As I continue to work through my own process of outlining Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone, I know I need a log line—a one-sentence description of what this book is about—to focus my thinking as I get deeper into the outline, and to help me sell it when it’s done. On page 17 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I briefly touch on the idea of the log line and provide a couple samples I cooked up myself, like:

A lost alien race has left behind working starships that intrepid prospectors take to unknown destinations across the galaxy in search of riches.

. . . my log line for Frederick Pohl’s Gateway—and with two words to spare!

Since then, though, I’ve included the log line exercise in classes, and thought about them in a little more detail. One thing I’ve advised is to open that word limit up a little bit in the more word-friendly world of publishing, so we can go to as many as fifty words.

Your log line should give whoever reads it a sense that there’s a story, and that that story is about people doing things, but that’s pretty much it. The log line is all set-up, and needs to be 100% spoiler free. This is “sales copy” for you, and you’ll use it when talking to agents, editors, and anyone else. It’ll be a part of your cover copy or Amazon landing page/catalog copy—or will at least be a basis for that. It’ll be part of every query letter, press release, your web site or blog, etc. So make it count!

I think log lines for novels need three elements:

  • Hero (or if you prefer, protagonist)
  • Villain (or antagonist)
  • Conflict

Even if your book has more than one hero and more than one villain, surely there’s one major character, or at least group of characters, who can fill each spot. Really, you should have one principal protagonist and one principal antagonist or your story is probably (not definitely, but . . .) overly complex and difficult to relate to.

This is another big advantage of this process. It forces you to drill down to the absolute essential. Now, of course, no one who knows anything about anything will think that this is the sum total of your story. No one is going to read this and think, Gee, there are only two characters? Of course we all expect that there will be lots of twists and turns, fascinating worldbuilding, compelling ideas, and so on, but you have to start somewhere.

So then, following that basic template, here’s one I wrote up as an example for a class:

Genetically engineered androids come to Earth to confront their creator and a cynical cop has to track them down and kill them in cold blood.

That’s Blade Runner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in exactly twenty-five words.

The order in which we get hero, villain, and conflict is entirely optional, so this example starts with the villains and what they want—and what the villain wants tends to start every story off—then we meet the hero (a cynical cop) and the conflict is clear. Notice also that none of the characters have a name. Even agents and editors who specialize in science fiction and fantasy will trip over weird character names or start wondering if this is a character they should have heard of already. With only twenty-five to fifty words, you don’t have time for much if any worldbuilding. And notice, too, that I spent no time describing the category, genre, audience, etc. The fact that this is a science fiction novel for an adult audience will be in a separate part of the query letter, and anyway, “Genetically engineered androids come to Earth” kinda screams science fiction, doesn’t it?

With Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone starting off, at least, as a short 50,000 word straight-ahead sci-fi adventure story, I probably don’t need as many as fifty words, but let’s see what I can come up with. I’ll start by describing each of those three elements in the shortest possible way but in a way that’s still interesting. For instance, describing Deckard as “a cynical cop” hints at an additional layer of conflict as opposed to just “a cop.” Since I’ve thought through enough of the outline that I want a big part of Bella’s story to be about how she’s come to rely on luck and needs to get past that, let’s go with . . .

Hero: a police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck

The villain is a little less clear in my head. I know that Dr. Niu is reporting back to mysterious “bosses” as they explore the clandestine genetics laboratory and that she is working against Bella, but I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the why yet. I’m thinking that in this future genetic engineering is frowned upon and the sort of genetic engineering that leads to the creation of unique life forms (the monsters of Methone) is flat-out illegal. Since I’d introduced ubiquitous robots in the short story and robots in general have a connection with Bella through her fiancée, who works for the company that manufactures robots, I’m thinking that he gets wind of this clandestine laboratory, set up by a competitor, and is the one who blows the whistle. Bella is assigned to this hastily-assembled team to go to Methone and investigate, but this mysterious corporate competitor manages to get one of their people (Dr. Niu) on the team to engineer a cover-up. So Dr. Niu plans to be the sole survivor of the expedition, and after securing the relevant data, she needs to destroy the evidence.

That’s an okay start at least, but a lot of words.

Thinking cap on.

Villain: a traitor who will stop at nothing to cover up her employers’ crimes

In that thinking about the villain I also ended up with a good measure of the core conflict. Bella is there to investigate a crime. Dr. Niu is there to cover up the same crime. The crime itself is the creation of genetically engineered monsters. This brings me to:

A police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck leads a small team to a remote moon of Saturn to investigate an illegal genetic engineering lab, but one of her team is a traitor who will stop at nothing to cover up her employers’ crimes.

I make that forty-seven words.

I chose to start with the hero, and I’m not 100% sure why, but it sort of just worked out that way. And I’ll rationalize it as wanting to put my series-hopeful character Bella Lucky at the front of the action, complicated by the villain being villainous.

Notice I slipped a teaspoonful of setting in there, too. I felt on the fly that I wanted to make sure people knew this was space opera. This isn’t a genetic engineering lab in New Mexico—and I kinda want to explain the title since very few people will be able to identify Methone. So then now the title makes a little more sense, we get that Bella Lucky is probably the “police detective who’s come to rely too much on luck,” that Methone is “a remote moon of Saturn,” and the monsters are the product of “an illegal genetic engineering lab.”

Kind of feels like a story is brewing.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Matt Brady says:

    Thanks for the tips on log lines (both on here and in print).

    I only recently picked up a copy of “The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction” and am reading through it quickly. I had thought to try NaNoWriMo this year as well, so I think the combination of the two is rather fortuitous!

  2. Brian J. Branscum says:

    Thanks for the advice. It’s clear and helpful when I work on the tag line (or elevator pitch as I know it) for my novel. Thanks for also laying out a great out-line to follow that’s quick and easy to replicate, while at the same time incorporating advice for adding a teaspoonful (as you put it) of setting.

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