.  With no boss tapping her foot waiting for me to arrive at the joyless cubicle, I could continue my morning writing session for as long as I wanted. As long as I got my work done in a timely fashion, who cared when I did it? I wrote many words, and also completed a lot of tasks at home.

But there’s this thing about living through a pandemic, not to mention riots, wildfires, assaults on the nation’s capitol, endless attempts to subvert democracy, etcetera. It’s all very distracting. So naturally, first thing in the morning, instead of bringing up my WIP, I would log on to the Washington Post for my daily cuppa morning Horror and Outrage.  Long, long ago, I trained myself to NOT CHECK MY EMAIL before beginning to write. However, it only takes one pandemic to up-end decades of practice and yes, Discipline, and so the doomscrolling began to eat away at that hard won habit.

I mentioned that I completed a lot of tasks at home as well. The thing about tasks-at-home is that there is no end to them. So now, with my flexible schedule, there was no reason not to abandon the computer mid-day, mid-week, in order to pull weeds or clean out closets.  But the combination of writing as long as I wanted and getting tasks done was starting to encroach on my work productivity, so
maybe I could take a morning off from writing now and again, now that I had so much more time to play with? 

And just why was I still getting up at 6:00 AM anyway? There was no need to set the alarm anymore. I could get up whenever, as long as I got my work done in a timely fashion yadda yadda yadda. The sense of urgency continued to fade, time no longer a precious commodity.

Inevitably the doomscrolling and the task completing and the worrying about the possible end of the world and the drudgery of sitting in one damn place all day and the work files piled on top of my novel notes like salt upon the Earth and the mysteriously shrinking day (possibly due to not setting the alarm anymore), well
you get the idea. My decades long, hard-won habit of getting up early and writing every morning began to erode. Discipline snuck out the window to go chase butterflies.

I have always grudgingly suspected that my ongoing, high-level of productivity was due to the fact that I was forced by my jobs to maintain a schedule, to consciously prioritize writing, and to show up at the page no matter what, and lo and behold, this suspicion has been confirmed. Sure, the no-matter-what has never been quite so obnoxious, but cancerdidn’t slow me down, for crying out loud. What exactly happened here? I’ll tell you what. What happened was a many-pronged assault on my belief in and dedication to the idea of discipline. It was not deliberate. It was not abrupt. But it did happen, and now I’m dealing with the consequences.

In this case, the consequences are a whole lotta words with no point, and then no words, and then the dismay that I failed to register back when the world came to a halt in March of 2020. I have faced the most evil of phrases: Writer’s Block, and recognized it for what it truly is; the loss of a carefully honed habit.  How do I regain the habit?  Discipline. Yuck.

The mental toll of the Year from Hell has made it difficult for me to commit to any one of my many projects, so I’ve decided to begin a thorough edit and rewrite of an epic fantasy I completed about six years ago and then abandoned. 

Reading, editing, note taking, those things I can do. And I will do them, every morning, no matter what. I will set the alarm, ignore the email, and show up. I will work through the rewrite and hopefully at the end of it, my discipline will have been firmly reestablished and the agony of editing will spur me on to write new fiction again.  This isn’t like a switch that can be flipped. I have a lot of bad habits that need purging and a mushy life that needs firming up. Perhaps you find your self in the same mushy circumstances?

If you don’t have a monster rewrite to work on, journaling, timed-writing, word games; anything that gets your hand moving and your pandemic-fried brain looking the other way will do, as long as you do it, regularly, on schedule, no matter what. Remember, you’re forming a habit that will serve you well no matter what the world throws at us next.