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 35 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.



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?


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.

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.

1a. Ordinary concept.

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

1b. 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].

2a. 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.

2b. 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].

3a. Ordinary concept. 

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

3b. 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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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]

  1. Nicole Heydenrijk says:

    I am working on a script that is more a serie than a film. It is meant for family entertainment. It’s a totally unique concept with loads of marketing potential .
    Do the same things count for series as for films, and are there special things to think of when writing a serie.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, the principles are the same for TV and movies.

  2. Vincent says:

    Is this rom-com logline sufficiently high-concept?
    “A Vegas waitress tripled in size becomes a beloved showroom headliner, falls in love with the scientist who accidentally enlarged her, then vows to save him when he’s kidnapped by three mutual rivals.”

  3. Pidge says:

    These screenwriting blogs are so very well-written and have been informative and true to the industry experience since my first time reading them.

    I do not use the term “high-concept” any longer in conversations (unless the exec brings it up and says it about a script, which is great) because its self-aggrandizement screams similar to, “Oh, this film will make you millions of dollars,” but high-concept is definitely a practice I feel every writer should employ in devising and structuring their story and screenplay. In, fact, it should probably be fully fleshed out, along with its cousin, the logline, before ever keystroking that first INT/EXT. slug line.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Pidge 🙂 Glad to have you on board.



    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the great comment, Peter! That’s totally true. Just the kind of character arc we need to see 🙂

  5. Cielo Lady P says:

    Hey. Love your post. Been struggling with the idea of high Concept for a while especially in drama genre. I got one in my head right now, though still brainstorming. I would like to share and get your honest opinion.
    Would like to inbox it directly.

    Thanks again for this article. It sure is helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Hi Cielo, thanks for the feedback! We have a Concept Analysis service that you can check out here.

  6. Orji Joseph says:

    Is it possible to make it in scriptwriting Carrier with little education from a poor background?
    Though I have a great passion for it. Thanks

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, you don’t really need money to write. Writing is free, (some) software is free, networking is free.

  7. Mann says:

    Team Script Reader Pro,
    Many Thanks for enlightening about Check list of High Concept which will surely help to sharpen the idea / concept.
    Also it will facilitate pitch in to various stake holders.
    Please keep enlightening.
    Thanks once again.

    Be Happy Be Blessed

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Mann!

  8. Mann says:

    Hey Khosa,
    Just tell the concept / story to Kids & Senior Citizens around you. Check out their responses / feedbacks.
    With the help of such Brainstorming sharing, you will surely get surity about your concept weather it’s great idea or not… Or how can it be make more interesting / greater idea.
    Wish You All The Success Ahead…..

  9. James Carlson says:

    What do you think of this logline? Is it high concept? “A man’s away weekend with his job goes south when they’re attacked by a supernatural force in the woods.”

  10. Frankie Huth says:

    Can i speak to your readers by phone?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sure thing – you can purchase a consultancy call here.

  11. Khosa says:

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

  12. 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!

  13. Joshua King says:

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

  14. 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!

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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. Bart says:

        Isn’t The Godfather high concept in the sense that it’s about a mob family, that’s more or less treated (by the screenplay) ‘like a normal family’, focussing on the family dynamics, insecurities, love interests etc. at least as much as on crime, scheming and plotting?

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