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Story Talk: High Concept—Yes—It Actually Means Something!

As screenwriters, we have all come up against the agent, publisher, studio hack or fellow writer who when asked to give feedback on our story retorts, “Yeah, good idea, but… it needs to pop more. There’s no high concept.” Sigh. "High concept": what the heck does that mean—really? What is a writer supposed to do with that? People throw this phrase around like the definition is common knowledge.

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But when asked to explain their sorry selves, these same people only deliver cliches:

  • It’s your story’s hook
  • It’s what’s fun about your story
  • It’s your story in a single image
  • It’s your story’s heart
  • It’s your story as a movie one-sheet
  • It’s the essence of your premise
  • And so on …

All of these have some truth to them. All of these speak to the idea of a high concept, but none of them really explain the darn thing. “High concept” has become a term d’art everyone uses and no one really understands.

After much hair pulling, moaning, and sleepless nights analyzing this idea, I have stumbled upon an elegant construct I think will with both define the term accurately, but also give writers a tool for testing their ideas to quickly see if there is a high-concept component present. It goes like this:

High concept applies to any idea: motorcycle design, toothpaste, cooking, comic books, novels and movies—the list is endless. High concept is about essence; that visceral thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. From a writing perspective, a story idea that is high concept captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, get’s them asking “what if,” and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word. High concept drives the commercial book business, as well as the film and television industries. A high-concept idea has the following seven qualities:

The 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea™:

  • High level of entertainment value
  • High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than original)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
  • Sparks a “what if” question
    (Excerpted from my book Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development, publication date early 2013 through Bookbyte Digital.)

Let’s look at each of these to get a better idea of what they mean:

High-level of entertainment value: This can be elusive. Defining “entertainment value” is like trying to define pornography; it’s in the eye of the beholder. Simply put, you know if something is entertaining, or not, if it holds your attention and sparks your imagination. If you are distracted easily from the idea or interested purely on an intellectual basis, then it is safe to say that the idea may be interesting, engaging, and curious, but not entertaining.

High degree of originality: What does it mean to be original? Some common words associated with originality are: fresh, new, innovative, novel (no, not a book). Think of originality as approach-centric. The idea may be centered in a familiar context, but the approach (original take) offered to get to that familiar context has never been used before, for example:

e.g. Frankenstein:
Familiar idea: evil monster terrorizes the humans.
Original take: the monster and humans switch moral ground and the humans terrorize the monster.

e.g. Dog Day Afternoon:
Familiar idea: man robs a bank for money.
Original take: man robs a bank to get sex change for his transsexual lover and wins the hearts and minds of the people.

e.g. Lord of the Flies:
Familiar idea: survivors shipped wrecked on an island.
Original take: the survivors are proper English schoolboys who abandon all civilized norms reverting into primitive savages.

So, originality is more about finding new ways to present the familiar, rather than inventing something new from scratch.

High level of uniqueness: Whereas originality is about approach and fresh perspective, uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind, first time, and incomparable. Being original can also involve uniqueness, but being unique transcends even originality. Sometimes this is achieved in the content or in the execution of a work.

e.g., Finnegan's Wake:
Familiar context: episodic, slice-of-life vignettes of HCE, ALP and other characters
Original take: one-of-a-kind writing style never before used in modern fiction

Highly visual: high-concept ideas have a visual quality about them that is palpable. When you read or hear about a high-concept idea your mind starts conjuring images and you literally see the idea unfold in your mind. This is why high-concept books make such good films when adapted. Books with cinematic imagery are almost always high-concept stories.

Possesses a clear emotional focus: Like imagery, high-concept ideas spark emotion, but not just any emotion, usually it is a primal emotion: fear, joy, hate, love, rage, etc. There is no wishy-washy emotional engagement of the reader. The involvement is strong, immediate, and intense.

Possesses mass audience appeal: The idea appeals to an audience beyond friends and family. The target market is broad, diverse, and large. Some ideas are very niche, appealing to a specific demographic, but this is usually a large demographic. High-concept ideas are popular ideas, mass ideas, and often trendy ideas.

Usually born from a “what if” question: What if dinosaurs were cloned (Jurassic Park)? What if women stopped giving birth (Children of Men)? What if Martians invaded the Earth (War of the Worlds)? High-concept ideas are often posed first with a “what if” scenario and then the hook becomes clear. The hook is that part of the high concept that grabs the reader. It is often the one piece of the idea that is the original concept or the unique element. In the three examples just given, each of them has a clear hook that leads to a high-concept premise line (the "premise line" will be the subject of a later post).

Do you have to have all seven qualities for an idea to be high concept? No, but the more of them you have, the more likely you will have a strong high concept. When the idea of high concept is put in the context of these seven qualities, it becomes easier to see that commercial ideas and literary (i.e., soft) ideas often have a clear line of demarcation. That line is the high concept. The next piece of this concept concerns the log line, which is a practical tool for realizing the potential of your high concept. In other words, your log line (different than a premise line!) is your high concept stated in a short, concise sentence. But, this is the subject of a later post.

I hope this helps. It sure helped me when I figured it out.

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Elevate your scripts to high concept with our FREE Download High Concept Scorecard