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Conquering The High Concept

By James Bonnet

In Hollywood and New York, the concept is king. To succeed as a writer or filmmaker, you need more than a skillfully constructed novel or beautifully directed film. You need an idea that will be talked about, generates excitement and compels the right people to get involved. A great idea, as it turns out, has an anatomy and a structure and that which makes a subject fascinating, a title intriguing or an idea exciting can be described and learned. Understanding the High Concept is the key to accomplishing that.

But what is a High Concept? Simply put, a high concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all. An asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward the earth. That's a high concept. Everyone knows exactly what that means. It arouses an emotional response, and, in just eleven words, everyone knows what the movie is about. Doomsday.

Creating a high concept implies an ability to formulate your idea in its most powerful and concise form -- to make it as short and as marvelous as possible. The fewer the words, the higher the concept. Jack Nicholson is the Wolfman. The movie didn't turn out well, but it was a great idea -- a very effective high concept.

Now, is this idea of a high concept something the studios cooked up to stifle art and increase profits? Obviously. But does it also have merit? I think it has merit. Whether you plan to create highly visible, commercial films like those created by Jerry Bruckheimer, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg or highly acclaimed stories like 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Ordinary People' or 'Harry Potter,' I think it is important.

For one thing, being able to reduce your idea into something powerful that can be expressed in a few words forces you to come to terms with what the story is really about. In other words, to create a true high concept, you not only have to understand all of the important structural elements, you have to get at the very essence of your story.

In the second place, it is a valuable shorthand that can help facilitate communication. If your project is going to be sold to, or financed by, a major production company or publisher, then the idea not only has to be intriguing, it has to be brief. It has to move easily through the chain of command -- and make everyone who hears it eager to listen to your pitch, read your script or look at your film. Then, after they've heard it or read it and loved it, they have to be able to explain it to others in the chain and intrigue them.

For example -- in the 70's, there was a very popular 90- minute TV show called 'MacMillan and Wife,' which starred Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James. Steven Bochco, whom you've no doubt heard of because of shows like 'NYPD Blue,' was the story editor. Julie Epstein introduced me to Leonard Stern, the Executive Producer, who referred me to Bochco, who had never seen my work and had no idea what I could do. We had a meeting and discussed a couple of ideas, but nothing happened.

Then one day, while I was in my kitchen making some coffee, a thought popped into my head -- and on an impulse I called Bochco.

'What've you got?' he asked, after the usual amenities.

'Susan gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle.'

'I love it,' he said. 'I'll get back to you.'

Ten minutes later, he called me back and said: 'I hope you can write. You've got a deal.'

Now, as it turned out, Bochco had called the producer, who loved it and told Bochco to call their contact at NBC. Bochco called the contact, the contact called his superior, and pitched it to him. Then the contact called Bochco back, and Bochco called me. All within less than ten minutes. It was the highest-paying show on television, and at that moment, 'Susan gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle' was the sum total of what I knew about that story idea.

If the idea is so complicated that it is difficult to explain or understand, it may never reach the people who make the decisions. It can get lost in the translation.

The high concept is also an important part of the end of the process. In the beginning, it is a powerful seed that can help you both create and sell your story. At the end of the process, it is the face you put on the story when you try to market it. It's what the public will see on the book jacket or movie poster. And here again, your mission has to be accomplished in very few words.

There are four elements that can help you accomplish this goal -- the Fascinating Subject, the Great Title, the Inciting Action, which is the problem of your story, and the Hook, which reveals the uniqueness or special circumstances of your story.

What is a Fascinating Subject? A fascinating subject is just that, a subject that is in itself intriguing. The story arouses our interest just because of the subject. That's a tremendous asset.

Not long ago, I walked into a bookstore. I walked past the first table, and a book caught my eye. I walked another 20 steps, stopped and went back. The title that caught my eye was: 'Cleopatra's Secret Diaries.' The thought of learning the most intimate secrets of one of the world's most famous lovers definitely intrigued me.

What are some of the subjects that have worked in the past? Demonic possession, money, sex, power, dinosaurs, UFOs, scandalous love affairs, serial killers, extra terrestrials, cloning -- I'm sure you can think of many others. Some of my favorites are: justice and honor, immortality, secret societies and lost treasure. In any event, it's important to find the subjects that really fascinate you and will fascinate the audience you are trying to reach. Finding the fascinating subject is one of the things that forces you to discover what the story is really about.

What is a Great Title? A great title is a title that not only tells the audience what the story is about -- what the fascinating subject is -- it reveals the genre, which is to say, it whets their appetite for the type of feelings associated with that genre. The feelings associated with a thriller, a mystery, a love story, an adventure and so on. Each of these different genres evokes a different emotional adventure.

Magic is a good subject. Merlin is a good title for a story with that subject because Merlin is associated with that event. Catastrophes are another popular subject. What better title than: 'Titanic?' Lost civilizations. 'Atlantis' says it all. Murder. 'The Black Widow.' Not a great movie, but a great title.

Some other good titles are: 'Shakespeare in Love.' I'm interested. 'The Perfect Murder.' I saw it. 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Roswell,' 'ER,' 'Kiss the Girls,' 'Star Wars,' 'Gladiator,' 'Jurassic Park,' 'The Mummy,' 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.' I bought it.

There's a new film called 'Original Sin.' On the movie poster, Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie relate to each other with suggestive intimacy. The caption reads: 'Lead Us Into Temptation.' If that's your kind of thing, you don't have to know much more than that.

The words of a good title are words like 'Titanic,' 'Roswell' and 'The Sixth Sense' that have come to be associated with significant events of a particular subject. And it helps the audience identify the type of emotional experience they can expect.

Finding a great title forces you to discover the subject and the genre -- the source of the feelings experienced by the audience. You know it's a great title when it tells you everything desirable to know up front. And if you have a great title and a fascinating subject, you are halfway there.

The third element is The Inciting Action. The inciting action is the onset or the cause of the problem. It is the cause of the action. It is the reason action has to be taken.

An asteroid the size of Texas is about to collide with the earth. Action has to be taken. It has to be destroyed or diverted. A serial killer is loose in the neighborhood. Action has to be taken. He has to be caught. A baby is left on a doorstep. It has to be properly cared for. An invading army has to be confronted and defeated. An erupting volcano has to be escaped from. A man-eating shark has to be destroyed. A raging fire has to be put out. A terrible disease has to be cured, and so on.

You will know it is an inciting action, if action has to be taken -- if there is a problem and something has to be done about it -- NOW.

Finding the inciting action forces you to come to terms with the problem of your story. And stories are about problems. It is a prerequisite in all stories. You have a problem and that problem is resolved. It is one of the essences of story -- that without which there would be no story. No matter how big or small the story, it will be focusing on a problem. And everyone in that story will somehow be involved in that incident. And everything everyone does in that story will in some way affect the outcome of that incident. Revealing how that problem was created and how it can be resolved is at the heart and soul of a story.

The Hook is a unique aspect of the problem, which suggests intriguing possibilities. It is a special circumstance surrounding the problem that raises the stakes and increases our interest.

Susan gets lost, not in the mall, but in the Bermuda Triangle. A volcano erupts, not in the desert, but in the middle of the city. A baby is left on the doorstep, not of a kindly nanny, but of three bachelors. Star-crossed lovers meet, not at a church social, but on the Titanic. A woman is kidnapped, and her husband refuses to pay the ransom. Satan takes possession of a teen-age girl.

The Hook implies a difficulty, which makes the threat more dangerous and intriguing.

In 'Fatal Attraction,' a successful lawyer has an affair, not with your average 'other woman,' but with a beautiful psychopath.

Finding the hook forces you to come to terms with what is unique about your story. It is the unique aspect, which will make the idea fresh. You identify the problem and emphasize the difficulty.

So these are the four elements -- the Fascinating Subject, the Great Title, the Inciting Action and the Hook. All of which can be expressed in a few words. And if you are going to create a High Concept or a Great Idea, you'll find these four elements very useful.

The idea here is that you can create a super powerful seed working with these elements. A seed that will not only help you create a great story, it will help you sell it on the front and back ends. And it would be nice to know up front that you have a concept that can be marketed.

Meet the Author: James Bonnet

James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.