Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What is High Concept?

I’m going back through some of these articles and trying to fill out things that I’ve skipped or underdiscussed. (No, that’s not a real word.)

I talked a lot about premise, but rereading that post I realized I never did a dedicated post on the High Concept premise. So -


There seems to be eternal confusion on this subject. It’s sort of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. But today I will do what I can to define it.

If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is - AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it - that’s high concept.

Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.

I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.

Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” - you’ve got a high-concept premise.

Screenwriter/producer Terry Rossio calls it “Mental Real Estate” – a topic or subject that is in a majority of people’s heads already, and his essay "Mental Real Estate" on is a must-read on the subject. (Then take some time - got a few years? - and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott).

Think about one of their movies – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Who hasn’t been on that Disney ride? All the studio had to do to advertise it was slap that skull and crossbones on a one-sheet, and people were sold.

But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:

- They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)

- They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)

- They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK)

- They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, BLIND DATE. That movie out recently – FOUR CHRISTMASES – is about a young couple who have to spend a Christmas with each set of their divorced parents. Very universal!)

- They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)

- They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)

- They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE). And not necessarily a twist at the end - the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love - when they've never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn't pay - which turns out to be her heinous husband's dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.

- They are about a famous person or event - or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL.

- There's also just the "Cool!!!" factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?

Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:

JURASSIC PARK - A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.

What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?

FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.

This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.

INDECENT PROPOSAL - A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.

This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating - I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise - make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about. But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.

When THE PRICE was optioned by Sony the executives pitched it as “The devil is walking around the halls of a Boston hospital making deals with the patients and their families.” And there’s a “What would YOU do?” built in: “What would you give to save the life of a loved one?”

I’ve already gotten unsolicited TV interest for THE UNSEEN and we don’t even have galleys yet! But that book is based on the real-life – and world-famous - ESP experiments and poltergeist investigations conducted by Dr. J.B. Rhine at the Duke University parapsychology lab – and just the bare bones premise line is attracting producers, because that’s “mental real estate”.

The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.

Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.

So, any favorite examples of high concept for me, today?

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Bobby Mangahas said...

Since I'm in the midsts of my book, I kind of have a "what if" scenario, but I'm not sure if it is "high concept" or not

What would you do if the father who you thought was long dead turned out to be the one who was sent to kill you?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

It's a good situation, RJ, but I wouldn't call it high-concept. Also an actual logline, when you start pitching it, is going to need more detail. If you think about it, you could use that sentence to describe STAR WARS, but it wouldn't really convey the uniqueness of STAR WARS.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Very True. I can't believe I overlooked that. Thanks, Alex. I always learn something from this blog. Well, back to the drawing board I go.

BT said...

Highlander - immortals battling through time until there can be only one.

Who hasn't wanted to live forever? Who hasn't thought about what they would do/accomplish if they had the power?

But what would you be willing to sacrifice for the ultimate prize?

I just wish they never made the follow-ups...

Allison Brennan said...

Hey Alex! Another great post, as always :)

My seven deadly sins series:

"Three strangers -- a former seminarian haunted by a massacre of priests, a woman once possessed by a demon, and a cynical true-crime writer -- must join forces to stop the Seven Deadly Sins who were released from Hell as Demons by an occult with an evil agenda."

Probably too long. Concise is not my strong suit :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm. I know HIGHLANDER was a blockbuster, but that's not quite a high concept premise, and I haven't seen the movie recently enough to be able to add the details it's missing.

But "Immortals battling through time" could describe dozens of paranormal romances out there right now, and that's not enough of a high concept to make a studio head write you a check in the room if you pitched it, which is another definition of high concept that I should have included in the post.

I'm not sure the premise of that movie was what made it so successful, actually - but as I said, I haven't seen it for pretty much ever so I am of no use at the moment!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Now, Allison is great with high concept! The Seven Deadly Sins is terrific mental real estate. And of course I love the prison break during an earthquake idea. Pure high concept.

I don't think that's too much detail - I like to know all the principals in a logline.

(An occult WHAT, though? You left out a word and now I'm wild to know...)

Allison Brennan said...

the occult is actually a coven of teenage wiccans, but one of them is evil and being led by a witch practicing black magic who has ties to my heroine. So I have a coven of well=meaning girls who don't realize what they're getting themselves into . . . this is the book I'm writing next. I can hardly wait. One more RS and then I get to write two of these AND I have more time for them, so I hope I use it wisely . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting an article on this, Alex. I've always been confused about "high concept."

How about the movies "The Day After Tomorrow" or most recently, "The Happening"? It seems to me that disaster movies almost always fit into the High Concept category.

Gayle Carline said...

Here's the high-concept novel I'd write if I wasn't too damn lazy to do the research:

"A young man, dying of AIDS, is bitten by a vampire and gets a second chance at life. His blood now holds the key to a vaccine that will cure this plague... but the side effects could be deadly."

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, yes, I think you're right about disaster movies almost always being high concept, that's a great point!

And THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and THE HAPPENING are two good, topical examples (environmental disaster).

While we're on the subject of M. Night - SIGNS is another great high concept idea. Crop circles! Ultimate coolness!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, that's a good premise, but again, I'm not sure I'd call it high concept. What do other people think?

Honestly I don't know WHAT you'd have to do to make a vampire story stand out these days. But vampire is its own genre, now, and it doesn't seem that it's ever going away.

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - I think it's interesting that you focused on the vampire aspect of the storyline, instead of the cure for AIDS and a potential danger. The story I'm thinking of is less enrapt with the supernatural and has more to do with the medical community dismissing scientific evidence they can't explain, denying the supernatural (sound familiar?) and pressing to find a cure. Their motives are both pure (help mankind) and self-serving (awards, money, hubris).

That's not high concept? The reason I'm confused is that I pitched this storyline about 10 years ago in a seminar and the instructor said, "ooh, high concept." Everyone else was pitching memoirs...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, this is why I asked what other people thought. Some of high concept is in the eye of the beholder!

Vampires are big, and a cure for AIDS is topical, but I'm not feeling that - "Goddamn it, why didn't I think of that?" chill that I associate with high concept.

I think because vampirism is almost inherently associated with AIDS, it doesn't have that kick in the head that high concept is, at least to me.

Anyone else? Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

It seems as if high concept is extremely subjective, and as a result, it's a hard thing to nail down and accomplish as a writer. Maybe that's why so many people have a difficult time defining what it is.

So how do you take a compelling "what would you do if" situation (like those pitched here) and make it high concept?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, it is hard to define, which is why listing a lot of examples of blockbuster novels and films is a good way to start to get the idea of what "high concept" really is.

I find that people often think their own premises are high concept, but I urge you to tell that premise to a good dozen people. If ten of those people say - "Oh my God, I'd buy that right now" or You bitch/bastard, I hate you for coming up with that" then it's high concept. If not... well, maybe not.

Please remember that a novel doesn't HAVE to be high concept to be good, or saleable, or successful.

But high concept is something that people will buy JUST on the pitch. Kristine, ask yourself which of the premises listed here, in the post and in the comments, that you would pay the money to see the film or buy the book RIGHT NOW, just on the logline. And that you could see a lot of other people buying JUST on the logline.

That's your best indication of high concept.

(And btw - if I could instantly make the "What would you do" scenarios here high concept just by thinking about it for a minute, I'd be really, really rich. It's a lot harder than wanting to do it!)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You are one of those bloggers that I happened upon by accident, but have been thanking my lucky stars ever since. Another great blog, Alex. You're my source for everything fascinating about writing. Can't thank you enough.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I think some of Ira Levin's books were high concept.

THE STEPFORD WIVES ("men in a perfect town kill their wives and replace them with robots') and ROSEMARY'S BABY ("guy sells the soul of his unborn baby to the devil") immediately come to mind.

Also, BOYS FROM BRAZIL ("a man races to find boys were who cloned from Hitler").

Maybe SLIVER ("in the new highrise apartments, someone is always watching").

THIS PERFECT DAY, not so much. I can't even remember the plot that well, only that it was a future world was conformity was prized.

A KISS BEFORE DYING, also not so much. But, if I remember correctly, it was his first book.

Jake Nantz said...

Thank you for clearing that up. For some reason, I always thought of "high concept" as being something like "highbrow" (ie uppity and stuffy). Now it makes more sense. And what a great excercise! When we get to the plot/premise section of my Creative Writing 1 class, I'm definitely stealing this one!

I have to say, my premise might have some controversy, but I doubt it's high-concept:
A contract killer uses traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic punishments to simultaneously murder his targets and frame/implicate the Christian rookie detective trying to solve the crimes

Like I said, maybe not High Concept. Still, even if it never sells it was a fun novel to cut my teeth writing!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you, Joylene - I'm so glad it's all being useful for you! Obviously I love delving into all this and it's an extra pleasure that it actually makes sense to other people!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, well, Stephen, you couldn't be more right - Ira Levin was really a master at high concept, and a perfect writer on top of that, in my book!

Levin, Crichton, John Grisham usually - just brilliant at concept.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, and A KISS BEFORE DYING I think was elevated to high concept by that mindblowing twist in the middle of the book.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's a really good premise, Jake. You're right that it's not exactly high concept but it's intriguing and thematic.

Like I said, a book or film doesn't HAVE to be high concept to sell or be successful or be good.

High concept would be a great class to teach to teens. YOU'LL learn a lot!

Nick Gray said...

Hum... finally now I understand what High Concept really is. Thank you Alex!

Well, I think I know what u are talking about when you say a book/movie doesn't have to be High Concept to sell well. And the contrary is true, too!

Here in Brazil, we have a writer of vampire books that used a high concept idea (at least for us, brazilians), but he didn't develop the plot very well. In fact, I don't actually like his style, but ONLY the premise made me buy 3 of his books at the same time!

Take a look, and say if is high concept for you, too:

"Researchers find a 500-years old Portuguese ship, sank in the ocean, with a silver box containing seven dry portuguese vampires. They open the box, releasing the old vampires in a new country, in a new age."

Just remeber that Brazil was a colony of Portugal, and it would be very curious to see vampires from that time waking up now.

Nick Gray said...

Oh, sorry for my language mistakes.

Xenon Oxide said...

Oooh.... I have story idea, and I wonder if I can boil it down to a High Concept pitch: "A nine-year-old orphan must convince her foster parents that she has a serial murdering alter-ego." Is this High Concept enough? Or can it be boiled down even more?

(The main conflict is that nobody believes the girl is capable of evil acts, and because she doesn't remember what her alter ego does, she can't prove herself guilty.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

VERY cool idea, Exir, and well-told - I'd just add a sentence like: "before she (or he) kills again" or whatever reflects your story, to give that much more punch to the stakes.

Would love to see that one!