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Writing the High-Concept Screenplay: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

Story ideas that are high concept are key. But Jon James Miller explains how executing a high-concept screenplay is harder than you think.

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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Writing the High-Concept Screenplay: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love by Jon James Miller | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

High-concept for me has always been the definition of Hollywood entertainment: a movie that can be summed up in one sentence yet shows the potential to fill-out 90 script pages. But many misinformed, would-be screenwriters think penning a high-concept script will be easy once you have the concept itself. However, I’m here to tell you it is anything but easy to execute a high-concept screenplay. If anything, it is one of the hardest things any writer can attempt – simply because of the limitations it imposes on the narrative structure of your story, character and stakes.

The first thing to remember when conjuring any high-concept movie idea is that it has to be original. No small task, considering how originality makes Hollywood executives tremble in spite of the fact everyone is looking for the next franchise. Franchises by definition are not original, very often taking their cue from pre-existing material. But before you bemoan the lack of originality at your local movie theater, consider just how much investment of money, resources and time go into making a mass-marketed, mass-appeal product. It’s easy to understand why risk-adverse studio executives would shy away from anything “too original.” But that is exactly what your high-concept needs to be to stand a chance of ever being bought let alone greenlit.

It’s true that over 70,000 spec scripts are written each year by starry-eyed, let-me-in-coach writers who want their shot at fame and fortune. Sadly, the reality is that 99% of these “scripts” are dreadful, derivative conglomerations of numerous other movies that trip over themselves with poorly-formatted pages of cliché after cliché – and those are the good ones! However, the remaining 1% show the potential, passion and craft to have their storylines taken seriously. That’s because the writer has either hit upon that mythical original idea, or, executed a familiar one in such a unique way that it defies all of us cynical script reader’s expectations. And the high-concept spec script that achieves both of these lofty goals – originality and exquisite execution – is the holy-grail every producer looks for in today’s movie marketplace.

In the last 20 years of reading spec screenplays, I’ve read exactly 3 of these outright winning scripts. Each time, they gave me a tremendous thrill just to be holding them. They are:

Suspect Zero by Zack Penn – This 1997 spec had everything, starting with its super high-concept of a “serial-killer who only preys on serial-killers.” In those eight words lay the foundation for a phenomenally original storyline that was equally well-executed. Unfortunately, the 2004 movie production was so bastardized in development hell that it retained virtually none of the original script’s intelligence and promise.

Dear Satan (2012) – The story follows a 7-year-old girl who accidentally misspells “Santa” and instead invites Satan to bring her a toy for Christmas. As legend has it, the inspiration for the script came from writer Dan Ewen’s babysitting experience when a child in his care switched a couple of letters in Santa’s name on his yearly note to the North Pole. This spec was funny and original, giving everyone who covered it a sense of sentimentality and nostalgia for their childhood, while offering up a high-concept vehicle that turned the high-concept, holiday movie formula on its head.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile by Michael Werwie (a 2012 Nicholl’s Fellowship Finalist) – Told in first-person, script centers on Ted: a smart, likable and handsome guy with a devoted girlfriend and a lot of bad luck with the police. We sympathize with his plight, only to slowly realize that our main character is infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.

That last script rocketed Werwie to the top of every producer and agent’s wish list in late 2012, simply by virtue of the fact that it utilized an unreliable narrator device to offer up one of the best twist endings ever. I’m sure Werwie dined out on that script for the next year in Hollywood. Such is the power of a well-executed, high-concept script where nobody sees the end coming. No shocker that Werwie spent nearly 20 years perfecting his screenwriting skills and storytelling craft before he became an “overnight” sensation in a town always looking for the next big thing.

Whatever your high-concept idea, the days of pitching a one-liner and getting a script deal out of it are long gone. But if your high-concept has what it takes to sustain a compelling, unique and can’t-put-it-down 90-110 page script, you just might be able to get the Movie Gods to blink and give you the keys to Tinseltown, too. In my humble opinion, it’s worth a shot and at least make you appreciate just how damn hard it is to write a great high-concept screenplay Hollywood will want to buy.

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Story ideas that are high concept are key. But Jon James Miller explains how executing a high-concept screenplay is harder than you think.