The number one reason why most story ideas, loglines (and consequently scripts) fail is simply because the stakes aren’t high enough.
In other words, it’s not clear enough what the protagonist is struggling against or what they stand to lose if they fail in their quest.
Here are a couple of stakes-free loglines by way of example:
“A rich woman loses her fortune and must come up with a way to get it all back.”
“A handsome college football player must juggle competing in the playoffs with the attention of two beautiful girls.”
“A retired FBI agent decides to track down his former partner and finally get the truth as to why he dislikes Chinese food.”
It’s pretty obvious that the “meat” of each of these loglines is missing. No one will care about these ideas because no one will care if the protagonist succeeds or fails to achieve their goals.
This is why it’s super important to bulletproof a story idea before committing to the actual script. It can save months and months of rewrites.
Luckily there’s a bulletproof technique you can use to make sure that every story idea you write has stakes attached, is conflict rich and, therefore, stands a better chance of grabbing the attention of managers, execs, and producers.
Give Your Story “Death Stakes”
Unlike the examples above, all great story ideas have high stakes attached—usually because they are in some way about death. (You might call them “death stakes.”)
Make your idea about death and it will automatically have high stakes attached.
In other words, how is the protagonist risking either literal or figurative death in the story? How will they die if they don’t achieve their goal?
This can be either a literal death (the bad guys will kill him) or a figurative death (e.g. she’ll lose the love of her life).
And the logline must clearly convey these death stakes in order for it to work.
The Three-Way Triangle of Conflict
A film or TV show can be thought of as a three-way struggle for power between the protagonist and antagonist over something at stake (often personified in a stakes character).
The trick is to set up this three-way triangle of conflict in your logline by clearly showing what the protagonist is struggling against and what death stakes are attached.
Here’s a simple template you can use when crafting a logline:
Protagonist + Struggle with Antagonist + Death Stakes
And here are a few examples of three-way triangles of conflict in successful movies from different genres:
Following the death of his brother, a depressed uncle [protagonist] must confront his horrific past [figurative death stakes] when he returns to his hometown as sole guardian of his nephew [struggle with antagonist].
- Manchester By The Sea
A former CIA agent [protagonist] must rely on his old skills to save his estranged daughter [literal death stakes] who has been kidnapped by sex traffickers while on a trip to Paris [struggle with antagonist].
A down on her luck pastry chef [protagonist] finds herself drawn into a competition between herself as the maid of honor and a bridesmaid [struggle with antagonist] over who is the bride’s best friend [figurative death stakes].
When three film students [protagonists] venture into a Maryland forest in order to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, they realize it might be true [struggle with antagonist] and must fight to escape the forest alive [literal death stakes].
- The Blair Witch Project
If you suspect that your logline might not be as strong as it can be, it’s usually because one of the three elements from the triangle of conflict is missing.
You may have a protagonist, but is the antagonist clear? If so, is the struggle with them apparent? And what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t beat the antagonist?
This should be either their literal death if it’s an action/adventure, thriller, or horror. Or their figurative death if it’s a drama or comedy.
Use this three-way triangle of conflict to give a sense of the pressure your antagonist is going to put your protagonist under and why we should care and you’ll be well on your way to nailing a bulletproof story idea and logline.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.