Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Making your script stand out

My former manager told me once that she generally gets 10 queries a day. I know reps who get way more than that, and as you can imagine, most of them are terrible. It's not enough to have a good script, you have to let the person reading your query WANT to read that script. She could be reading 30 queries in a row at the end of a very long day - what makes yours jump out at her?

I have a lot of problems when I write, but this has not been one of them for a very long time. I'm good at getting read. Whether I live up to the read - that's a different issue.

I'm not above providing my own examples, so here's the logline for Nice Girls Don't Kill:  

When a meek and universally abused copy editor is mistaken for the professional killer she accidentally bumped off, she decides to take on this violent new identity until the killer turns out to be not so dead, and very pissed off.

This logline has served me very well. I wish they were all this easy to write, by the way. Usually it takes me ages to figure out the right logline, but this one just poured out. When I'm done sending out queries, I'll post my whole thing.

If you've never read this article by Christopher Lockhart on constructing the perfect logline, read it now. He says it better than I ever could.

Mainly, though, I was thinking about concept. Just yesterday a few writing colleagues were discussing the "hook" in your concept. One of the writers was expressing his frustration with figuring out what a hook is.

A hook is the thing that makes your script sound new - like something I'm going to enjoy as a reader.

One of the writers mentioned the Bourne series. There's been a million assassination movies, but here's one about an assassin with amnesia. And there's your hook.

Of course, you may remind everyone about The Long Kiss Goodnight, which had the same premise, except she also had a husband and kid so it was a slightly different hook.

So here's an example of a generic logline you see over and over:

When a former CIA agent is framed for murder, he must find the killer before he's the next one to end up dead.

I made that logline up, but it's based on a multitude of similar loglines I've seen over the years. We've seen this story. It's old news, and it's the same story half the screenwriters in town are telling.

When you see that logline, who do you picture as the protagonist? A white male, right? Maybe 30s, early 40s? In good health? Well educated? Trained in tactics?

Change some of that.

Three Days of the Condor was about a white man in his 30s in good health, educated, all that, except he was not remotely trained in tactics. The guy reads books for a living. There's your hook.

North by Northwest was about a guy who not only wasn't trained in tactics, but he wasn't trained in anything. He was an advertising exec, for heaven's sake.

Enemy of the State was about a black guy who wasn't trained in anything.

La Femme Nikita was about a female street criminal.

What if your protagonist was deaf? Gay? Fifteen? Ninety? An illegal immigrant? A dog?

Suddenly your story changes and bends and starts to develop a hook. What if your story takes place in an unusual location or during a major event? What if your antagonist is deaf or gay or fifteen or ninety?

You can take a generic idea and fiddle around with the details until what was a boring old idea turns into something any reader would like to see.


  1. Got to hand it you: I've been coming to this site for a few years now and this is, without doubt, the single best post you've ever made.

    Not only did you mention "Condor," which always warms my heart, you got to the bottom of something that's been troubling me for ages - the hook.


  2. Hayawth8:27 AM

    Echoing @sean1 the revelation about Condor was very insightful and really brings forward the "essence" of a hook. I have to confess if I was constructing a logline for Condor I would have ended up going for something fairly generic and not even mentioned the book reader part.

  3. Yay! Every now and then I'm helpful.

  4. Great post, Emily. And thanks!

  5. Anonymous11:16 AM

    I don't know if any of my script stands out but I read some blogs, forums(strangers talking to strangers?) and emailed some script professionals recently... it appears they are repeating themselves... talking and talking about the same shit... At least Emily does not pretend to know it all. Emily, your blog shines with honesty. This is an emotional and selfish business. Thanks Emily.

    What would all these screenwriters do without script consultants, script contests, script forums and script blogs? Honestly Emily - what would they do? For example if there was no Nicholl or PAGE or Scriptapalooza or Trottier or Inktip, Movibytes, John August, Unk, Pitch Fests etc - what would these aspiring screenwriters do?

    To make your script stand out, you got to have the talent. THE TALENT IS IS GIFT. EITHER YOU GOT IT OR YOU DON'T. Just like a song-writer, you cannot learn how to make your song stand out. It stands out by itself. You know, you write the songs, you put a band together and play around North America until someone discovers you. But if you don't have "any paying gigs or local fame/fans on the net", PLEASE JUST PACK IT IT IN. Your script or song will never stand out.

    One script consultant in the Florida area told me that at least 100,000 amateur "script-writers" per year think they can impress a director or producer with their scripts...


  6. Finally got chance to read Lockhart's piece, fabulous, thank you, Emily, and thanks for sharing for your logline savvy, will get put to good use.

  7. Anonymous3:44 PM

    Hey Atlanta and Emily
    Any good logline writers out there?
    Just got a coverage back from this so called super reader and man the logline sucked big time. Like he piled it up using glue and starch. He said he has read for the big fishes, but man, he's logline sucked bananas.


  8. Ixnay on alking-tay about the Three Days Of The Condor. I kinda got that one right here, in my pocket. How is the nicest guy in town? I go back to work in two weeks; we should all go out for Thai Elvis before.


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