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High Concept: What It Is and How to Apply It to Your Story

Apply the Tenets of High Concept to Your Screenplay Idea. No Matter What the Genre.

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by Script Reader Pro in Concept, Story and Theme
June 5, 2019 17 comments
high concept screenplay

High Concept: What It Is and How to Apply It to Your Story Idea

Is Deadpool “high concept”? What about Midnight in Paris? Or The Purge?

The fact that you can ask ten different writers and get ten different opinions, kind of sums up how confusing the notion of a “high concept” has become.

♦  What does the term mean exactly?

♦  Should you be writing scripts that are “high concept?”

♦  Will it make them easier to sell?

In this post, we’re going to explain exactly what “high concept” traditionally means. But also how and why you should apply the tenets of high concept to your story idea. No matter what the genre.

So let’s get to it.

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What Does “High Concept” Even Mean?

The term “high concept film” refers (traditionally) to one with a “hook”—a unique idea that sells easily and usually does well at the box office.

Think…

BIG!
BOLD!
ORIGINAL!
FUN!

High concept movies are generally regarded as being more idea-driven than character- driven. As such, they’re more readily associated with idea-driven genres such as comedy and action/adventure. Rather than, say, coming-of-age dramas.

The idea of the high concept film really took off during the heyday of the spec era in the 80s and 90s. Imagine you’re an exec in 1980 and a writer pitches you Tootsie. You’d be immediately hooked, right? But why?

Because…

♦  You’d be able to see the whole film in your head.

♦  You’d be able to easily picture the funny situations Michael gets himself into.

♦  You’d know you could easily sell it.

♦  You’d instinctively know audiences will love it.

This perfectly captures the essence of the traditional view of a high concept film:

A big, original idea that screams “How hasn’t this been made before!!

Many other 80s and 90s hits, such as Groundhog Day, Jurassic Park and Liar Liar, all do the same thing.

You’ve probably heard some or most of these points before, but here’s a quick checklist of what constitutes a classic high concept:

♦  Is unique and original

♦  Is highly visual

♦  Contains a clear source of conflict

♦  Has a strong commercial appeal

♦  Instantly grabs the attention

♦  Is simple enough for an eighth-grader to understand

♦  Can be written in one or two sentences

♦  Possibly contains a twist and/or “fish out of water” scenario

♦  Makes people think, “how hasn’t this been made before?”

Modern High Concept Movies

We’re now in a completely different era from the days of high concept spec scripts selling for millions of dollars. But they’re still being made.

Here are a few examples of high concept movies:

♦  After realizing how much better his life would be, a man pays a company to shrink himself to five inches tall, allowing him to live in wealth and splendor among others who’ve undergone the same procedure. (Downsizing)

 A small group of former classmates compete in an elaborate, annual game of tag that requires countrywide travel and total commitment. (Tag)

♦  A man whose childhood wish of bringing his teddy bear to life came true, must now decide between keeping the relationship with his girlfriend or the bear.
(Ted)

It’s Time to Rethink “High Concept”

Unless you’re writing a passion project that you plan on shooting yourself, you’re going to want to sell your screenplay. And that means coming up with a script idea that, guess what?

♦  Is unique and original

♦  Is highly visual

♦  Contains a clear source of conflict

And so on…

The fact is, there’s hardly any difference between what some people define as “high concept” and one that’s just a cool, original idea that’s worth developing. An idea that will ultimately give your script the best possible chance of selling.

Try to refrain from thinking of high concept as applying only to high-voltage action and comedy movies. Or that high concept films are “over there,” while your movie idea is “over here.”

Nearly all ideas can benefit from being made “higher” if you want to sell them. So, begin to think of a “high concept” as simply being a great concept—one that will make selling your script that much easier.

high concept screenplay

How to Make an Ordinary Concept “High Concept” and More Sellable

Ninety percent of all spec screenplays fail at the first hurdle because their story concept is either derivative, uninteresting or uncommercial. Or all three.

Part of the problem is that much of the advice out there on how to come up with a sellable concept revolves around unhelpful clichés. Anyone can walk around all day asking “what if?” for example. But does it get you anywhere?

The truth is, there is no set way of coming up with a great, marketable, unique story concept. Every writer finds it in their own way. If there is one secret to it, though, it is this:

Never be satisfied with the ordinary. Never relax once you think you’ve got an “okay” idea. It can probably be made even better.

In fact, it absolutely must be pulled apart, stretched and explored until it’s as great as it can possibly be if you want to give yourself the best chance of selling a screenplay.

Let’s say you haven’t been struck by inspiration and have sat down and thought of an idea you want to write about. Maybe you have a great character. Or a situation. Or a fully fledged logline. It’s time to brainstorm

♦  How can the stakes be higher?

♦  How can the protagonist’s struggle be harder?

♦  How can we be made to care more about them?

♦  How can they be pushed to act in even more extreme ways?

♦  How can the concept be more visual, original, simple, etc.?

A good way to learn how to take a mediocre concept and turn it into a more high concept one is to compare loglines.

High Concept Logline Examples

Here are a few examples of ordinary loglines, followed by enhanced versions with added high concept elements.

1. Ordinary Concept 

In order to help get over a messy break-up, a woman decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

After Applying a Higher Concept

Following the dissolution of her marriage, death of her mother and years of self-destructive behavior, [visual, high stakes] a woman decides—with absolutely no experience[higher stakes, fish-out-of-water] to hike more than a thousand miles [visual] of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone [even higher stakes, clear conflict, simple, unique].

2. Ordinary Concept

After being robbed of his weed stash by some street kids, a man, whose clientele includes chefs and soccer moms, devises a foolproof plan to bring over a shipment from Mexico that he plans to pull off during a Fourth of July weekend.

After Applying a Higher Concept

A veteran pot dealer [visual] creates a fake family [twist, clear conflict, fish-out-of-water] as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the US from Mexico [high stakes, visual, clear conflict, simple, unique].

3. Ordinary Concept

At a music school, a drummer’s life is turned upside-down by a bullying teacher.

After Applying a Higher Concept

A promising young drummer [visual] enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory [visual, fish-out-of-water] where his dreams of greatness [high stakes] are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential [clear conflict, simple, unique].

Note how these second versions are much more visual, original and likely to have someone say “how hasn’t this been made before?”

In other words, they’re more high concept. Even though you wouldn’t necessarily pin examples #1 and #3 (Wild and Whiplash) as being “high concept movies.”

Note also how it’s much easier to become emotionally engaged in the second versions. This is because they spell out specifically what the protagonist will struggle within the movie.

They make you see it in a way the first versions don’t.

And that’s the mark of a great concept—not one that’s reserved solely for high concept action, thriller or comedy movies.

Brainstorm, Refine and Repeat

Not many story concepts arrive fully formed in professional screenwriters’ heads. Usually, the only way to get to these high concept “after” versions, is through intense brainstorming.

How did Zach Helm, for example, come up with the idea for, Stranger Than Fiction? It’s a novel idea if you’ll pardon the pun:

An IRS auditor realizes he’s a character in a novel that’s still being written, and has to get to the author before she kills him off.

We have no idea. Maybe he dreamed it. Maybe he’d seen one too many Woody Allen movies that month. The point is, it probably didn’t come to him fully formed as a perfect logline.

So, once you’ve come up with an initial idea, brainstorm and refine it. Add more stakes, make it more visual, make the conflict clearer, etc. And then brainstorm and refine it some more.

Get Feedback on Your Story Concept

Don’t make the same mistake many writers make of just relying on their own judgment when it comes to deciding if their story concept is good enough.

Before you get anywhere near typing “FADE IN” get some feedback on your story concept. Preferably from people both in the industry and outside it.

We have a Logline Analysis service that can give you the opinion of one of our pro screenwriters on your story concept.

In the end, it comes down to this…

You’ll know you’ve got a great idea for a movie when you tell it to people and nine out of ten times they’re excited by it. They want to know more. They’re jealous they didn’t think of it.

If the person you’ve just told your idea to, doesn’t say something along the lines of, “I wish I’d thought of that,” or, “Oh no, what happens next?” then the idea probably still needs tweaking.

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Conclusion

As we’ve outlined in this post, most of the criteria that make up a so-called “high concept” goes toward making any concept great.

However, coming up with an original, marketable and exciting story concept can still be tough, to say the least. Naturally, the last thing you want to happen is to finish a script, only to realize afterward that the central story idea isn’t good enough.

The way to avoid this is to brainstorm and refine your story concept as much as possible. Don’t settle for just “okay.” Forget worrying about people stealing your idea. Get it out there. Get a range of opinions on it. Add some high concept elements and make it as great as it can be.

###

What methods do you use to come up with a high concept film? Or do you agree that many ideas could be made more high concept if the writer wishes to sell the script? Let us know in the comments below.

high concept screenplay

Enjoyed This Post? Read More on How to Write a High Concept and Plot Your Screenplay

How to Use a Script Analysis Worksheet to Bulletproof Act 1

How to Write a Logline: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

How to Write a Script Outline and Save Months of Rewrites

[© Photo credits: FlickrUnsplash]

17 Comments
  1. Christy J. says:

    I have an idea for a drama but can it be made high concept or not?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      In most cases, yes. The idea is to take any story concept and add these high concept elements to them to try to make them more marketable.

    2. Elaine says:

      Would The Godfather be considered high concept?

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Not in a traditional “unique and original” sense but it does contain high concept elements, such as the fact Michael is definitely a fish out of water.

  2. Conrad Williams says:

    I come up with high concept stories through my own nteresting experiences which I embellish slightly or add an interesting twist to create an interesting story. I generally write things that I would find interesting then approach varied people in the industry and outside whether they would want yo see that film.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s another great way to come up with a high concept – thanks, Conrad.

  3. William Whiteford says:

    Thank you for your Coke-like energizing Call to the Unlimited Creativity!
    Though the brainstorming technique is valuable and fruitful, many HC-concepts flash subconsciously and unpredictably in my case.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, that’s how the best ideas often arrive. Cheers!

  4. Michael Miller says:

    Love this article on high concept, very informative. But, that can be said about all of your articles, I really enjoy them. Now regarding high concept or great concept, do you think that true crime stories can be classified as great concept stories? Even those with historical value?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, Michael! Absolutely. Check out the loglines to most true crime stories (Dog Day Afternoon, Changeling, Zodiac, etc.) and they all have a great/high concept.

  5. Karen Crider says:

    Why not? Any story can come close to being high concept using these check points. Especially, if one is willing to undergo the sweat effect

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Exactly – thanks for the comment, Karen!

  6. Winfred D. says:

    I’m obsessed with high concept movies, so thanks so much for sharing this amazing post. I will use your tips to step up the game and transform my latest script into a high concept masterpiece. Cheers!

  7. Joshua King says:

    this is something i really struggle with. my script is a western long coming of age drama is it high concept?

  8. Toni says:

    This came just at the right time, working on my high concept as we speak.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, Toni!

  9. Khosa says:

    I think I have a high concept but Im not sure how can I be sure?

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