Dear Doc Turner,

Are story ideas sinking or swimming?

I give up.

I can’t do it.

I’m exhausted.

Why are my story ideas getting shot down?

I consider myself a writer, but putting together a logline has been more frustrating than writing an entire screenplay.

How can a single sentence be so hard to write?

I read up on loglines online and followed all the advice I could get. I’ve tried countless versions, but I don’t like any of them.

There’s just no way to capture my entire screenplay in one sentence.

And when it comes to submitting queries, I’m trying everything to grab readers’ attention, but I keep getting closed out. The thought of actually pitching my idea to a pro and wiping out terrifies me.

Why doesn’t anyone in the industry recognize great story ideas when they are right there in front of them?

Is it them or is it me?

Wiped Out

My Dear W.O.,

I feel your frustration dude, I really do. There’s nothing worse than a gnarly day at the beach, stuck in the froth when you’d rather be in the pipeline, charging for shore.

But here’s the truth: it’s not them.

Evaluating story ideas is what “they” do for a living. It’s either your idea or how you convey it. Ouch!

Sounds as if you’ve taken a pounding. Find professional help from the Big Ideas Free Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down for pro feedback on your logline and your story idea.

So is it your surfboard, or is it your technique? You can figure out if you’re getting worked by a wave because of your story ideas or your presentation.

Take Story Ideas for a Test Drive!

If it’s your story idea that’s causing you to get blown out it’s easy to check it out!

Just as you have people read your script and give you feedback, your logline and short pitch – how you convey your story ideas – deserves the same time and attention.

Will anyone else feel the way you do about your story idea?

If it’s only of interest to you, there is no audience for the movie.

The great thing is that EVERYONE is an expert on movies. Your consumer is literally all around you. Get your feet wet!

Pitch your story idea to your friends, your partner, your writing group, kids – who are brutally honest, strangers in coffee shops who are not in the midst of cranking out their own scripts, someone you meet on a blind date. Not your Mom, because she loves everything you do, sweetie!

Remember, you know the story inside and out. Test your idea out on people who, like its intended recipient, have never read your script or heard a pitch.

You can tell them your logline and a very short pitch – just a few added sentences. Then ask them to tell the story back to you. Did they tell your story?

  • Ask them what the hero is like? What kind of person are they?
  • Ask, “What’s the biggest problem the hero faces? Can they tell you what will happen if the hero fails to conquer that problem?
  • Did they truly want the hero to succeed?
  • Can they tell what audience the movie would appeal to? Kids, teenage girls, young men, women?
  • And here’s the biggie. Ask if they could tell what the movie feels like – it’s genre and tone.
  • Can they tell you honestly if it was a movie they would want to see or not?

It’s okay if it’s not a movie they want to see; not every film appeals to everyone, but they should be able to decide. That’s what your reader will be doing when they decide on your story ideas.

If your Focus Group can’t answer these questions, the readers of your query or industry pros who hear your pitch can’t either.

I advocate taking all your story ideas for test drives before you begin to write. You will commit a ton of time and creative juice – your most important resources – to this idea. Shouldn’t you do some market research first?

If your story idea has passed the Test Drive with flying colors, then it’s time to consider that you might be writing it wrong.

Logline Dos and Don’ts 

Don’t get obliterated by the next big wave. You’re gonna need a great board and some rad pro techniques.

Stop surfing the Internet.

The advice among online writers’ groups is all too often the blind leading the blind. There’s usually a lot of obsessing about word count and, for some reason I don’t understand, commas. Get the real scoop on whether word count counts here.

Please don’t tease!

The short taglines that are used to entice moviegoers into theatres are not enough to entice your reader into asking for your script. They may be pithy, but they don’t tell the story.

Taglines are created by studio marketing departments in hopes of generating buzz. You’re not at that point. Your goal is generating interest in reading your script. For that, you need a real logline.

The iconic, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” is a zinger, but it conveys only the setting and the tone of the movie – it’s gonna be set in space and it’s gonna be scary. The rest of the marketing materials – one sheets, ads and trailers – reveal character and story. (Alien)

Even longer taglines are still just flirting with us. “His passion captivated a woman. His courage inspired a nation. His heart defied a king.” This conveys the epic nature of the story, hints at the plot and the hero, but again, not enough. (Braveheart)

“A lively comedy about a guy who isn’t,” is clever enough to make you think, and then make you smile when you get it. It gets high marks for conveying the tone and the cleverness of the writer, which bodes well for the reading experience. Not clue as to the plot though. (Weekend At Bernie’s)

Save the taglines for the marketers selling your movie. Focus on selling us on reading your script.

There’s no question about questions.

They don’t work.

Well, most of the time they don’t work. I once set up a project at Warner Brothers that began with a question, but immediately gave an answer, and then a full logline, plus a treatment. And it’s a damn good question and answer that tells you a lot about the tone of the movie, fills your mind with possibilities, and makes you want to know more. It’s provocative.

“Where’s the perfect place to bury a dead body? In the past.”

Don’t try this at home, kiddos.

You may be convinced that questions grab interest, but this is just a cousin to the tagline, a teaser not a story. Professionals are starving for stories. That’s how to grab us.

Worse still is trying to engage the reader by putting him in the shoes of the hero, “What would you do if…?” More than ineffective, this makes you look like an amateur. Avoid at all costs.

Don’t Name Names.

Avoid character names in loglines. Unless it’s real people, and then only well known, public figures. If that’s the case, there’s no sense pussyfooting around with the awkward “Thirty-seventh President of The United States, when you can say RICHARD NIXON. When you use a real person, put their names in all caps, as you would do in a script when introducing a character. You might think you need character names to keep your logline clear, but you should be using adjectives to differentiate characters.

Prove you can put together sentence. And a paragraph!

Guess what? Conveying your story ideas in a logline or a query is a writing sample. Your first, best and often only opportunity to show us that you can write. The writing you should be strong and lean. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and clear, communicative writing COUNT! If you can’t write a solid sentence, a perfect paragraph, why would we consider suffering through 110 pages of sloppy writing?

Titles Count!

While not 100% of your grade, titles can boost story ideas, if they are a perfect fit with your concept. Even better, if they have a double meaning. Not a pun, but added significance that becomes clear in the story.

Great titles are like that “Eureka!” moment. Like the perfect wave that gets you all the way to shore, they don’t come along often, but when they do you’re cluing us in to expect a great ride.

Legally Blonde? Genius.

Liar, Liar? Clever, clever. We can hear the childhood taunt in our minds, and know that this is going to be funny.

The Usual Suspects is a perfect fit for the movie, and a clever reference to the classic Casablanca.

What makes these titles terrific? A great title reflects the tone of the movie. A comedy with some humor in the title is sublime.

Don’t be afraid to lean on a working title, as long as you can stay open to other possibilities. Keep brainstorming until you find your “Eureka!” moment.

I hope these tools help you figure out if it’s your story ideas or how you are conveying them that is the cause of your wipeouts.

Time to pick yourself up, grab your board, and get back in the water.

Surf’s up!

Cowabunga dude!

Love You/Mean It, Paige

Got a question for the Good Doctor? Leave it in the comments below and Paige will get back to you.

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