Thursday, February 11, 2010

What is high concept?

We talked about premise in the last couple of posts, but while you're working on your premise, there's something else you want to be considering:

WHAT IS “HIGH CONCEPT”?

This is one of the biggest lessons an author can take from Hollywood, and one of the most critical things for a screenwriter to understand.

But there seems to be eternal confusion on this subject. It’s sort of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. 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 Wordplayer.com 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.)

A variation on topical is the - let's call it "cultural phenomenon." Maybe "cultural metaphor". For the moment, zombies are a cultural phenomenon (and I wish someone would explain that one to me. Information overload has turned us all brainless and undead - or made us long to be, maybe?) and anyone who had a zombie story to sell in the last two years has benefited from that cultural wave.

- 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) and/or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST).

- They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, BLIND DATE. That movie out last year – 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, THE CRYING GAME). 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.

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?

And for the dedicated - and those still looking for that next project idea - here are three suggestions:

- Make a list of ten movies and books with high concept premises (that I haven’t already discussed here!). Try to define what about them makes them high concept for you.

- Make a commitment to come up with at least three premises a week. (You can start by mining those brainstorming lists you've already made). Try them out on your friends and family. Which ones make their eyes light up? Why aren’t you writing those stories?

- Look at your own premise line. Is there a way to tie it into a subject or theme, or holiday or setting, that will make it more universal and appealing?



- Alex

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Related articles:

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)



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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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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
I've long been following your site - and today just wanted to let you know that your advice was (and still is) utterly, wonderfully, tremendously helpful whilst developing my first novel and my first TV-Script. (I've only published short stories so far...and that's quite a different kind of writing...). So, yesterday, this first novel of mine sold to a big publishing house. And, coming spring, I've got high hopes for the script, too. Thanks so much - for taking the time. And, simply, for beeing brilliant.
Clara, Germany

Anonymous said...

P.S. One of the best high concept-premises has to be "Hänsel and Gretel": What happens, if you get lost in the woods...

from Clara

Joylene said...

Another great post that I've linked to on my webpage. Harry Potter is about kids going to school. Duh, why couldn't I think of that!

Thanks, Alex. You bring the hopes of success closer with each blog.

sylvia said...

I'm going to try thinking of three High Concept premises a week.

But also, your link to the essay doesn't work. I get an error telling me it's my fault. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Huge congratulations on the sale, Clara! Fantastic.

Ketutar said...

Ok, let's try this...

I went to IMDB's "All-Time Worldwide Box office" list and picked a couple of movies you haven't mentioned

Avatar
- neo-spirituality
- ecology
- a new world, a new chance

Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Classic
- Fairytale

Alice in Wonderland
- classic
- Johnny Depp
- the weird, odd, quirky, whimsical is very fashionable... perhaps people want to pretend the real world doesn't exist?

Harry Potter
- kids in school, as Joylene said

Narnia
- classics
- again, fairytales...

Batman / Spider-Man / X-men / transformers
- the kids who used to read and watch these cartoons/series as kids have grown up...
- what makes superheroes so popular?

Matrix
- internet, computers, the feeling of that we are living like flies on a spider's net, some sort of powerlessness... and if we just could get off, anything is possible
- superhero, savior

Star Wars
- a classic saga of a nobody growing up to be the savior of the universe, complete with the wise master, beautiful princess and rogue side-kick...


Independence Day
- a classic scifi. A foreign and unknown threat to the whole world and some cowboys save the day.


2012
- world's end prophecies. The world didn't end in chaos Y2K, perhaps now?

E.T.
- perhaps the foreign and unknown isn't that dangerous after all... perhaps we are a bigger threat to others? I suppose E.T. isn't that popular today.

Twilight
- old fashioned romance with a plain heroine who becomes the most beautiful, graceful and beloved of all, and a superhero boyfried.
- really classical Victorian romance fitted to today... I think Twilight is so popular, just because it is so... unbelievable. Because Bella is so annoying, so "sick", so... normal. It is telling women and girls that you can have a good life even when you are plain, stupid, selfish, clumsy, unkind... and which one of us hasn't felt like that about oneself? It might just be a reaction to all this "sisters are doing it for themselves", "girlpower" and "women can" influences... the world requires us to be perfect, strong, independent and have everything planned out, never make mistakes, never throw ourselves handless into emotions and feel we just want to die, when our boyfriend leaves us... Perhaps the sea is full of fish, but I wanted this one. Perhaps Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet are romantic crap, but... who doesn't want love like that in their lives? Who wants to live in reality all the time? Aren't movies and books supposed to be flight from reality?

Forrest Gump
- Why did I like Forrest Gump? It gives me hope :-) He's the ultimate innocent fool who manages to get everything right... I think we love them, because it shows us one can get through life, and well, without taking it too seriously. After all, we all have to live, and the best way to do it is to have an open mind and not be too sure of things. To take things as they come...

Ketutar said...

Ok, let's try this...

I went to IMDB's "All-Time Worldwide Box office" list and picked a couple of movies you haven't mentioned

Avatar
- neo-spirituality
- ecology
- a new world, a new chance

Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Classic
- Fairytale

Alice in Wonderland
- classic
- Johnny Depp
- the weird, odd, quirky, whimsical is very fashionable... perhaps people want to pretend the real world doesn't exist?

Harry Potter
- kids in school, as Joylene said

Narnia
- classics
- again, fairytales...

Batman / Spider-Man / X-men / transformers
- the kids who used to read and watch these cartoons/series as kids have grown up...
- what makes superheroes so popular?

Matrix
- internet, computers, the feeling of that we are living like flies on a spider's net, some sort of powerlessness... and if we just could get off, anything is possible
- superhero, savior

Star Wars
- a classic saga of a nobody growing up to be the savior of the universe, complete with the wise master, beautiful princess and rogue side-kick...


Independence Day
- a classic scifi. A foreign and unknown threat to the whole world and some cowboys save the day.


2012
- world's end prophecies. The world didn't end in chaos Y2K, perhaps now?

E.T.
- perhaps the foreign and unknown isn't that dangerous after all... perhaps we are a bigger threat to others? I suppose E.T. isn't that popular today.

Ketutar said...

Twilight
- old fashioned romance with a plain heroine who becomes the most beautiful, graceful and beloved of all, and a superhero boyfried.
- really classical Victorian romance fitted to today... I think Twilight is so popular, just because it is so... unbelievable. Because Bella is so annoying, so "sick", so... normal. It is telling women and girls that you can have a good life even when you are plain, stupid, selfish, clumsy, unkind... and which one of us hasn't felt like that about oneself? It might just be a reaction to all this "sisters are doing it for themselves", "girlpower" and "women can" influences... the world requires us to be perfect, strong, independent and have everything planned out, never make mistakes, never throw ourselves handless into emotions and feel we just want to die, when our boyfriend leaves us... Perhaps the sea is full of fish, but I wanted this one. Perhaps Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet are romantic crap, but... who doesn't want love like that in their lives? Who wants to live in reality all the time? Aren't movies and books supposed to be flight from reality?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Joylene, yes, Harry Potter is about kids going to school. Such an obvious premise that no one had ever exploited that it spawned a whole new subgenre of "paranormal kids at school" books!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sylvia, the Wordplayer site is down a lot. Try it again, and as I remember they shut it down over weekends.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Good job, Ketutar! I would say LOTR and The Matrix are also like Star Wars, "a nobody saves the world", which is a classic fairy tale motif.

The Matrix is also very much about enlightenment, and lifting the veil of illusion, which made it hugely popular on a spiritual level.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, and I agree about Twilight. It tapped completely into classic fairy tale motifs, The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Romeo and Juliet.