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Take Two: High-Concept Ideas Make a Screenwriting Career

Buzz words abound in Hollywood. Probably the biggest one is "high-concept ideas." Jeanne Veillette Bowerman explains what that phrase mean and why high-concept ideas make a screenwriting career.
Buzz words abound in Hollywood. Probably the biggest one is "high-concept ideas." Jeanne Veillette Bowerman explains what that phrase mean and why high-concept ideas make a screenwriting career

When I speak with screenwriters, I always inquire about their career goals and the projects they’re working on. They enthusiastically express a desire to win a contest, sell a script, and get representation.

But when I dig deeper into their story idea, the answer is rarely something high concept enough that Hollywood would be interested in buying. The stories are often about someone or something they know, not necessarily something that appeals to a larger audience.

Writing gurus advise us to write what we know or what we’re passionate about, but we also need to write something that will sell.

Screenwriting is a business. It takes millions of dollars to turn your words into a movie. No one wants to take a risk that large unless they believe they can make their money back, tenfold.

Are You Treating Your Screenwriting Like a Business? 

Most screenwriters aren’t writing stories Hollywood wants. The reality is, before you ever type FADE IN, you need to fully brainstorm the right story to tell. Some managers require their clients go through over a hundred ideas before mutually agreeing on what idea deserves their full attention.

When it takes months to write a solid story, don’t waste your time creating a product the market doesn’t want. Instead, examine your list of story ideas, put your producer hat on and ask, “Would a reader care if my protagonist achieves their goal?”

Too often no one would care simply because it’s an overdone idea and doesn’t make us jump out of our seats.

Even writers who win the top screenwriting contests struggle to get represented unless an agent or manager feels that writer has marketable story ideas. Again, it’s a business. They won’t represent you unless they can make money. Good writing isn’t enough. Concept is everything.

[How to use the "what if" exercise to elevate your story to a high-concept idea.]

You also need a treasure trove of ideas. When you send out queries, always be prepared to answer the question, “What else have you got?” Executives need to trust you have writing talent and a well of ideas that would make their eyes pop. If not, it’s time to raise the bar. Vanilla only sells to a small number of consumers with bland taste, at a low price point.

Before you abandon your career goals in favor of clutching your beloved character-driven story to your chest and making an indie film, know that even independent film producers need to find an audience and get into film festivals, hoping to appeal to a distributor.

Yes, I’m going to remind you again—writing is a business. The same is true of publishing. High concept rules that industry, too. You can’t avoid it.

So, what is “high concept” and how do you implement it into your story?

What is not high concept:

• High concept is not high budget and car explosions.

• High concept is not character driven.

• High concept is not difficult to explain or describe.

• High concept is not formulaic.

• High concept is not dependent on casting an A-list star. The concept is key, no matter what actor is on the screen.

The more difficult your concept is to explain, the more executives’ eyes will gloss over. If there’s only one takeaway from this article, let it be that.

What is high concept:

• High concept has a mass audience appeal. Nine out of 10 people who hear the idea would pay $15 to see the movie.

• High concept conveys a clear goal. Your hero can have an emotional evolution, but it should not be the centerpiece of the story. Give them a visible goal—kill the shark (Jaws), find the lost groom in time for the wedding (The Hangover).

• High concept contains a high degree of conflict as well as visible obstacles. Whatever obstacles you throw in front of your protagonist should persist until the bitter end.

High concept is original. In Hollywood terms that means “the same, but different.” Your story can have a similar concept we’ve experienced before but must include an original twist we’ve not seen before.

High concept contains universal themes—love, hate, vengeance, escape, fate, family, power, justice, honesty, etc. A high concept isn’t so simple that everyone gets it … It’s so universal that everyone gets it. Choose themes an audience has experienced or themes we’ve thought and fantasized about. Your concept needs to appeal to a prospective audience member, regardless of gender, race, or age.

High concept stories occur in a specific time limit. Think of a ticking clock. A short time span adds tension and suspense, making the audience root for the protagonist to achieve their goal under intense limitations. In the adaptation of the book Six Days of the Condor, the movie title changed to Three Days of the Condor. Tick, tick, tick.

High concept contains a clear, concise, and succinct logline with as few words as possible to describe or explain it. A lawyer who can’t lie (Liar Liar). A king who can’t speak to his people (The King’s Speech).

High concept has a great title. Short. Evocative. Suggestive. Intriguing. Your title should either qualify or sum up your logline. Think Home Alone, Liar Liar, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Jaws, Cast Away, The Fugitive, Jurassic Park, etc.

High concept should promise an emotional experience, not just action. People watch films to escape. Make them feel so intensely, whether it be with humor or drama, that they can’t stop talking about your story for weeks after reading the script. When a story resonates with an executive, they will fight to get it made and become your champion.

How to Stay Light-Years Ahead of Your Competition 

When we begin writing, we study craft. Rarely does a teacher explain the importance of story concept. Take control of your career and learn as much as you can about how to elevate your ideas into high concept ones before you ever start writing any story, whether a script or a novel. High concept truly is what separates a novice from a career writer.

Once you make that sale, learn how to react to and implement the inevitable feedback notes executives will hand you. If concept is king, then collaboration is queen. If you deliver a high-concept screenplay but cannot execute notes, you’ll get fired from the rewrite. Plenty of scripts are sold only to have the original writers fired when they can’t deliver. The industry is littered with one-shot wonder screenwriters. Don’t be that screenwriter.

[Learn more about screenwriting with Script's Free Downloads]

Some writers write simply for enjoyment. If that’s the case, then high-concept scripts aren’t necessary. Write what you love. But if you’re writing stories to put food on the table, love isn’t enough. Hollywood is rampant with script competition semi-finalists, finalists, and winners who still haven’t sold a spec screenplay. Exceptional writing gets you noticed but getting a producer to love your script’s concept not only puts a check in your pocket but also launches your career.

However, you can’t rest on concept alone. To make that career last, you must back it up with stellar writing as well as a never-ending supply of marketable story ideas.

Always remember the question, “What else have you got?” If you only have one amazing story concept, one sale is all you can hope for. A single sale does not a career make. Great writing gets you noticed. Great concepts get you a career. 

For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman on WD and on Script.

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