Story Talk: High Concept—Yes—It Actually Means Something!

As screenwriters, we have all come up against the agent, publisher, studio hack or fellow writer who when asked to give feedback on our story retorts, “Yeah, good idea, but… it needs to pop more. There’s no high concept.” Sigh. “High concept”: what the heck does that mean—really? What is a writer supposed to do with that? People throw this phrase around like the definition is common knowledge.

But when asked to explain their sorry selves, these same people only deliver cliches:

  • It’s your story’s hook
  • It’s what’s fun about your story
  • It’s your story in a single image
  • It’s your story’s heart
  • It’s your story as a movie one-sheet
  • It’s the essence of your premise
  • And so on …

All of these have some truth to them. All of these speak to the idea of a high concept, but none of them really explain the darn thing. “High concept” has become a term d’art everyone uses and no one really understands.

After much hair pulling, moaning, and sleepless nights analyzing this idea, I have stumbled upon an elegant construct I think will with both define the term accurately, but also give writers a tool for testing their ideas to quickly see if there is a high-concept component present. It goes like this:

High concept applies to any idea: motorcycle design, toothpaste, cooking, comic books, novels and movies—the list is endless. High concept is about essence; that visceral thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. From a writing perspective, a story idea that is high concept captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, get’s them asking “what if,” and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word. High concept drives the commercial book business, as well as the film and television industries. A high-concept idea has the following seven qualities:

The 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea™:

  • High level of entertainment value
  • High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than original)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
  • Sparks a “what if” question
    (Excerpted from my book Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development, publication date early 2013 through Bookbyte Digital.)

Let’s look at each of these to get a better idea of what they mean:

High-level of entertainment value: This can be elusive. Defining “entertainment value” is like trying to define pornography; it’s in the eye of the beholder. Simply put, you know if something is entertaining, or not, if it holds your attention and sparks your imagination. If you are distracted easily from the idea or interested purely on an intellectual basis, then it is safe to say that the idea may be interesting, engaging, and curious, but not entertaining.

High degree of originality: What does it mean to be original? Some common words associated with originality are: fresh, new, innovative, novel (no, not a book). Think of originality as approach-centric. The idea may be centered in a familiar context, but the approach (original take) offered to get to that familiar context has never been used before, for example:

e.g. Frankenstein:
Familiar idea: evil monster terrorizes the humans.
Original take: the monster and humans switch moral ground and the humans terrorize the monster.

e.g. Dog Day Afternoon:
Familiar idea: man robs a bank for money.
Original take: man robs a bank to get sex change for his transsexual lover and wins the hearts and minds of the people.

e.g. Lord of the Flies:
Familiar idea: survivors shipped wrecked on an island.
Original take: the survivors are proper English schoolboys who abandon all civilized norms reverting into primitive savages.

So, originality is more about finding new ways to present the familiar, rather than inventing something new from scratch.

High level of uniqueness: Whereas originality is about approach and fresh perspective, uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind, first time, and incomparable. Being original can also involve uniqueness, but being unique transcends even originality. Sometimes this is achieved in the content or in the execution of a work.

e.g., Finnegan’s Wake:
Familiar context: episodic, slice-of-life  vignettes of HCE, ALP and other characters
Original take: one-of-a-kind writing style never before used in modern fiction

Highly visual: high-concept ideas have a visual quality about them that is palpable. When you read or hear about a high-concept idea your mind starts conjuring images and you literally see the idea unfold in your mind. This is why high-concept books make such good films when adapted. Books with cinematic imagery are almost always high-concept stories.

Possesses a clear emotional focus: Like imagery, high-concept ideas spark emotion, but not just any emotion, usually it is a primal emotion: fear, joy, hate, love, rage, etc. There is no wishy-washy emotional engagement of the reader. The involvement is strong, immediate, and intense.

Possesses mass audience appeal: The idea appeals to an audience beyond friends and family. The target market is broad, diverse, and large. Some ideas are very niche, appealing to a specific demographic, but this is usually a large demographic. High-concept ideas are popular ideas, mass ideas, and often trendy ideas.

Usually born from a “what if” question: What if dinosaurs were cloned (Jurassic Park)? What if women stopped giving birth (Children of Men)? What if Martians invaded the Earth (War of the Worlds)? High-concept ideas are often posed first with a “what if” scenario and then the hook becomes clear. The hook is that part of the high concept that grabs the reader. It is often the one piece of the idea that is the original concept or the unique element. In the three examples just given, each of them has a clear hook that leads to a high-concept premise line (the “premise line” will be the subject of a later post).

Do you have to have all seven qualities for an idea to be high concept? No, but the more of them you have, the more likely you will have a strong high concept. When the idea of high concept is put in the context of these seven qualities, it becomes easier to see that commercial ideas and literary (i.e., soft) ideas often have a clear line of demarcation. That line is the high concept. The next piece of this concept concerns the log line, which is a practical tool for realizing the potential of your high concept. In other words, your log line (different than a premise line!) is your high concept stated in a short, concise sentence. But, this is the subject of a later post.

I hope this helps. It sure helped me when I figured it out.

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20 thoughts on “Story Talk: High Concept—Yes—It Actually Means Something!

  1. E.J

    I wish they taught this to me in college… no I wonder I didn’t graduate! Fantastic article, Jeff- I can take this with me for the rest of my screenwriting career. This stuff is clutch and greatly needed.

  2. OALP

    Dear Jeff Lyson
    I don’t know if you just phoned it in or perhaps your just not very bright I hope your are aware not only did you not prove your argument but you clearly show that “High Concept” is a bunch of bullshit. Every film and piece of Literature should be “high concept” if a story lacks originality or “uniqueness” (among a long list of other essential things.) which I think Jeff means an authors voice or style , than it’s a piss poor piece of work. You might as well say “I want an Excellent Movie.” or “Make it Popular & Successful”.

    High Concept: (Noun) (word origin:fuck knows) a simple and often striking idea or premise.

  3. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Ted: Thanx very much for your kind words. This is a huge issue for novelists as well. Especially when you get into the literary vs. genre debate. I think this is a false debate, but can’t really do an article here on that as it is not specific to screenplays. But, high concept is a very important problem for novelists these days. So, just replace “screenwriter” with “novelist” in my article and there we go. :)

    Thanx again.
    J

  4. Ted Ottley

    Thanks, Jeff – one of the most useful pieces I’ve read in a long time. Especially your quick, tight analysis of the film examples. So rewarding to have ‘scriptspeak’ translated. Although I’ve only had novels published, I’m grateful for insights like yours – and not just for film scripts. Cheers from Australia. Ted

  5. James Peters

    Jeff, thanks for this excellent article.

    I teach screenwriting (basic through advanced) at a local college and find the high-concept mantra is one of the most difficult lessons to impart. And it happens again and again when writing coverage or judging a screenwriting contest or mentoring a writer one-on-one. As you aptly point out, there are gazillions of stories out there, but what really makes them work for film? A product-oriented approach seems to help: If a story concept is to excite the reader / producer / viewer, it must excite the writer first!

    That said, I try to encourage new writers to learn the craft and achieve the most important goal of all: A sense of accomplishment.

    Truly looking forward to seeing your book. Many blessings, my friend — James

  6. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Yolanda: Wow… first Zambia now South Africa. I think this is so cool to be reaching people in this part of the world. Really inspiring for me. Thank you for your funny comment. But, the truth is you’re not far off from the truth… lots of people think the same thing, I believe. I USED TO BE ONE OF THEM :)

    J

  7. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Henry: How great to hear from you in Zambia! I know how challenging it must be to not have easy access to information and training. Always inspiring to hear from people who don’t let these kinds of challenges stop them from their dreams. If I ever get to Africa to teach workshops I’ll let you know :) Re helping you sell scripts… HA… sorry but I’ve got my hands full trying to sell mine. :) Thank you again for your input and for taking time to read my article. Best of luck to you!!!

    J

  8. Yolanda

    Thanks for this article! We had a completely different idea of what a high-concept film is here in SA. We thought it’s when a movie cost a lot of money to make, i.e. car chase scenes, helicopters, explosions, etc. whereas a low-end movie would be a drama with a character driven plot, no special fx, etc.

  9. HENRY JOE

    This article had all the seven qualities! very informative. I live in Zambia, Africa and we are just building our film industry. I have written a number of films that have been produced on HD (Semi-professional) and have been shown at the cinemas and on TV and some of them have even won local awards. But hey, I must say that I never thought of these elements you have mentioned in such a way. We have no film school and so I have learnt what I know about screenwriting and film making from watching movies and articles like yours. Looking forward to the book.
    I have some ideas for scripts that I want to work on. could I pass them over to you and may be you could help me sell them, that is if they are High Concept!!!!

  10. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Lawrence: I was afraid someone was going to ask me that question :) I think something like “The Matrix” has all the makings. Very strong on entertainment value and originality, and had a uniqueness that was also strong (the visuals were first of their kind). It really had it all.

    The value of such a story is that you will attract buyers more readily because they will see the commercial potential more clearly. This is not to say that a weak high concept won’t find an audience, or is not a good story, but we’re talking selling widgets here… not art. :) There are a good number of movies and books that have high-concept value, more books than movies (consider most good movies are book adaptations).

    Very happy you liked the article.

    J

  11. Lawrence Trujillo

    Jeff: Have you ever come-across a story with all seven qualities of a high-concept idea? If one was available, should a author complete the book or sell the idea for film? What is the “value” (not only money) of such a story?

    I really liked your article and will post these qualities as part of my consideration before writing.

    Thanks,

    Larry

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