Tell a Tale with the Impact of a Pistol Shot

The secret of successful writing is being able to take a scene or an entire novel and boil it down to a simple sentence or two.

It sounds like an impossibility.

It’s not.

It is a necessity.

Kris Kristofferson could tell a story in few words.

Once you have an idea for a novel cemented in the back of your mind, you need to sit down and write a log line. That is the theme of the novel all rolled up into a single sentence. It needs to have the impact of a single pistol shot.

Write it.

And don’t every stray from it.

That log line is your beacon to keep you headed in the right direction.

As an example, my log line for Place of Skulls was this: A man with no known name or past battles a rogue CIA agent and the border drug lords of Arizona to uncover a religious artifact that, if proven true, will change the face of Christianity forever.

That’s it.

That’s the whole novel.

My creative non-fiction work, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, had this log line:  A band of men with little expertise and absolutely no business in the oil exploration defied hard ground that was littered with dry holes, shattered hopes, and empty pockets, to discover the second largest oilfield in the United States during the past half century.

And that pretty much summed it up.

Why a log line?

You need one to serve as your own personal compass.

That’s what an agent wants to read whether you send in a query letter or make the pitch in perfect.

That’s the log line the agent will use to try and persuade a publisher that you might indeed have a book worth producing.

And in today’s indie world of independent publishing, the log line becomes the heart and soul of your promotional efforts on Twitter, email, Facebook, and other ever-expanding avenues of promotion, branding, marketing, and sales.

This is the hard truth. If you don’t have a long line, then you don’t have a novel.

I would suggest that writers take a cue from those traditional country songwriters, whether you like the music or not.

Nobody tells a better story in fewer words than a songwriter.

Take Tom T. Hall’s Margie’s At the Lincoln Park Inn. He wrote:

My name’s in the paper

where I took the boy scouts to hike.

My hands are all dirty from working

on my little boy’s bike.

The preacher came by,

and I talked for a minute with him.

My wife’s in the kitchen,

and Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn.

That’s a complete story in eight short lines and only forty-nine words.


Love fading.

Love hurts.

Love cheats.

It is the grand and never-ending story of the human condition, especially in the landscape of literature.

Or how about Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby Mcgee? Kris wrote:

Just outside Salinas, Lord,

I let her slip away,

looking for the home

I hope she finds.

I’d trade all of my tomorrows

for a single yesterday,

holding Bobby’s body next to mine.

Seven lines. Thirty-three words. He said it all.

The image remains sharp in my mind.

I will always feel the heartbreak.

The pain of a man’s loneliness cuts deep.

The story endures forever.



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  • Fascinating post, Caleb! In a sense, you’ve put the world upside down: start with the pitch for your novel (or non fiction) and then write it. Most people first write and polish up their book and only then start thinking about a pitch – or log line, as you put it. So yes, at least for me, you put the world upside down and I have no doubts that it helps maintain the compass and stick to one clear direction as you write…

    I can see that it makes a lot of sense. But I’m afraid I’m a messy thinker. If I have to set myself such a clear goal I don’t think I could ever come up with any sort of creative writing. I often drift, write a lot then throw it away, write some more and then, suddenly, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Things become more visible, they take shape. And as they take shape, I start to massage them, sculpt them. And slowly, slowly, things become recognizable, the novel emerges. But what the novel really is about I shall only know at the very end, when everything has finally emerged from the original morass of my unconscious in its full, flashing shape…Oh well, I guess the world will always be full of very different people. But I do admire your clear-headed method for writing, congrats!

  • Christina Carson

    So clever, like a collage of ideas to support the one fact – if you can’t say it in a sentence, you don’t know what it is. I’ve always worked better under an umbrella of the idea, that topic or sentence that would then guide a story, or a project or that great love.

  • So true. I am inspired and amazed by the gift that songwriters have to boil down a story that sometimes covers a lifetime in just a few lines. Another favorite of mine is “Homecoming” by Tom T. Hall.

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