The Smallest, But Most Crucial Part of Your Query

by Laura Drake @PBRWriter

I’m teaching a submissions class for the Lawson Writer’s Academy the whole month of August. I’ll cover a buttload of material, from where to look for agents to email query formatting as well as polishing your query until an agent will need sunglasses just to read it.

But today, I just want to discuss the most critical part of your query—the smallest part—the logline.

Yes, your plot summary is important. So is your bio. As is your greeting (be sure to spell the agent’s name right!)

I love loglines. There’s no better feeling than pulling together words that capture the spirit of your book in a perfect, compelling way.

Have you ever noticed that loglines are only fun to come up with when they’re NOT yours?

There’s a reason for that.

But first, there’s some confusion about taglines vs loglines, so let’s start there.

A tagline is a catchy ‘movie poster’ phrase.
A logline is a 25-word (or so) synopsis of your book.

Examples illustrate the difference clearly:

Jaws –
Tagline – Don’t go in the water.
Logline – After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce. (from J. Gideon Sarentinos)

So WHY is it so hard to write loglines for your own books? You’re too close to it. A logline is a concise, yet sweeping portrayal of your novel’s genre, conflict, characters and emotion. Did I mention in 25 words? Yeah, no pressure.

There are formulas to come up with loglines:

  • At Filmmaking101 Joe Lam says it must have 5 parts: Protagonist, genre, inner conflict, outer conflict, and climax.
  • Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! says: It must contain a type of hero, the antagonist, the hero’s primal goal and it must have irony.
  • Some say, all you need is a character with a goal and a conflict.
    • WHO (character) / WHAT he wants (Goal) / WHY he can’t have it (conflict)
    • Template: “This is the story about a _____ who ________ so ________ only to discover _________

All those work. They’ll give you a perfectly workable logline. A workmanlike logline.

But to me, that’s only a place to start.

THEN you need to add what Margie Lawson calls,

*Sparkle Factor*

Something that make readers say, ‘Ohhhhh…”

  • Use Backloading: If you haven’t yet attended a Margie class (and if not, you seriously need to – trust me) backloading is taking the most important word in your sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter, and placing it at the end.
    • Example: Smoke rolled into the sky, spreading over the dairy like an angry fist.
  • Use Power words: Very simply a word that carries power. In the above example, ‘angry’ and ‘fist’ hold power, because they evoke emotion.
  • Don’t use names: Don’t waste your precious 25 words on names. Use the opportunity to tell us more about the character, with adjectives. Which is more compelling:
    • Lucy Bollingmo – or – A free-spirit debutante with a problem with authority
    • Glitzy McDaniel – or – a rapid cycling bi-polar clown
    • See what I mean?

Logline Examples:

  • A tough principal takes revolutionary measures to clean up a notoriously dangerous inner-city New Jersey high school. Lean on Me
  • A meek and alienated little boy finds a stranded extraterrestrial and has to find the courage to defy authorities to help the alien return to its home planet. ET
  • Naive Joe Buck arrives in New York City to make his fortune as a hustler, but soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with the first scoundrel he falls prey to. Midnight Cowboy
  • In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed. Minority Report
  • A comedic portrayal of a young and broke Shakespeare who falls in love with a woman, inspiring him to write “Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare in Love
  • An archeologist is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. Raiders of the Lost Ark

It could be as simple as an intriguing title. 40 Year Old Virgin – Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out about that?!

It could be the intriguing premise, stated by combining two disparate references:
“Stephanie Plum meets the Underworld” Darynda Jones, First Grave on the Right

Personally, I’m a fan of using an intriguing line from your book. It can be a good intro to your voice.

This is the line I used in my query for my novel, The Sweet Spot:

The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was thankful for the bull semen.

From Her Road Home:

You can’t outrun nightmares on a motorcycle – Samantha Crozier knows because she’s tried.

Get the idea? Seem impossible? It’s not. Think about your book. SOMETHING was intriguing enough about the idea to make you spend months writing it. What was that? What was Different? Fun? Compelling?

If you’d like, post your logline in the comments, and we’ll work together on it!


Laura Drake, Author

Laura Drake, Author

Laura Drake is a New York published author of Women’s Fiction and Romance.

Her romance series, Sweet on a Cowboy, is set in the world of professional bull riding. Her debut, The Sweet Spot, won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award. She also published a four-book small town romance series with Harlequin’s Superomance line. Her latest women’s fiction released January 2016.

Laura is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

Laura began a video blog for writers, answering their burning questions. You can watch all the episodes HERE. If you have a question you’d like her to address in a future episode, leave her a comment!

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17 thoughts on “The Smallest, But Most Crucial Part of Your Query

  1. Help me, help me, help me, Laura. For Hashes & Bashes, the second novel in my Americana fiction series:

    A charismatic outsider visits a small family farm, claiming to be kin. His antics ignite community-wide controversy, yet, in the end he earns his way into all hearts.

    Please and thanks

    1. Hi PJ! Okay a couple questions first. Raising questions in the reader is good, but yours is so cryptic, I’m not sure what’s at stake. And that’s critical. So let me ask some questions:

      ‘outsider’ – only tells me he doesn’t live there. Is he very different than them? Like a charismatic New Yorker – see how that would tell us more about him?

      ‘antics’ – is that good, or bad? Give me an example (may or may not go in the logline) of what he does.

      You’ve told us the end – don’t. A logline is a hook thrown in the water – if we know how it’s going to end, you lower the stakes. You want the reader dying to find out!

      Stakes – what are they? For him, for the family, for the community? Very important, because then we’ll know why we should care.

      If you’ll answer the above, I can help more!

      1. Thanks for your focused questions, Laura. Here’s a second pass:

        A charismatic Californian visits a small family farm, claiming to be kin. His attitudes and actions threaten community equilibrium, upset apple carts. Will things ever be the same again?

        1. Great, Pj – now we know more about him. Upset apple carts is a cliche, and the same as ‘threaten community equalibrium’, so I’d cut it.
          But now the girl is missing. This is a romance, right?
          How about starting with her (just throwing out stuff here)?

          An introverted farmgirl is content, until a charismatic California businessman visits, claiming to be kin. His attitudes and actions threaten community equilibrium, but that’s nothing, compared to what those eyes do to her peace. But can she trust him?

          Okay, that stinks, but hopefully, you can see where I’m going – emotion, setting, stakes and hopefully a bit of your voice, and you’ll have it!

          1. Not a romance – a family dramedy. Third pass (heartened to be enrolled in your class)

            Just as the Breedens regain equilibrium after an aborted RV trip, a charismatic Californian visits their small family farm, claiming to be kin. His attitudes and actions disrupt the community’s status quo. Will order restore? Will anyone want it to?

            Too long, used a name – argh. Thanks for your generosity, Laura!

          2. Pj, I don’t know why there was no ‘reply’ button in your last post, but …. Here’s your current version:

            Just as the Breedens regain equilibrium after an aborted RV trip, a charismatic Californian visits their small family farm, claiming to be kin. His attitudes and actions disrupt the community’s status quo. Will order restore? Will anyone want it to?

            I wouldn’t start a sentence with ‘just’. Why aborted? What happened? Was it funny? Tragic? If it’s important enough to mention, tell us why. Love the next sentence – perfect.
            I get the community staus quo – but how does that relate to the family? Maybe: His attitudes disrupt the family and the community status quo.

            Will order restore? Will anyone want it to?
            Love the second question – perfect. The first one needs work it’s kind of cold – objective. It needs emotion. any ideas?

  2. Coolest blog ever, Laura. Definitely a keeper in my craft folder. I’m grateful for your instruction in past classes (life changers!) and am looking forward to the one next week.

  3. Hi Laura, this is so cool. And thanks for being willing to help. This is from the novel I was working on during your course. It’s blah and needs some sparkle.

    Darcey bet her secrets, and a serious case of imposter’s syndrome, would shield her from love; yet, Archie’s smile can still pierce her heart.

  4. HI Patty! *waves from Texas*

    Okay, let’s work.

    First, names. Trust me, don’t waste two of your twenty five words on them. Who is Darcey? A Teen? a divorcee? a CPA? See how we know nothing about her? If we don’t, we don’t care. Make me care! Tell me something about her.
    Same with Archie.
    ‘still’ – did she know him before?
    See how we don’t know much – except she has secrets, and self esteem issues, and he’s irresistible.

    Tell us what’s unique about your story, and we’ll weave it in.

  5. Perfect. Thanks so much. Will reply in case it helps others figure theirs too. And thanks! *waves from Arizona*

    Darcey- PhD student, art history major, insecure, poor, harboring a personal secret
    Archie- law student, rich, best friend since they were 16 (both are in late 20s). Holds the “key” to the story (also full of secrets) of his artist grandmother, whom Darcey can write about to finally graduate. Their story is split-time with the artist’s story in 1920s Brazil.

    I knew I was breaking the name rule but didn’t know what to do since description would eat up several of the 25 crucial words. This isn’t easy, is it?

    1. Patty, nope, not easy, but SO worth it, when you nail it! But the names use up words, without telling us anything! Okay, I’m just pulling this from what you told me so far, and this might suck, but here goes:

      A broke art history grad student with secrets and self-esteem issues needs details to finish her thesis. Details held by her rich law student best friend, about his artist grandmother. Could he hold the key, not only to her thesis, but her secret and her heart?

  6. You know I love the work that you do, and I hadn’t written a logline for my current WIP so this was a great excuse.

    Juniper Walsh (June, please) knows how to manipulate the power of her nursery to help most everyone heal from most everything, except for herself.

  7. Tasha, you’ve made me break my name rule, with your great name! But the premise still holds – I need to know more about her. Broken heart? Disillusioned? Running from her past? Make me care!

    Then – nursery, as in plants? Or kids? See how we can’t tell?

    I’d just leave it at ‘heal’ (most everything is implied, and a waste of two words!

    I assume her arc is to heal? How? You need to give us a hint.

    Post your next version – I’ll answer until they cut me off!

  8. Damn it, Laura! You make writing seem so easy….But this is wonderful advice. I am in the process of querying and this just came up. The form (yes, more agents are doing this now!) asked for a logline. Yes, in less than 25 words they wanted to know about my book. Where were you yesterday!!!! Now, I know. I will move forward with your almighty knowledge. Thank you.

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