While researching the week’s topic for my seniors’ group, (“A Clever Idea”) I tripped over a phrase that is much revered in Hollywood — “High Concept”.
Definition of “High Concept”
High Concept is defined by Merriam-Webster as: having or exploiting elements (such as fast action, glamour, or suspense) that appeal to a wide audience.
In essence, High Concept is:
- Suited for a wide audience
- Immediately intriguing
Premise: A High Concept story must have an intriguing protagonist with a challenging goal that is highly significant to him/her, and the outcome must have tremendous consequences for the protagonist and the world he/she lives in.
Audience: High Concept stories must appeal to the vast majority of readers. There must be universal themes that resonate with most people.
Unique: A High Concept story must have an original idea — it can’t be a derivation of something that’s already been done. This is the most challenging part of trying to write your own high concept stories. We’re inundated with stories all the time, so it’s difficult not to latch onto them and rewrite them in our own way.
Intriguing: The idea has to be so compelling that it forces the audience (agent, publisher, reader) to think, “I want to know more. What happens next?”
One of the screenplay sites I follow gave this list of necessary high-concept elements.
A High-Concept story
• Is unique and original
• Is highly visual
• Contains a clear source of conflict
• Has a strong commercial appeal
• Instantly grabs the attention
• Is simple enough for an eighth-grader to understand
• Can be written in one or two sentences
• Possibly contains a twist and/or “fish out of water” scenario
• Makes people think, “how hasn’t this been made before?”
• A boy is shipwrecked with a tiger and must find a way to save them both. ( Life of Pi )
• A sleazy newsman is stuck reliving the same day over and over until he mends his ways. ( Groundhog Day )
• A sociopathic serial killer is trained as a child to kill only bad guys and must keep his identity secret. ( TV series Dexter )
So how can you come up with high-concept stories?
The best way I know to improve any story, but certainly to take an ordinary story to high concept is through brainstorming. You can do this on your own, using mind-mapping, sketching or bullet-point outlining or you can get together with other writers and toss ideas back and forth.
Write all of them down. Keep the ones that work, and put aside the ones that don’t.
Don’t discard any until you’ve thoroughly examined their potential. Sometimes the most unlikely ideas will give your story that spark of inspiration that turns it from good to great. Combining unexpected elements can turn a decent story into a great one.
Let’s imagine that you’ve been uninspired but you’ve come up with the seed of an idea you want to write about. Maybe you have a great character. Or a situation. Or an intriguing title, or even a complete logline. This is when you call up your writer friends and have a brainstorming session.
Ask these questions:
• How can I raise the stakes?
• How can I make things tougher for the protagonist?
• How can I create more empathy for the protagonist?
• How can my character be backed into a corner and pushed to act with even more extreme behaviour?
• How can the story’s concept be more visual, original, simple or emotionally engaging?
A writer must never be satisfied with a story that’s merely ordinary. Just having an idea isn’t enough. You can always make it better.