By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 25, 2012
Flash back with me to the late 80s/early 90s, the screenwriting heyday of Shane Black, Joe Esterhazs and the spec script. At that time, studios were looking for a very specific type of material. That material was called High Concept.
The High Concept era was the exact time I started finding work in Tinseltown. High Concept was what I cut my teeth on. I used to beat my brains out, trying to come up with high concepts.
What exactly is High Concept?
Let’s start with its opposite, low concept. Low concept stories are personal, idiosyncratic, ambiguous, often European. “Well, it’s a sensitive fable about a Swedish sardine fisherman whose wife and daughter find themselves conflicted over … ”
Low concept can be great. Personally I go to a lot of low concept movies. But low concept is low. High Concept is high.
1. A high concept story can be pitched in 30 seconds or less.
2. A high concept notion doesn’t depend on stars.
3. It’s almost impossible to screw up high concept (though plenty of us did.)
Here are three classic high concept premises:
“Speed.” A criminal rigs a bus full of passengers to explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 55 mph. Cop and innocent gal must save bus and passengers.
“Basic Instinct.” Homicide detective finds himself in a torrid love affair with a sexy female suspect who may be the ice-pick murderess he is trying to capture.
“Die-Hard.” Terrorist gang takes hostages in office high-rise after dark, seeking millions from the company’s vault. What the criminals don’t know is that one resourceful cop (whose estranged wife is one of the hostages) is in the building, aiming to stop them (and save his wife.)
The original Terminator was high concept, Jurassic Park was high concept, Rocky was high concept.
In pitching high concept, we don’t have to describe the climax. The climax is obvious. And it’s juicy.
Nor do we need to specify the action set-pieces along the way. They write themselves.
In high concept, premise is everything.
Subtlety? Who needs it?
Depth? R U kidding?
All that being said, I don’t knock high concept. I love high concept.
When high concept ruled, the writer was king. Star scripters raked in big-time dinero. Spec pitches went for six figures.
But what I like about high concept (or, more exactly, thinking in high concept terms) goes deeper than the monetary payoff. It’s that HC thinking forces you, the writer, to boil your idea down to its absolute essence. What is this story about? What’s the beginning, what’s the middle, what’s the end?
Shane, which is a tragedy worthy of the Attic stage, can be HC-ized to this:
Gunfighter seeks to free himself from his past, only to discover that his skill with a six-shooter draws him inexorably back into the world of violence he is trying to escape.
When we as writers think in high concept terms (or simply use HC as a tool in our kit), we construct a story the way an engineer builds a bridge. We plant a powerful foundation on the near shore (the inciting incident), then an equally strong base on the far shore (the climax.) We structure the pair so that the near-shore foundation inexorably propels the story toward the far-shore payoff. Then we erect an exciting, beautiful, well-supported span in between.
What’s wrong with that?
Shakespeare did it. So did Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Dante did it, Milton did it, Trey Parker and Matt Stone do it.
There is nothing cheap or “commercial” or formulaic about a solid premise that propels a story via a powerful throughline to an inevitable, thrilling and satisfying climax.
The trick is to enlist the principles of HC in the service of material that actually has something to say. If you can do that, you’ve got Hamlet, you’ve got The Godfather, you’ve got Louis CK Live at the Beacon.
[P.S. Thanks, friends, for being patient with the slo-o-o-w arrival of Turning Pro. We've run into a few production glitches. We'll have it soon, very soon, I promise!]