A friend of mine did a workshop at the RWA National Conference a couple of weeks ago on the High Concept Premise. We ended up talking before the workshop about high concept in books and movies, and also about the even more elusive concept of the Big Book.
I was interested to hear that when she polled a number of editors to ask them how they would define a Big Book, while everyone said that the Big Book is the one that everyone is always looking for, no one could give her a specific answer about what exactly it is. Or even try. A Big Book is the one all the editors get excited about because they think they can make a ton of money with it. But what IS that?
I’m used to people being vague about what High Concept is. And yes, it’s an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing – the idea that is so good that it is painfully obvious, only no one else has thought of it until now.
And as my friend and I were talking, I realized that a Big Book is slightly different from a High Concept book. They are NOT necessarily interchangeable terms, which is going to make this blog post even more confusing.
But let’s start with High Concept. This is a Hollywood term. And very often, it IS what editors mean when they talk about a Big Book.
If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is – AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it – that’s high concept. (If you need a refresher on the premise line you can read more here: What’s Your Premise?).
Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.
I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.
I would also add, because MEET THE PARENTS is a good example of this, that you know what the movie is from the title alone. (In fact, many movie ideas are sold on the title alone. I had lunch with an A-list screenwriter friend recently who said that the title might be the most important selling point of any film pitch, these days.)
Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” – you’ve got a high-concept premise.
But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:
– They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)
– They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)
– They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK) or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY).
– They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, THE HANGOVER, BLIND DATE, FOUR CHRISTMASES).
– They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)
– They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)
– They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, THE CRYING GAME). And not necessarily a twist at the end – the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love – when they’ve never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn’t pay – which turns out to be her heinous husband’s dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.
– They are about a famous person or event – or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL, 2012, THE HISTORIAN, DA VINCI CODE.
– There’s also just the “Cool!!!” factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?
Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:
JURASSIC PARK – A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.
What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?
Plus, there’s the potential for an amusement park ride. I’m not kidding. What made STAR WARS one of the biggest moneymaking franchises of all time? Action figures. Light sabers. Wookie costumes. Do you think for one single second that Hollywood is not thinking of these things all the time?
FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.
This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.
INDECENT PROPOSAL – A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.
This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!
HARRY POTTER: A boarding school for wizards? You don’t even have to say any more about it. Except that – what kid DOESN’T think that they’re a crown prince/ss wizard or witch trapped in a Muggle family? (Also, see “amusement park ride” and “action figures”. Cereal, candy, Halloween costumes… have you seen the EAT PRAY LOVE clothing line, wines, and storage containers at Cost Plus? I’m just saying…)
Are you starting to get the hang of it?
But with movies, the high concept premise has a couple of incredibly practical considerations. It suggests a built-in marketing campaign – and it is such a good idea that you could shoot it on a low budget and still have a movie that people would go see. That doesn’t mean anyone’s GOING to shoot it on a low budget, because we are after all talking about Hollywood. But you COULD shoot it on a low budget. It is the idea that is golden. (Think of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, OPEN WATER – all ultra low budget movies that made mints because the ideas were so compelling and the movies were well enough done to sustain the idea).
A Big Book, however, is almost the opposite. It’s Big. Epic. The HARRY POTTER series, THE HISTORIAN, THE PASSAGE, DA VINCI CODE, THE HUNGER GAMES – these all scream big budget. Huge setpiece scenes, international or otherworld locations, huge casts. They have been or all will be made into movies because they are bestsellers and also incredibly cinematic (not to mention in a few cases great books) but without that bestseller thing they are concepts that would give any studio head pause, because of the budget considerations. But in a book, we have no budget constraints. We can do the international scope and build a whole other world. And once that book has proven itself in the book world, Hollywood is more than glad to sweep it up for film or TV production.
So what can we do to start generating more high concept/Big Book ideas for ourselves?
One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating – I made my first “screenwriting” money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.
Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept, or Big Books. You’ll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about. But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.
(Also, I hope the brainstorming we’re going to do here today will help.)
The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.
Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.
So I’m really interested in talking more about this today. Which books do YOU consider Big Books? What about High Concept – books or movies? Let’s throw out some examples and analyze what’s going on to make them such successful premises!