Nothing ignites a premise like a high concept.
Boiling down an idea so it grabs attention and still is accessible has power. From High Noon in space (Outland) to a lawyer who can’t lie (Liar, Liar) to snakes on a plane (Snakes on a Plane) a high concept can build excitement and sell a story. The results may be well-crafted (Diehard) or absurd exploitation (Sharknado), but all good high concepts register in the mind and create cascades of ideas. In short, they delight their audiences (even if the finished projects don’t).
Roger Corman can create a high concept with a title. His credits include Teen Age Caveman, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Ski Troop Attack, and Lady Frankenstein. Also, The Wasp Woman, Night of the Cobra Woman, Last Woman on Earth, and Women in Cages. Sly producer that he is, he often makes the genre obvious as well. For example, Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Piranha, and the original Little Shop of Horrors.
Of course, your concept, movie, and premise don’t need to be exploitative or grindhouse. See Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rebel Without a Cause, Dead Poets Society, The Great Train Robbery, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Slumdog Millionaire.
(When I was a kid, I begged to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Sadly, I never saw this artistic triumph, which, undoubtedly, would have shaped my life.)
Generating high concepts out of thin air is less difficult than it may seem.
Some concepts have worked against social assumptions and expectations. Kisses for My President postulated a female POTUS in 1964, Rod Serling’s The Man (starring James Earl Jones) explored the possibility of a black president in 1972. Classically, you can get a high concept by riffing off a success (Piranha/Jaws). You can make a list of evocative words, e.g., radiation, maniac, planet, cremation, confession, dead, naked, astronaut, terrorist, priest, gold, plague. Toss in the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, sloth, glutton). Add extremes (ultimate, last, giant, searing, sexiest, rare, midnight). Juxtaposing…
The Astronaut’s Confession
The Last Stripper
For comedies, mundane words (mall, carpool, stop sign, lunch, mom) might be inserted. The Astronaut’s Mom, Maniac Mall, Carpool of the Dead. (See also John Waters Serial Mom.)
You get the idea.
But here’s the point. A high concept is insufficient in and of itself because you have to write the story to go with it. Developing the concept into a good premise can help… using this model:
To achieve an important Goal, the Protagonist must Act and overcome Obstacles, or Calamity will occur and she/he will not get what she/he Wants and/or Needs.
The problem is that after you wrestle the high concept into a good premise, you still need to write the story. If that means a novel or a screenplay, you have a lot of pages to draft. You’ll need to dedicate hours to visualizing scenes, exploring characters, crafting dialogue, and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Unless you are a brilliant hack, working on a great idea that isn’t meaningful to you will be misery. The juxtapose game exercises your imagination and helps you to make connections, but your high concept — the one you want to live with — is likely to emerge from your own life, seasoned with an extreme (and playful) perspective. Even if you become pushing concepts to extremes, the stories you choose to write will be easier (even a delight) if they raise questions, promise surprises, reference your obsessions, and inspire possible scenes and situations.
Overall, favor concepts that make you uneasy because they’re likely to make you worry about your protagonist. Be careful of ideas that create a lot of expectations (especially moments audiences will be looking for) because you’ll have to include what people come for and deliver more than they think they want. No matter how extraordinary the idea is, find something you care about within it.
Exploring what matters to you can begin as simply as listing some of your favorite novels, short stories, or films. It’s likely you’ll discover themes and topics that many have in common. You also might delve into these stories (or your own life) by asking some questions about key moments. Start with a list of ten I offer in my blog post, Your Story’s Pivotal Scenes 1 – Finding the best candidates for reader delight.
My favorite vampire story ever is “Down Among the Dead Men” by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. The concept is a story about a vampire in a Nazi death camp. What the authors created, rather than exploitive and flashy, is a difficult but quiet tale full of poignance and humanity.
My rule is this: Balance what might sell with what you need to tell. And lean toward the latter.
Now excuse me while I complete my screenplay for Toddler Death Squads.
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