On the difference between being fat and being big-boned

Yesterday's logline, To Live For, is big. Like, really big. Still technically only two sentences, but they're long ones, and at least one of them is kind of a run-on. I try to keep my loglines short; the vast majority are only two or three lines (on my screen, as things are currently formatted), but there are the occasional four-liners. I think a six-liner - like To Live For - is unprecedented, though. 

What gives? Did I just get lazy that day?

It's true, that is often the case for my longer loglines. Technically it's not laziness, but occasionally I'll have been working on a logline for half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, and I've got other things to do, so I just have to make do with one that's too long or has too much unnecessary information. 

But that's not the case for To Live For. It's just a big logline, and I can't make it any shorter without making it worse. It's not bloated. It's just big.

So what's the difference? How do I tell when a logline should be shorter, and when it's okay for it to stay big? 

A logline isn't supposed to tell you an entire story. It just nods its head towards a story and winks suggestively. Sometimes, the story is around a corner, and instead of nodding its head, the logline has to point. And then rarely, the story is a couple blocks away, and the logline has to give you directions on how to get there. 

Let's look at a couple loglines, and see what's happening. First a good example; the favorite from a few weeks ago was The Servant Queen:
After a violent coup, a young crown princess pretends to be a servant to escape notice as she plots her return to the throne.

That's a pretty tight logline. Very few adjectives, and no adverbs - those are generally pretty prevalent in a bloated logline. The few adjectives there are give you a better picture of the situation, such that without them, things seem less pressing or dangerous. Specifically, if you cut "violent" from "violent coup," the princess's situation doesn't come across as half as dire. And the "young" in "young crown princess" gives us an idea of the odds stacked against her; if she weren't young, you'd assume she'd have contacts and allies that could aid her. 

Not that being short is inherently good; this logline isn't good just because it's short. The second question you need to ask (after, "Are there any words I can shorten or cut?") is, "What can I add that could improve the story?" And the answer here is, again, not very much. We know who the protagonist is, we know what she's up against, and we know why it'll be difficult - even dangerous. There's not much more you can ask from the phrasing.

Note that all this is ignoring the possibility that the story in the logline sucks, because we're not talking about that here. If that's your problem, it doesn't matter how bloated or tight your logline is.

So if that's an example of a tight logline, what does a bloated one look like? Unfortunately, I have an example for that, too. Villain:
A superheroine is very careful about fighting crime within the law, and is dedicated to keeping her identity secret so that nobody comes after her family. But when her husband and children are discovered and murdered by her arch-nemesis, she chucks the rules out the window and embarks on a campaign of revenge.

Have I really improved this much in such a short period of time? Or, more frightening - am I still writing loglines like this? 

We have a handful of adjectives here, and even an adverb (adverbs are very bad). The adverb is just completely unnecessary; if we cut "very," the logline loses nothing. The adjectives are hidden behind some "is" verbs, but are, mostly, equally unnecessary. What's the difference between "is very careful about fighting crime within the law," and "fights crime within the law?" Answer: four words. 

Yeah, that makes the rest of the sentence a little awkward, but that's okay, because the whole thing needs reworking. "A superheroine is very careful about fighting crime within the law, and is dedicated to keeping her identity secret so that nobody comes after her family," should really be more along the lines of, "A superheroine fights crime within the law, and keeps her identity secret to protect her family." 

It's not a big difference, but that's the point. It's not a big difference at all, and yet we just cut the sentence from 26 words to 16. And that's just the first sentence.

The second sentence is better on the adjectives front, but it's still needlessly wordy. Do you know what "she chucks the rules out the window and" adds to it? Absolutely nothing. We can ditch that completely. "her husband and children are discovered and murdered" could easily be "her family is murdered." The only wordiness I'll allow is "embarks on a campaign of revenge," because "seeks revenge," while shorter, loses a lot of the dedication and extent of a full campaign of revenge - to the point where it doesn't even seem to conflict with her fighting within the law.

So our finished logline should be something along the lines of:
A superheroine fights crime within the law, and keeps her identity secret to protect her family. But when her family is murdered by her arch-nemesis, she embarks on a campaign of revenge.

It's still not perfect or anything, and in fact, could maybe do with a little more details. But not any of the details we cut; those didn't add anything that we don't still have here. All they really did was disguise the fact that this logline needed more information. 

So now we'll return to the logline that spawned all this.

To Live For:
When her best friend, boyfriend, and twin sister all die in a car accident, an accomplished high school student joins a suicide club, and goes on a camping trip with them. Though the original intent is to jump off of a cliff after a weekend of relaxation, when she finds out the relatively petty reasons some of them want to kill themselves, she tries to convince the other members of the group that they should live - without convincing herself of the same thing.

First we look at our adjectives and adverbs. We do indeed have an adverb: "relatively." I want to say it's important, but really, it's not - I think it's kind of implied by the story up until then. So we can cut that one (see? Adverbs are always bad). 

"Accomplished" is barely an adjective here; it's functioning more like a noun. "High school student" is so broad as to be useless without some additional descriptor; an "accomplished high school student," though, immediately rules out dozens of cliques and tropes, and implies a couple more. No, the only problem with "accomplished" is that a different adjective might work better. "Overachieving," for example. But some sort of adjective there is important.

"Original" could be cut from "intent" if you really wanted to, but it makes the rest of the sentence structure a little awkward and stilted, so it stays. "After a weekend of relaxation" is very different than "at the end of the trip;" again, you could switch it if you really wanted to, but it's not actually much shorter (it actually has an additional word), and because the message it conveys is different, it's not just better to be shorter. 

And then "petty" is key to the entire thing; with that one word, we understand her entire motivation for trying to save everyone. Could you cut the word and still have it be a solid logline? Yes. But to me, that one word is the difference between the logline having a plot, and the logline having a story. Maybe you'd cut it, but for me, it stays.

So other than adjectives, what wordiness can we slim down? Spelling out exactly who died in what kind of accident seems like bloat, but "her friends and sister die in an accident" is very different and doesn't get across the level of attachment and meaning for the friends and sister. Plus, an "accident" doesn't have the capricious implications of "car accident," even if it is still an accident. 

"The petty reasons some of them want to kill themselves," could easily be, "their petty reasons for wanting to kill themselves," and that makes it clear she wants to stop everyone, not just some of them. Really, if we're leaving it the first way, it should still at least be "petty reasons they want to kill themselves."

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It's a big logline, but there's not much you can remove without changing what it is - mostly for the worse. 

So to answer the original question: how do you tell when it's bloated, and when it's just big? By trying to cut it down, I guess? And just seeing if that makes it worse? Man, I really should've figured out how I'd answer that before asking it.

Whatever, man, I'm still figuring it out myself. Hopefully this helps you do the same.

 - Teddy