A Story in Six Words
This is a story about A Story In Six Words that will take a lot more than six words to tell. It all started back in 2012 with this bromide about loglines by Max Millimeter: Hollywood Movie Producer Extraordinaire:
Okay, here’s the deal with loglines. There is nothing more important than getting my fucking attention. And by ‘my,’ I mean everybody who’s anybody in Hollywood. We’re all of us so damn busy. Think L.A. is laid back? Wrong! It’s breakfasts, calls, meetings, lunch, meetings, more calls, drinks, screenings, even more goddammed calls. Like when you look at me, and you think you see me, you don’t see shit. ‘Coz while on the outside, it may look like I’m looking at you, inside my mind’s a blur, okay? I mean I can sit there with my eyes wide open locked on you, nodding my head, smiling every so often like I’m hanging on your every word, and the whole time, my mind is off in West Covina somewhere, thinking about that shitty draft a writer just turned in or how my Amgen stock is doing or whether a goddammed recorder can actually record without a goddammed tape.
So get my attention. That’s the name of the game. And when it comes to loglines, that should be the name of your game.
It’s like baseball. You’re the pitcher, right? Get it, you’re pitching me, right? And I’m the batter. So I go through all that crap a batter does, you know, rubbing my hands together, messing with the bat, tugging at my crotch, the whole nine yards. Finally I step into the box. I’m looking at you, okay. You see me looking at you, but for all you know, I may be in Amgen city.
Whaddya do? I’ll tell ya’ what you do. You give me the high heat, right at my chin. Up and in, one hundred miles an hour, go head hunting with a bullet. Boom! I hit the dirt, okay. Now you got my fucking attention! Amgen? I don’t give a rat’s ass about my stocks or that shitty script or even if this damn recorder is working or not. All I care about at that precise moment is you just knocked me on my fat ass with a goddammed dot.
That’s what a killer logline does. You gotta bring the high heat. You gotta make every damn word count. You gotta have a story concept that’s gonna go like a pill right at my chrome dome, you hear me?
That’s why I have the six-word rule. You got six words… count ‘em… one, two, three, four, five, six… six words in your logline to get my attention. If six words in your logline don’t come right at me, high and hard, and knock me on my keister, then you ain’t getting my attention. And your story? That’s a big fat Pasadena.
You got six words. Six. To knock me off my feet. You do that? You got my fucking attention.
Cut to June 2103 in my interview with screenwriter Daniel Kunka who has had three big spec script deals. Here we talked about one of them Agent Ox:
Scott: You followed that up with the spec script “Agent Ox” in March of 2011 that sold to Columbia. That’s described as a human spy on an alien planet who’s trying to stop an invasion of the Earth. How did you come up with that idea?
Daniel: Sheer desperation. As great as the 12 Rounds experience was — it got me into the guild, it got me health insurance — this town for a young screenwriter is about “what can you do for me now?” I wasn’t at the point where studios were knocking down my door begging me to work for them. I’m still not. The movie came out, it didn’t do very well, so even though my name was out there I still had to bring a new idea to the table.
And for a few years I tried to recreate the same thing that happened with 12 Rounds. I wrote two or three action-thrillers much in the Taken vein that just weren’t me. The scripts were fine scripts, but nobody cared. I got a lot of “this is great” reads and that was it. I think the success I had getting the move made put me on a path where I tried to take the easy road and I thought I would hit the lottery again and it just didn’t happen.
It’s a lesson that was valuable to learn though. I wasn’t writing to my voice. I was writing to what I thought Hollywood wanted. And Hollywood, she’s a fickle mistress. So Agent Ox was my response to that. It was my return back to what the script Copies was that I had written all those years before. A big, fun, genre movie. It was still marketable, it was still trying to give Hollywood something that would hopefully sell, but it was my version of that, my voice, and not some watered-down other thing.
That decision really defined who I became as a writer. It had taken four years of college and maybe eight years after and I had a movie made and I still didn’t quite know until I started writing Ox. And that original idea of the script, it was so simple. I made a document called “High Concept Story Ideas” and just brain dumped a bunch of stuff down for two or three days, and the very last idea in this document were the six words “Human Spy on an Alien Planet” and I knew that was it.
I always joke in meetings now that those were the six words that changed my career and how I think about writing screenplays, but it’s the absolute truth. I started writing three weeks before my son was born, I finished it during his midnight feedings and then I sold it ten days before my WGA health insurance ran out. The first sale is always special, but it’s the second one where you really start to think you can do this as a career.
Scott: That six word thing. You’re really talking about drilling down the high concept so they can see it. Like what’s the simplest thing you can convey, and it’s really important because the people on the other end are so busy, you really want to have that concise description, yes?
Daniel: For sure. I know that people don’t like that concept. Like they think that it lessens an idea or it lessens what you do as a screenwriter, but again, this is the game we’re playing. If you want to write at a studio level, you must be able to communicate big ideas in simple terms. That’s how specs climb the food chain. If an assistant reads your script and loves it, that six-word idea will make it that much easier for the assistant to sell it to his or her boss, and then for that producer to sell it to the studio and that studio to sell it to marketing and hopefully, marketing to sell it in a three minute trailer to the entire world to get people to come see your movie.
Even if you’re trying to write a more independently-minded movie — what are the six words that make your independent movie different from every other independent movie? I don’t want to diminish the actual craft of telling your story and creating memorable characters and dialogue and conflict and emotion, but I also think younger writers don’t necessarily think of the bigger picture as well.
So Max Millimeter… six words. Daniel Kunka… six words. That caused me to start using this exercise in my online classes in our Logline Workshops: Can you sum up your story in six words?
For example, here is my six word take on K-9:
Stubborn cop. New partner. Police dog.
Here is my six word take on Trojan War:
Infatuated boy. Dream girl. Find condom.
So imagine my reaction when I saw this recent article in the New York Times: Putting On the Ritz, Six Words at a Time.
A chain of luxury hotels and resorts is borrowing from an Internet meme to extend a marketing effort that celebrates the accumulation of experiences and memories rather than the trappings of wealth.
The campaign, scheduled to begin this week, is for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company division of Marriott International. It is intended to expand upon ads that Ritz-Carlton and its agency, Team One Advertising, introduced in 2011 with the theme “Let us stay with you.”
The new campaign, also by Team One, is called “Six-word wows,” after a popular online creative exercise known as six-word memoirs and six-word stories. All those efforts at producing among the shortest of short stories — “flash fiction,” as some describe it — are inspired by a moment in literary lore when, the legend goes, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in six words and replied, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Wait, wait, wait. So Max Millimeter didn’t come up with this six word story idea? He stole it? I find that hard to believe because the guy hardly reads anything other than scripts. Well, evidently this is a ‘thing’. And here are some examples of the Ritz-Carlton six-word story campaign:
Look, the six word exercise may not be for you. It may not work for every story. But I’ll tell you what: It’s a great way for you to assess your story and compel you to distill what it’s really about.
As a challenge, here are IMDB plot summaries for three notable movies:
The Matrix: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
The Silence of the Lambs: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.
The Heat: An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.
Why don’t we take a crack at these and see what six word summaries we can come up with?