Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More on High Concept

I think I have a new entry in my rapid weather change records. Yesterday afternoon, I went out to run some errands. It was in the upper 60s, and I was probably dressed a little too warmly wearing a light turtleneck and a hooded sweatshirt. I went to the bank, and while the teller was handling my transaction, a song came on the radio. I finished at the bank and went out to my car, thinking that I was a little too warm and that I might leave the sweatshirt in the car when I went to Target. My car radio was on the same station the bank was playing, and the same song was still on. I drove to Target in the same shopping center. The song hadn't ended when I parked and turned the car off. I got out of the car and was not dressed warmly enough. I think it had more to do with distance than time, though, as I could actually see the line of the front, which was right between Target and the bank. It may have even still been warm at the bank. Very freaky, and kind of cool.

So far, I'm loving the TV version of Hogfather. I may have to get the DVD, since they broke for commercials every five minutes (I actually timed one of the commercial breaks, and it did come five minutes after the last one) and even taping it and editing out commercials, they had those stupid animated promo things at the bottom of the screen. But that aside, a lot of it is exactly as I imagined when I was reading it.

And now, for my regular every-other-Wednesday writing post!

Last time, I attempted to define "high concept." Now I'll take a stab at some ideas for creating high concept stories or describing your stories to highlight the high concept. Sometimes the problem with high concept is that your book doesn't really have it. And sometimes the problem is that you have it and don't realize it and aren't pitching it properly.

There are entire workshops done on how to come up with high concept ideas, and it's such a nebulous idea that it falls into "I know it when I see it" territory. The trick is that it's something in the eye of the beholder, and the person reading it is the one who decides if it's high concept. One way to get an eye for what some people think is high concept enough to be worth throwing money at is to look at the blurbs for the debut author sales in Publisher's Lunch or look at the back-cover copy on new books by first-time authors. It's really hard for a new author to break into commercial fiction without a pretty high-concept story. You can also look at the movies whose trailers barely mention who's starring in them. Chances are, if the cast and director aren't promoted, Hollywood considers that a pretty high-concept story. Television movie listings are a good way to see how a high-concept story can be described because they tend to focus on the main selling point of the movie.

There are some things that tend to pop up regularly as part of a high concept:
1) Maximized conflict. I've seen this described as "put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them." Make the worst-case scenario happen. Put your protagonist in direct opposition to the antagonist, and make it a huge mismatch. Going back to the example of The Terminator, that merciless cyborg killing machine wasn't going after a female soldier, cop or martial arts expert. It was going after a waitress. That made it a real Godzilla vs. Bambi showdown and made things that much more difficult for our heroine because it was a fight she wasn't prepared for (notice that in the sequel when she is prepared for the fight, the protagonist became her young son -- a child up against the merciless killing machine). If things are bad for your main character, how can you make them worse on a bigger scale?

2) Higher stakes. What are the consequences if your hero fails to achieve his goals? Not every conflict can be life-or-death or earthshattering, but how can it be maximized in its effect on your characters? If they can walk away and go on with their lives if they fail, then your story isn't as strong as it should be.

3) Give the familiar a new twist. The example Michael Hauge uses in his screenwriting book is the movie ET. There had been tons of movies about lonely, misunderstood boys finding stray dogs. This movie put a twist on it by making it a stray alien. That change was more than cosmetic, though. It also raised the stakes and maximized the conflict. It's bad enough trying to hide a stray dog from your mom, and the consequences of being found out are pretty bad. What happens if your mom finds you've got an alien living in the closet? It's one thing to try to elude the dogcatcher. What about trying to elude the US government? It's difficult enough when you find your dog's real family and have to give him up to people who live on another block or in another town, but what if your new friend's real home is in another galaxy? Another familiar example is The Lord of the Rings, which was a quest story, but it wasn't about finding something. It was about getting rid of something, and every moment they had the ring, they were in more danger. In an ordinary quest, unless the item you're seeking is necessary to save the world, you can always turn back, no harm done. These people couldn't live as long as they had the ring. They had no choice but to get rid of it, so the stakes were higher.

4) Put your story in an interesting or unusual situation or give your characters an unusual occupation. This is along the lines of adding a twist. Take the classic "trapped in a remote cabin with a monster" story and set it on a space ship, and you've got Alien. The stakes are higher because there is literally no escape and no chance of rescue in the vastness of space. Mystery writers make good use of occupations for their characters. That's how they carve out a niche for a series. It's not just an amateur sleuth who solves crime, but it's a pastry chef or a wedding planner.

In all of these things, it's about using these elements to raise the stakes rather than just adding window dressing to make the story look different. These twists fundamentally change the story that's being told. It needs to matter that the boy finds a lost alien instead of a lost dog. It needs to make a difference that the cyborg's target is a waitress instead of a soldier.

One thing that makes life difficult for us is that they keep raising the bar for what could be considered "high concept." Whenever someone creates something that's high concept, that then becomes the new norm, and everything that comes after it has to be even bigger and better. So we start with Die Hard and a bomb in a high rise building, then have to move on to Speed, where the bomb is on a bus that has to keep moving.

When you're pitching a story, it may help to focus on the high concept elements in the initial pitch, even if that's not necessarily the main plot. For instance, if you're pitching a mystery in which your amateur sleuth has an unusual profession, you'd probably want to focus on that rather than on the details of the mystery itself. Look at what makes your characters unique and their conflict dire.

I may get off schedule in the next couple of weeks because the next writing post should fall the day after Christmas, and I'm not sure I see that happening. I may move temporarily to a different day or post a week earlier or a week later.

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