One-Sentence Outlining: Iron Man On Log-Lines

All right, listen up. We're talking outlining. But none of that "write out your entire plot" stuff. Pantsers, rejoice. I'm about to tell you how to plan your entire novel in a sentence.

My friends, let's talk log-lines. (I realise I've dedicated an astonishingly long post to a topic that's about something very short. More bang for your buck, that's me. No, Steve, buck. Not Bucky. Sheesh. Do you ever shut up about him? I GET IT. HE HAS A METAL ARM. Now go away, I'm trying to write a blog post.)

For those who aren't aware, a log-line is a one-sentence summary of your novel. A pitch. Something that, if you found yourself in conversation with an agent in an elevator, you'd whip out to prove to them that you know exactly what you're writing and doesn't that mean they should be interested? (Please don't do this if the agent in question does not want to be propositioned in an elevator. If they've indicated that they're open to it, though...)

You need a log-line so the people you're talking to
don't start actively napping while you're talking.
Log-lines are also super useful during NaNoWriMo for a non-plotting reason. At every write-in, on every forum thread, and every time you tell anybody what you're trying to do for the whole of November, you'll get asked, "So what are you writing?"

Your friend is busy. They may well be writing their own novel. So they don't want to hear, "Oh, well, there's this girl, y'know, and she's special, because she's secretly a cyborg. Only she's not aware of that, because all the electronics are inside her. Anyway. So she hasn't figured that out yet, but everyone else has, and they're hunting her down as a result. But you see, it's complicated, because there's this guy, and she's not sure if she likes him, and ...." [Half an hour later] "Anyway, that's pretty much it. Except I didn't tell you about the elf subplot..."
damn it Banner
 Don't. Just don't.

So log-lines are pretty handy under those circumstances, but they're crucial to outlining. If you can't summarise your novel in one sentence (or three, take three), you probably don't really know what it's about. Which means it's going to be a structural mess, with no underlying plot, a confused goal, and rubbish pacing. Sorry, dude. That's how it is.

I'm going to use the log-line I wrote for my 2012 NaNo novel here, just to give you some examples. But first we're going to break it down, so that you can see how it's formed.

Things your log-line should tell us:

Your main character(s). It doesn't necessarily need to include their names, but we need to know who this story is about. So my log-line started with "two girls and an angel". You might have "a sixteen-year-old girl" or "a chemistry teacher".

Then -- what's the main obstacle here? What are they struggling against? In this example, my next words were "travel ten thousand miles". Ten thousand miles is a long way, especially in Russia before the Trans-Siberian Railway was built (which was when this novel was set). I mean, it also suggests they got a bit lost, because the journey shouldn't actually have been that long, but...

What the log-line tells me is that in order to achieve their goals, the characters have to overcome an obstacle: distance, and the dangers associated with travelling. It doesn't have to be quite so physical an obstacle. You might have "battling depression" or "with memory loss" or something, since those are still standing in the character's way.
Next, their active goal. THIS IS CRUCIAL. You must know what their active goal is. DO NOT PROCEED WITHOUT KNOWING THIS. Have I emphasised this enough? In my log-line, the next words were "to destroy a weapon". This is an active goal. There is a weapon, it must be destroyed. Active goals will drive everything throughout the novel. The decisions the characters make. The relationships they form. The places they go. These characters are motivated because they know they must destroy this weapon.

Side note: if you have an ensemble cast, it can occasionally be difficult to figure out who the protagonist actually is, especially if there are a number of characters working towards the same goal. What you need to do here is look at their motivations. They all want to destroy a weapon, but why? Who has the most to gain and the most to lose? Who wants it more than the others? That's your protagonist.

Make sure this is an active goal. "Staying alive" is important to everyone, and "keeping hidden" is also good when someone's on your tail. But these are much more passive goals. They're a state of continuation. Active goals are something a character is working towards, not something they've already managed. To stay alive, they may need to "kill the bounty-hunter on their trail", and that's their active goal. Staying alive is the result of the active goal.

Then we need to know what the stakes are. Is there a time limit? What happens if they fail to achieve this goal? Who or what will they lose? This adds drama, but it also makes the central conflict or threat within the novel clearer to you, the writer. In my log-line, that was "before demonic forces use it to open hell and trigger the apocalypse". You'll often see the word 'before' at this point in the logline.

And there are the stakes. Right there.*
 Notice that I also included the main antagonist here. "Demonic forces." It's a bit vague, because I'd say the antagonists were the weakest point of this novel. I've already written it, so I know that, but the fact that I can see it from the log-line means I should have known to work on it originally. But I thought I could make it work. Because I'm Tony Stark and I can do that kind of thing. Apparently novel structure doesn't care who you are.

Let's have some made-up loglines based on some of my examples above.

A sixteen-year-old girl with memory loss must kill the bounty-hunter on her trail before they capture her for crimes she doesn't remember committing. 

The protagonist is a girl, sixteen, suffering memory loss. That intrigues the reader: why? What happened to her? There's a bounty hunter on her trail. There's the antagonist right there, and we can see the protag's active goal. We also see that she's got something major to lose: her freedom.

Optional extras include setting, if you want to clarify things, but for the purposes of outlining that's less crucial. For pitching, you may want to include it. My log-line would have been "In the late nineteenth century, two girls and an angel travel ten thousand miles across Russia to destroy a weapon before it demonic forces use it to open hell and trigger the apocalypse". But when I was outlining, I knew where they were, so I didn't need to include that.

Knowing what your character is trying to do and what they've got to lose will help a huge amount with your plot, especially when you're pantsing the novel. You may reach a turning point and think, "What would my character actually do here?" If you make the wrong decision, it may throw your entire plot off-course. So look back at what their active goal is. Will this decision help them, or will it make things harder? That should show you exactly how to proceed.

It can also help whenever you feel like you're drifting away from the core ideas of the novel. Write that log-line and stick it on the wall above your desk, or on your laptop, or somewhere you will see it every day during the writing process. Every time you see it, you're asking yourself the question: what am I writing about?

That's what you're writing about. That's your plot right there in a single sentence. It's your characters (good and bad guys), your main plotline or active goal, and the stakes. Everything a reader would need to know about that book.

And it's going to make it a whole lot easier when you're at a write-in and someone says, "So, what are you writing this November?"

-- Iron Man

Bonus fact for those who stuck with this epically long post until the end: the URL of this post ends with "iron-man-on-log". Enjoy that mental image for a while. 

*Pretty sure Pepper's gonna stake me in a minute.


  1. Hmmm... let's see...
    "An amnesiac journalist investigates seemingly unrelated murders, only to wonder: What if the murderer is him?"
    Hey! Nice! I'll just c&p this whenever people ask me what I'm writing. ;-P On the other hand, amnesia seems really popular as a plot point of convenience...?
    Also, why do you and Captain America always pick on each other???

    1. I wouldn't say we pick on each other. Friendly banter, right, Capsicle? (But, like, he's old enough to be my father. DUDE.)