Today we’ve got me on the blog! I’m talking about high concept, taken from lesson three of the loglines class I teach.
Ever heard an agent or editor say they want something fresh? Have you heard them say they want something unique? How about they want the same but different? Any of these ringing a bell? What I think they mean, but aren’t saying, is they want high concept. A lot of movies have been based on high concept books. I Am Legend for example. Great high concept. Lousy movie. Jaws. High concept book, high concept movie. The Silence of the Lambs. Jurassic Park.
What is high concept? Is it just a marketing gimmick? People tend to think if they can boil their concept down to that twenty-five word logline they have high concept. That’s not what makes it high concept. I can do that with a lot of my stories but only a handful are actually high concept. So then what is it? And how do you get it if you don’t have it?
I’ve seen “rules” that say there are three components to a high concept. Others that say there are five. And one even that says there are six. No matter which one you listen to they have three in common:
The concept must be unique
The concept must appeal to a wide audience
The concept can be told in a single sentence and you see the whole movie (or book).
High concept is not Star Wars meets The African Queen. This is a framing technique mostly used in Hollywood. It should be used sparingly and only if asked. It’s also not the blurb or the synopsis. It’s not big budget, blockbuster movies either. You can have high concept without the big budget.
Star Wars was high concept. Star Wars fits all the criteria for being high concept in spades. The Blair Witch Project, by no means a big budget film, was high concept. I didn’t care for the movie myself but millions of people did. It had a unique twist. The protagonists were likeable. The stakes were high enough for them. Even Peggy Sue Got Married was high concept.
Not high concept – Little Miss Sunshine. She’s All That. Head Over Heels. Twilight. Brokeback Mountain. American Beauty.
High concept is a powerful tool to have as a writer. High concept pitches can make it easier to communicate up through the chain of command. If your idea is too complicated, by the time it reaches the top, it may sound like a totally different idea. Anyone ever play telephone as a child? It also forces you to determine what the story is really about. What the core of the story is.
Now some of you may be thinking, but my story is too complex for this logline business. Or this high concept business. But the God Father was high concept. Boil that complex plot, with complex characters and great subplots and what is the core?
When a powerful gangster is gunned down, his reluctant son must seek revenge and take over the family business.
Everything in the movie relies on that core.
How do you improve a concept to make it higher concept?
First, I suggest you find the essence of the concept or logline. Figure out what it’s about and then what it’s REALLY about.
Here’s where we have fun. Take your concept or logline and change it. Make it better. How? Is it unique? No? Can you make it more unique? Change the setting to be unique? How about the characters? Change the gender, race, species of your characters. Change their traits. Throw some opposites in there. You’ve all heard the make the heroine an arsonist and the hero a fire fighter suggestion. Raise the stakes. Play what if? Give it a twist. Have something unique about it.
So go ahead and try it on one of your concepts. But only ones you haven’t done a lot of work on. Authors tend to get married to their ideas and find it hard to make changes to the concept even though a change could make the concept stronger. Feel free to share your loglines if you like.
Cindy is a member of Sisters in Crime and a graduate of Hal Croasmun’s screenwriting ProSeries. Her interviews with writers of CSI and Flashpoint appeared in The Rewrit, the Scriptscene newsletter, the screenwriting Chapter of RWA. She writes screenplays, thrillers, and paranormals, occasionally exploring an erotic twist. A background in banking and IT doesn’t allow much in the way of excitement so she turns to writing stories that are a little dark and usually have a dead body. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and two cats. When she’s not writing you can usually find her painting landscapes in oil or trying space paintings with spray paint.
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