How to Craft the Perfect TV Series Logline

By August 18, 2020Blog, Featured

Is there a difference between writing a logline for a feature screenplay and crafting one for a television series?

The simple answer is — Yes.

It’s a subtle difference, but one that can significantly benefit the logline of your TV series pitch.

Before we dive in, be sure to mark your calendar for the upcoming deadline for our ScreenCraft TV Pilot Screenplay Competition.

Loglines hold much power in Hollywood because they represent the first contact an agent, manager, development executive, producer, director, and actor has with a screenplay that is under consideration.

Those 25-50 words found within your logline encapsulate what you — the screenwriter — are trying to sell to production companies, studios, networks, and streamers. It is the core of your concept, and the introduction of the character arc your protagonist(s) will face.

Unfortunately, not every screenplay can or will be read by every major decision-maker in the film and television industry — it’s impossible.

And even when your scripts go through the Hollywood filtration system of script coverage, where script readers (professional readers, assistants, and interns) are tasked with reading incoming submissions, not every coverage synopsis of those screenplays can be read either.

There are just too many screenplays and TV pilots out there.

Only the top tier of submissions are passed up to the industry power players — those deemed worthy by receiving the coveted Recommend label from script readers.

But the logline can be a powerful tool to supersede that hierarchical process. And that is why it is such a vital element of your TV show pitch.

A strong logline can force an industry power player to take notice. When they are tasked with deciding which coverage to actually read, the logline is the first connection they’ll have with your series.

But what’s the difference between writing a movie logline and a TV series logline?

Logline Basics

Before we get into the subtle but essential differences between feature script loglines and TV series loglines, let’s recap what goes into writing an effective logline.

You first have to take the weight off of your shoulders, in regards to the false notion that you have to tell your whole story within one or two sentences. That’s not what is expected of you as a screenwriter.

Anything not central to the core concept of the story — as well as the core character arc introduction of the protagonist(s) — shouldn’t be present. And as you draft different versions of your logline to see what verbiage flows and communicates best, remember to avoid elements of supporting characters, B stories, C stories, twists, turns, and reveals.

Save all of that for your TV series pitch bible.

Read ScreenCraft’s How to Sell Your TV Series the Stranger Things Way!

Start with a General Logline Structure

To get a feel for how a logline should read, start with a basic structure.

  • When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS]…
  • A [CHARACTER TYPE]…
  • Must [OBJECTIVE]…
  • Before [STAKES].

When a financial adviser realizes his family’s lives are in danger, he must drag them from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks to appease his client, a drug cartel boss, by laundering $500 million in five years before they are deemed a useless liability to the cartel.

This, along with other variances, is the basic logline formula that can help get you started. But this isn’t a formula where you simply fill in the blanks and create a compelling logline. It simply allows you to identify the inciting incident/major conflict, the protagonist(s), the goal they have within the story, and the main stakes.

When you have that first draft of your logline, now it’s about tweaking the verbiage and structure to make it as short, sweet, to the point as possible — leaving the reader wanting more.

A financial adviser drags his family from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks, where he must launder $500 million in five years to appease a drug boss.

Stay Within 25-50 Words

Less is always more. You’ll want to stick to as close to twenty-five words as you possibly can. Accomplishing this will take time to master, but once you begin to identify the core elements of your logline, it’ll be easier to carve those words away.

The first Ozark logline draft took a lofty 46 words to convey the basic structure.

The official logline of the TV series — the second example above — was trimmed down to a lean 26 words.

Writing the most effective logline is all about trial and error.

Start with the basic structure to identify the elements within your concept that you need to share. Then tweak what you have by shifting the placement of those elements within the structure of the sentence.

Write ten, twenty, or thirty versions of the same logline, then review them all and create hybrids of certain ones that stand out most. You’ll often find that two or three versions have elements that you can combine to create the most effective logline.

The TV Series Elements

So you have the basic directives and structure necessary to write an effective logline. Now, what is this business about TV series loglines being different than feature screenplay loglines?

It’s relatively simple — Compelling Characters and Intriguing Worlds.

These are the two elements that create the most buzzworthy TV pilots.

While concept is everything for most major movies in Hollywood, a TV series is a different beast to tackle.

Concept Isn’t Everything in Television

In television, concept changes per season. In the first season of Ozark, the concept was about a wealthy Chicago suburban family being forced to leave everything they know to escape to the strange world of the Missouri Ozarks. To position themselves as necessary entities within the eyes of the drug cartel their company partners stole money from, they create a plot to launder $500 million of the cartel’s money safely.

However, the core concept of the series changes in season two. Now the family has embedded themselves within the Ozarks as regular figures but now must juggle the demands of the cartel with those of a powerful local criminal family.

And that is the significant difference between a movie and a TV series.

A film embraces the core concept and delivers on it throughout the course of a two-hour running time.

A TV series builds on the initial season’s core concept through each season. The concept evolves.

So with a TV series logline, concept isn’t as important. Instead, compelling characters and the intriguing worlds they exist within are the driving factors of the logline.

Compelling Characters

Walter White, June Osborne, Rick Grimes, Don Draper, Michael Scott, Tony Soprano, and Marty Byrde are the reasons why audiences binge the series they are featured within.

The best TV series protagonists are flawed and conflicted. They’re dealing with both internal and external conflict — even in a comedy series. That is what makes them so compelling.

And, yes, you can also accomplish this with an ensemble cast as well.

We’ve seen fantastic multi-layered character arcs and journeys in iconic series like This Is Us, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Lost, ER, and even through sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory.

When you’re dealing with multiple characters that share the spotlight of the story in any given episode,  the trick to making those dynamics compelling is to play with the differences between all of the characters. This can be accomplished with both dramatic and comedic results.

So when you’re developing your TV series, make sure you’re choosing either a single compelling character or a cast of characters that are flawed and conflicted.

And with your TV series logline, you want to feature those character dynamics as best as you can.

Intriguing Worlds

The second element that should be found within your TV series logline is the intriguing world that you’re placing your compelling characters within.

The clash between wealth and backwoods justice in the Ozarks, the Mafia, meth-dealing, a totalitarian society where women are property, a zombie apocalypse,  60s-era advertising, office life, a deluxe apartment in the sky — these are the worlds that are brilliantly matched with compelling characters.

HBO started the trend of focusing less on concept-driven shows, and instead finding worlds that would be intriguing to audiences.

The Sopranos (Mafia), Entourage (Hollywood A-list life), Barry (Struggling actors in Hollywood), Ballers (NFL superstar life), and Silicon Valley (Tech Industry).

Netflix (other streamers) started to do the same with Orange Is the New Black (Women’s Prison), Narcos (Drug Cartels), Glow (Women’s Professional Wrestling circa the 1980s), and Ozark (the Missouri Ozarks), among many others.

What is the world of your TV series?

This lesson may go hand-in-hand with developing a series that has a better chance of attracting producers, networks, streamers, and production companies.

If you have an intriguing world on display for your TV series, it needs to be featured within the logline.

TV Series Logline Examples

Featuring the compelling characters and intriguing worlds found within your TV series is a must. It can often be done with a single word or phrase, especially since you need to keep these loglines as short and sweet as possible.

Some TV series will center more on the compelling character(s) while others focus more on the intriguing world. Your loglines can reflect that balance and focus.

Here we feature loglines for some of the best shows of today and yesteryear. Use them as examples of focus, wordplay, and structure that you can utilize for your own TV series loglines.

Ozark

A financial adviser drags his family from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks, where he must launder $500 million in five years to appease a drug boss.

Black-ish

A family man struggles to gain a sense of cultural identity while raising his kids in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood.

The Morning Show

An inside look at the lives of the people who help America wake up in the morning, exploring the unique challenges faced by the men and women who carry out this daily televised ritual.

The Mandalorian 

The travels of a mysterious lone bounty hunter in the outer reaches of the galaxy as he risks his life to protect a powerful child wanted by the remnants of the Galactic Empire. 

Sopranos

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling.

Game of Thrones

Nine noble families fight for control over the lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for millennia.

Orange Is the New Black

Convicted of a decade-old crime of transporting drug money to an ex-girlfriend, normally law-abiding woman is sentenced to a year and a half behind bars to face the reality of how life-changing prison can really be.

The Kominsky Method

An aging actor, who long ago enjoyed a brush with fame, makes his living as an acting coach.

Mad Men

A mysterious but extremely talented ad executive at New York’s most prestigious ad agency during the beginning of the 1960s battles his demons and struggles to stay at the top of the ultra-competitive advertising industry.

Glow

A look at the personal and professional lives of a group of women who perform for a wrestling organization in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

Breaking Bad

A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future.

Barry

A hitman from the Midwest moves to Los Angeles and gets caught up in the city’s theatre arts scene.

Ballers

A retired NFL legend addicted to pain killers finds his post-career place in his beloved sport while maneuvering through groups of football players and their families, friends, and handlers.

The Handmaid’s Tale

A woman torn away from her husband and daughter is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship in a near-future dystopian society. 

Schitt’s Creek

When wealthy video-store magnate Johnny Rose and his family suddenly find themselves broke, they are forced to leave their pampered lives to regroup in Schitt’s Creek.

This Is Us

A heartwarming and emotional story set in the multiple timelines of a family centered around a unique set of triplets, their struggles, and their wonderful parents.

Read ScreenCraft’s 101 Best Movie Loglines Screenwriters Can Learn From!


Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies


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