Monday, April 28, 2014


I just listened to a pretty right-on lecture about fiction writing by Jenna Blum (The Author at Work: The Art of Writing Fiction), so I’ll share an activity based on something she recommends. I think this can help all creative writers, any age. It’s about writing “log lines.”

For those who dabble in screenwriting, this is probably a known term, but it was new to me. A log line is a one-sentence distillation of a story, and can be a very useful means of getting to the bones of a body of creative writing. Whereas “theme” can usually be expressed in one word or phrase (“making new friends” or “recovery” or “loss”) a good log line includes the protagonist and his/her goal or central conflict. Note that endings (spoilers!) are not included in log lines.

Here’s how this activity might work:

1.     Find a bestsellers list, such as the New York Times “Children’s Best Sellers,” and read all the descriptions for the books there. Some in last week’s NYT—
   “A filthy bird is persuaded to bathe.” (Mo Willems’ The Pigeon Needs a Bath!)
   “A teenager uncovers the mysteries of a village surrounded by a beast-filled forest.” (David Baldacci’s The Finisher.)
   “A girl saves books from Nazi burning.” (Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.)

2. Think about a book or short story you like and know well, and then create a log line for it.
   For Alice in Wonderland that might be: A girl tumbles into an alternate universe and meets many strange characters in her quest to get home.
   For Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak: After a traumatic experience at a summer party, a teenage girl tries to endure her next year of high school while keeping a secret.

3. Now, think about something you’ve written or want to write, and create a log line for it. I’ve done this for two of my books here.
   In letters to her best friend back home, a thirteen-year-old girl describes her progress at accomplishing a list of things she has been dared to do while on a Mediterranean cruise (Four Things My Geeky-Jock-of-a-Best-Friend Must Do in Europe).
   A ten-year-old girl describes her angsts and adventures in a journal she starts to keep after her memory-impaired grandmother moves in with her family (Lucy’s Completely Cool and Totally True E-Journal).

Some writers might find that brainstorming log lines is a good way to get a handle on a story idea before starting to write. Other writers might find it a useful exercise to guide the revision process, particularly after some free writing. (See Jacqueline Jules’ “Transforming a Free Write” for more ideas along thoselines.)

If used in the classroom, this exercise should help meet the requirements of the following Common Core standards:

CCSS.ELA—LITERACY.RL.1.2 thru 11-12.2

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