With Day 2 of @TivLitFest underway now, I thought I’d share an excerpt from my latest book, Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays where I look at drama screenplay loglines with reference to one of my favourite dramas Blue Valentine (2010). Enjoy!
Loglines are always difficult to write, but especially so for drama screenplays because too often they seem too ‘small’ at best and horribly depressing at worst, meaning they’re an extremely hard sell in terms of grabbing someone’s attention.
Considering Blue Valentine (2010), check out this logline, which I found on a film review site:
The film depicts a married couple, Dean and Cindy, shifting back and forth in time between their courtship and the dissolution of their marriage several years later. (27 words)
If I heard this pitch at London Screenwriters’ Festival, or received it via email? I would probably NOT request the screenplay. It’s not the worst logline I’ve ever read, but it does very little to sell the film ‘off the page’ to me… And yet I love Blue Valentine! So let’s rewrite it.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Blue Valentine is the fact it’s non-linear: the marriage breakdown is set in ‘the present’ and contrasted with the hopeful burgeoning of romance back in ‘the past’. Yet crucially, the beginnings of Dean and Cindy’s love is not all ‘moonlight and roses’: Cindy is pregnant by a musclehead jock at her university and almost goes through with an abortion she doesn’t want; similarly, the jock beats on Dean for daring to ‘steal’ his woman.
What’s more, both Cindy and Dean are flawed, troubled individuals with lots of emotional baggage of their own, plus they’re from two very different backgrounds. We know relatively little about Dean, other than that he is (we assume) a badly educated, blue-collar worker, with relatively few aspirations. In comparison, Cindy is a high achiever, desperate for something ‘more’ in her life. Having yearned to be a doctor, she ends up making do instead with being a sonographer, her ambitions cut short by marrying Dean so young (rather than having daughter Frankie, a clever reversal of expectation here).
It’s Dean, not the baby, who becomes a millstone around Cindy’s neck: there’s a brilliant scene in which Cindy says Dean has ‘so much potential’, but she’s describing herself and her own clipped wings more than she is him and his job painting houses. Dean takes her and his family for granted: he ‘rescued’ Cindy from the jock and from her own belief she was not lovable – it doesn’t get any better, right?
And for Cindy it quite literally doesn’t … which is why she grows to hate Dean, a real modern tragedy that so many in the audience can relate to.
So, thinking about all of this, the words that pop out at me are: non-linear… love… married couple… hate… tragedy. So here’s my rewritten logline:
A non-linear tragedy, in which a young couple‘s marriage breakdown is contrast against the heady early days of their relationship, yet because of their very different outlooks and backgrounds, plus despite both their good intentions, love soon turns to hate. (40 words)
I believe this is a much better pitch for Blue Valentine because it illustrates both its method of storytelling (non-linear) and the characters’ arcs within it.
Whilst some people might be of the view this story sounds ‘depressing’ due to the ‘love turns to hate’ aspect, it’s important to remember hate is an active state of being, just as love is (hence there being a ‘thin line’ between them), plus Blue Valentine does not have a ‘happy ever after’, so to leave out ‘love turns to hate’ or the word ‘tragedy’ could be viewed as disingenuous.
Remember, we are MEANT to be devastated by that ending, by Dean walking off into the distance, by Frankie’s calls after him; the writer leads us to believe the situation might be salvaged right till the last possible second. My tears were what the writer and filmmaker wanted, but crucially I wasn’t depressed by that ending: I found it cathartic. I was remembering the various break-ups and near break-ups I’ve had, but also thinking of how, although it might have seemed like the end of the world at the time, everything had turned out okay in the end. And that is the true power of a good drama screenplay. In crafting your OWN drama screenplay logline, consider the following:
1) What type of drama is this? If drama is ‘everything else’ that doesn’t come under the banner of high-concept, event-driven genre film, then you need to give a nod to what type of drama story you’re telling. In the case of Blue Valentine, I needed to mention it is non-linear and deals with contrast (i.e. good to bad times), but if yours is a true story, mockumentary or whimsical dramedy, why not give an indication of this in your logline?
2) Who are my characters? Remember, your characters are undergoing something deeply personal and your conflict is likely to be internal, rather than external. But DON’T fall back on cliché, whatever you do! Look at my logline for Blue Valentine again: I describe their issues as being differing ‘outlooks and backgrounds’, but crucially I also draw attention to the fact that we are supposed to sympathise with them BOTH, not one over the other, with ‘despite both their good intentions’.
If you’re used to writing loglines for genre films, then you’ll likely know ‘the shorter the better’ is the ideal, something in the region of twenty-five words. Drama loglines are typically longer, since they need to be ‘character-led’, like the stories they represent. The ideal in my opinion is 35 to 40 words, though there are always exceptions: true stories lend themselves pretty well to shorter loglines, I find.
3) What emotional response do I want from my audience and how will I go about it? Blue Valentine is a tragedy; we’re supposed to be devastated by its conclusion and wish it could be different for Dean and Cindy. But including ‘the heady early days of their relationship’ hints that Blue Valentine will not be a feature-length miseryfest, as does ‘their good intentions’. There are moments of humour and warmth to the movie, such as when Dean quizzes Cindy when he first meets her, or when she dances to his ukulele and terrible singing in the doorway. Most importantly, it’s these moments that make us wish it could have worked out for them.
Love it or hate it, Blue Valentine is a masterclass in devastating drama BECAUSE of light and shade, not in spite of it.
Drama screenplays can be difficult to write and even harder to sell … Yet dramas can offer the most emotional journeys for their writers, makers AND audiences! I look at a selection of produced films to help you wring the most drama out of your short, feature or TV pilot without falling back on ‘the usual’ or clichéd characters and tropes. BUY IT NOW.
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