Screenwriting Concepts Tips

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Improving the Chances of a Not-so-Sky-High Concept

You've had a blast writing a couple of high-concept scripts that you can pitch to agents or the major studios. You now want to apply everything you've learned about storytelling to a wonderful little personal script that strays from the high concept path. If there's a market for personal spec scripts by newcomers, how can you tap into it?

A not-so-sky-high-concept script lives or dies on the quality of the writing—even more than a high-concept one. If you're ready for the challenge, however, follow entertainment lawyer Judith Merian's tips for increasing your chance of success:

Keep the budget low. Cut down on or totally eliminate the following:
• The number of locations
• Stunts, explosions, and special effects
• Fancy sets
• Costumes, uniforms, and period pieces
• Animals
• Crowd scenes
• Too many secondary characters

Consider your niche market—and use it. Expect an initial appeal to a niche audience which means small box office numbers. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was initially released in cities with Greek populations, giving the film a built-in audience and press coverage. As the word spread, so did the film's appeal. Greek cost $5 million and made $356 million in worldwide box office.

Write stories that travel. Write stories people can identify with, no matter where they live. A crazy family and its ugly duckling is universal. Little Miss Sunshine and My Big Fat Greek Wedding both used this theme.

Do your homework. The financiers behind My Big Fat Greek Wedding knew exactly how and to whom they could initially sell this film. Have an answer when asked, "Why should I take a chance with this offbeat story?" Be prepared to deliver data to back up your claims. Your financier is thinking ROI (return on investment) and so should you. Make it part of your pitch.

Have a marketing concept in mind. Little Miss Sunshine opened in seven theaters and expanded its release as it got good press. As it generated revenue, its distributor invested in marketing campaigns in additional cities. Its widest release was 1,602 theaters. It cost $8 million and made $84 million in worldwide theatrical release as of July 2006.

Cut down on violence, graphic sex, and raw language, all of which limit the audience even further in theaters, TV, and DVD. You want to increase the opportunities for making money, not diminish them. Addressing these elements with subtlety in the writing can enhance chances.

Appeal to an actor's ego. Write a script with a particular talent in mind (or say you did), and then send a great marketing letter to his production company.


Test Your Concept Before You Start Writing

"I wouldn't start a screenplay without a solid concept," says screenwriter/editor Jackie Pike. "Develop your concept to carry you through three acts before you start writing." Skip this step and you risk getting stuck somewhere in the second act.

Use this checklist to test and elevate your concept:

Is my idea universal?

This isn't a matter of appealing to the lowest common denominator but of touching what is shared by all of us. Is your concept about something everyone has experienced, such as the death of a beloved one, the threat to life and limb, or the weight of injustice? Will the audience respond emotionally?

Can I give my idea a unique twist?

You want to write a story about a couple of bachelors who fear commitment. This is a universal theme, but we've also seen it hundreds of times. Now give the concept a twist by having the bachelors display their party-on attitude in a unique way, and you end up with The Wedding Crashers, a fresh and successful comedy written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher.

Is my protagonist likable? Does she elicit empathy?

Will the audience care about what happens to your protagonist? In a dark piece, like Monster, will your audience understand and empathize with your protagonist, even if they find her behavior despicable? Have you given her inner as well as outer conflicts? Will she have to grow in order to accomplish her goal?

Are the stakes high enough?

What will happen if your heroine doesn't achieve her goal? In Freaky Friday, a mother and daughter magically switch bodies and desperately search for a way to switch back. Naturally, they each detest being in the wrong body. But screenwriters Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon raised the stakes yet another notch with a plot complication. The mother, Tess, is getting married in 24 hours. If they don't switch back in time, either the daughter, Anna, will have to go through with the wedding (unthinkable!), or Tess will lose her fiancé. Elevate the excitement of your script by elevating the stakes.

Can I summarize my concept in a logline of 25 words or less?

Distilling your idea to a 25-word logline forces you to clarify what your story is about. A clear concept keeps your screenplay on track. (For more on loglines, see tip #76.)

Does my title capture the spirit of my script?

Give your script a title that fits with your logline and makes your script stand out from the pile. What's a reader more likely to pick up: The Shark or Jaws? (For more on titles, see tip #18.)

Once you've elevated your concept, pitch it to as many people as you can—your friends, your family, even strangers. If it elicits the kind of emotional response you're hoping for (laughter, chills, excitement) move on to the outlining stage. If instead you're met with polite smiles or blank stares, keep working on your concept. And don't be afraid to ditch an iffy concept altogether. The creative mind is infinitely fertile, and you'll soon come up with a new concept to test.


High Concept And Creativity

Coming up with a powerful high concept idea is a creative challenge that can actually improve your writing. The process forces you to hone your story. You have to get really clear on what it's about and what makes it unique and worth telling.

For example, a buddy film about two homicide detectives after a gang of drug dealers might have the makings of a strong concept, but it depends on how it's executed. Right now the pitch is all "familiar" with no "unique." No one can begin to visualize a specific story. But give one of those cops a suicidal death wish and legally register him as a Lethal Weapon, like screenwriter Shane Black did, and suddenly light bulbs go off. Producers start imagining all sorts of incredible scenes with an A-list actor in the lead. You've just elevated a strong concept to a high concept. You went from "maybe it's a movie but I can't tell for sure," to "Wow, what a movie!"

And let's face it. You've just improved your story.

High concept can be gimmicky and formulaic, or it can be creatively liberating for you the writer and fresh and amazing for the audience. As a spec screenwriter, you have all the freedom in the world to ensure your script is the latter. Before you dismiss high concept as "too Hollywood," give it an honest try. You just might write your best—and most marketable—script yet.


The Low Down On High Concept

There are a limited number of themes that capture our collective imagination. In the end, all stories boil down to a handful of universal conflicts: life and death, good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and imprisonment, love and hate, and so on. In a sense, we're telling the same stories over and over again. But audiences quickly tire of repetition. They want fresh takes on ancient human dilemmas.

That's why producers insist on stories that are "unique but familiar." They want films that grab an audience's attention within the first 10 pages and hold it until fade out.

It's in our nature to respond to original stories with compelling heroes and exciting conflicts—what we storytellers call a "strong concept." Shakespeare's plays (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth) are based on strong concepts, as are many Greek tragedies (Oedipus Rex), operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Aida, Carmen), and countless novels (Pride and Prejudice, The Firm).

The strongest concept of all is a high concept. According to producer Hal Croasmun, a high concept has three essential components:

• The concept can be told in a single sentence that helps you immediately imagine the entire movie.
• The concept is unique in a significant way.
• The concept appeals to a wide audience.

The more original and appealing the idea, the higher the concept. "On a high concept scale of 1-10, you'll need a 7 if you want a chance of selling to Hollywood and a 9 or 10 if you want Hollywood to embrace you," says Croasmun.

The crew of a deep-space mining ship is trapped on board with an extraterrestrial monster: Alien. Between the title and a one-sentence pitch, we see the whole movie. Its life-and-death conflict is universal (familiar), but it's expressed in a fresh way (unique).

Why is it essential that the pitch be brief? Because executives hear hundreds, if not thousands, of pitches each year. If you can paint a vivid picture with only a few words, your idea will stand out. The person you pitched it to will remember it easily and will be able to pitch it to his boss, and so on through the chain of command. If your idea is difficult to explain, it'll be hard to visualize and remember.

In some circles, high concept has developed a bad reputation as nothing but a marketing gimmick. But, as you can see by the plays and novels I mentioned above, strong concepts have been around forever. Hollywood only took the idea one step further. And, truth be told, good high-concept movies make pots of money.

No matter what kind of story you strive to write—huge high-concept blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean or more intimate stories that are not high concept like Little Miss Sunshine—understanding what makes a strong concept is essential. If your script is original and has a great concept, it will be in demand.


First Impressions: The Title

Many screenwriters get lazy when it comes to titling their scripts. The argument is always the same: "Why bother? The studio's going to change it anyway."

I can think of at least three good reasons:

Pride: The title is the first sample of your writing anyone sees. If it's boring, what does that say about you as a writer? And what's going to entice a reader to pick your script out of the pile? (If you need a visual to drive this point home, go to to see Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowship, surrounded by over 6,000 script submissions.)

Marketing: A great title makes your movie easier to market. Your title goes hand-in-hand with your logline. The logline sets up the pitch, the title delivers the clincher. Say you're pitching a movie about a great white shark attacking people at a summer resort. Close with, "it's called Jaws," and you've painted a whole movie in the producer's imagination—and increased your chances of making a sale.

Writerly discipline: Coming up with a fantastic title means clarifying your concept. It helps you see the movie as much as it helps the producer. If you start to stray while writing or pitching, a single glance at the title can help get you back on track.

According to producer Hal Croasmun, there are three types of titles that work.

• The same title as the best-selling book that the movie is based on. This works even for titles that are confusing or uninspiring because they already have a built-in audience (Cold Mountain, Remains of the Day, The Godfather).
• Intriguing titles that hint at something lurking underneath the surface (Indecent Proposal, Crying Game, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest).
• Titles that instantly capture the story, the environment, the main character, etc. These titles give the essence of the movie. You aren't fighting an uphill battle trying to explain the story (Legally Blonde, Clueless, GI Jane).

"Avoid overly long titles, titles where you have to watch the movie to understand them, or titles that are confusing or make you think it's a different genre," advises Croasmun.

There are many ways to brainstorm great titles. Here are a couple of tips from Croasmun:

• Use contradictory word combinations, as in Back to the Future or Bad Santa.
• Give us the main character's internal state, as in Bedazzled or Unforgiven.
• Give us the key location, as in Moulin Rouge, Air Force One.
• Use a cliché from the story, as in You've Got Mail, or a twist on a cliché, as in Natural Born Killers.

Remember, the title is the first impression a reader gets of your writing. Make sure it shines!


High Concept, Characters, and Genre

High concept can leave plenty of room for originality and character. In fact, the best high-concept stories feature characters we care and cheer for. In Kramer vs. Kramer, we want to see Ted Kramer love his son and fight for him. In Master and Commander, we want Captain Jack Aubrey to win that sea battle and save the British from defeat. Our favorite heroes are ordinary people moved to do extraordinary things (Ted Kramer), or extraordinary people with abilities beyond our own (Harry Potter). The hero's conflict usually involves both internal and external conflict. Other examples of high concepts that are strong in character are Almost Famous and Rain Man.

While action films and other big-budget blockbusters are high concept, guns, car chases, and explosions aren't obligatory. High concept is at home in every genre: romantic comedies (Sleepless in Seattle), animation (Chicken Run), thrillers (The Silence of the Lambs), indies (Blair Witch Project), classics (Gone with the Wind), and chick flicks (Thelma and Louise). Television, of course, abounds with high concepts: Kojak, The West Wing, The Sopranos.


How To Come Up With A High Concept Idea

Anything can be an idea seed—a person you meet, an article you read, or something you experience (see tip #51, Gathering Ideas). But once an idea seed has been planted, how can you nurture it so that it will grow into a fully-fledged concept?

The first step is to determine what fascinates you about the idea. Say you meet a construction worker. He's just an average guy, but something about him sparks your interest. If you take his typical-day-in-the-life-of-a-construction-worker tale and try to turn it into a script, chances are it won't be intriguing enough to carry a whole movie. Dig deeper to discover what really fascinates you about him. Is it the contradiction between his sheer physical strength and his gentle nature? Is it the dangerous world he inhabits, suspended hundreds of feet above the ground? Or is it the tales of municipal corruption he spins?

As you can see, a single idea seed can open up multiple possibilities. Use your fascination to brainstorm as many different story ideas as you can. Sometimes you'll decide on a concept that includes your original seed idea, but often the process takes you in a completely different direction. Allow yourself this flexibility and keep brainstorming until you come up with something truly amazing!

Learn More:
If you want to master the structure for creating high concept ideas, I highly recommend Hal Croasmun's High Concept Sells class at

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