The Threat and the High Concept Great Idea

by James Bonnet

If your project is going to be sold to, or financed by, a major film production company or book publisher, then the idea behind that project not only has to be intriguing, you have to be able to describe it in just a few words. That way it can move easily through the chain of command – and make everyone who hears your idea or reads your query letter eager to read your manuscript, listen to your pitch, read your screenplay, or look at your film. Then after they’ve heard it, or read it, and loved it, they have to be able to share it with others in the chain and intrigue them. If the idea is so complicated that it’s difficult to explain, it may never get to the top through the chain of command. A high concept great idea can help you solve this problem and meet this challenge.

In a recent story course article, The Threat and the Essential Elements of Story, I introduced you to the threat, which is not only the cause of the problem and the thing that brings the story into being, it is the catalyst that creates the story structures that constitute the very essence of story – that without which there would be no story. In this article, I will introduce you to another important role being played by the threat in the creation of a high concept great idea – i.e. in the creation of an intriguing story idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all.

In the new film, Argo – a huge angry mob of Iranian fundamentalists storms the American Embassy in Tehran. That’s a high concept. It’s also an excellent logline. Everyone knows exactly what it means. It arouses an emotional response and in thirteen words, everyone knows what the movie is about.

Creating a high concept implies an ability to formulate your idea in its most powerful and concise form – to make it as short and as marvelous as possible.In Armageddon – an asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward the earth. That’s another high concept. And this time in just eleven words everyone knows what the movie is about. Doomsday. The fewer the words, the higher the concept. And forgive me for using this as an example, but what aboutSnakes on a Plane? It wasn’t a very good movie, but it was a great idea, a very effective high concept – one that could easily be sold. With just these four words everyone can visualize the entire movie in their heads.

Now, is this idea of a high concept just something the studios cooked up to stifle art and increase profits? Of course. But does it also have merit? I think it has.Whether you plan to create highly visible and commercial novels and films like those created by J. K. Rowling, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg, or highly acclaimed stories like The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Hugo, Argo, Harry Potter, Flight, Slumdog Millionaire, The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, and The Godfather.  I think this is important for you to know.

For one thing, being able to reduce your idea into something powerful that can be expressed in a few words forces you to come to terms with what the story is really about. In other words, to create a true high concept, you not only have to understand all of the important structural elements of your story, you have to get at the very essence of the story. And to do that, you have to come to terms with the threat.

An asteroid the size of Texas hurtling toward the earth is exactly that. It’s the threat that is causing the problem. And what aboutArgo? What’s happening there? What is the huge angry mob storming the American Embassy? It’s the threat, the cause of the problem.  And what are the snakes in Snakes on a Plane? They’re the threat, the cause of the problem. The threat is the thing that makes it possible to describe these ideas in so few words. So along with its other virtues, the threat is also the core or heart of the story.

The Hook is the unique aspect of the threat which makes the threat alarming and suggests dangerous but intriguing possibilities. In “an asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward the earth,” the “size of Texas” is the hook – the thing that makes the threat more dangerous and unique, raises the stakes, grabs our attention, and increases our interest or our concern.

The Inciting Action is the action being taken by the threat. It’s the thing that’s getting everyone so upset. In “an asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling toward the earth,” “hurtling toward the earth” is the inciting action, the action being taken by the threat. It’s alarming and dangerous and action has to be taken. Something has to be done about it – now. It has to be diverted or destroyed or every living thing on the planet will perish.

When confronted by a threat of that magnitude, those who hear the idea will try to fill in the rest of the story. Which is to say, the minds of the listeners will begin to wonder how that extraordinary but intriguing problem is going to be solved. The activation of their imaginations in this way will help give them the sense that they just heard a great idea.

Of course, you can also construct a high concept that looks at the threat from the POV of the hero who has to confront it. In Argo, a CIA agent helps six embassy workers, posing as low-budget Hollywood filmmakers, slip through several fundamentalist security check points to escape from Iran. In Lincoln, with time running outand without a two-thirds majority, the President has to persuade his opponents in Congress to adopt the 13thAmendment, which will abolish slavery, before the South surrenders and rejoins the Union. In Jaws, a sheriff who is afraid of the water has to hunt down a giant great white shark in a boat that’s too small. In Armageddon, to save the planet, a mercenary oil driller has to bury a nuclear device on an asteroid hurtling toward the earth at 22,000 mph. In A Christmas Carol, to save Tiny Tim, three ghosts have to transform an old miser on Christmas eve. In The Sixth Sense, to get out of limbo, a murdered child psychologist has to cure a little boy who has the same problem as the patient who murdered him.

Two other elements can help you support your high concept – a fascinating subject and a great title.

A fascinating subject is a subject that is in itself intriguing – demonic possession, love, money, sex, power, lost treasure, lost kingdoms, dinosaurs, mummies, vampires, extra-terrestrials, infidelity, revenge, serial killers, gangsters, jewel robberies, seduction, eternal youth, secret codes, an abducted princess, a missing loved one, immortality, and transcendence are all time-tested fascinating subjects. I’m sure you can think of many others. If your story is about something that arouses our interest just because of the subject, that is a tremendous asset. Imagine what its three powerful subjects– Da Vinci, Jesus, and the Holy Grail – were to the success of The Da Vinci Code.

A great title is a title that not only tells you what the story is about – what the fascinating subject is – it reveals the genre, which is to say, it whets your appetite for the type of feelings associated with that genre. The feelings associated with a thriller, a mystery, a love story, an adventure. If doomsday is the subject, Armageddon is an excellent title for that story. We immediately know it’s about the end of the world and all of the activities and feelings related to that event. You know it’s a great title when it tells you everything desirable to know up front. The Perfect MurderShakespeare in LoveThe Sixth Sense, Roswell, ERAlong Came a SpiderStar WarsGladiatorJurassic Park, Titanic, Bruce AlmightyThe Black WidowThe Pirates of the Caribbean, Thirteen – what more do you need to know?

Finding a great title forces you to discover the subject and the genre, which is to say, the source of the feelings you’re going to evoke. And when you find a great title, it hits you like a revelation. You get very excited.

So! If you have an intriguing threat, hook, and inciting action plus a great title and a fascinating subject – all of which can be crafted into just a few words –you more than likely have a very effective high concept great idea. In any event, if you’re going to create a high concept, you’ll find these five elements very useful – maybe even indispensable.

The thing to remember, of course, is the important role being played by the threat, which, as we have just seen, is at the heart of both the high concept and also the six critical elements that constitute the essence of story. It is obviously an element worth mastering. In fact, if you start out by creating a unique and extraordinary threat, you won’t go too far wrong.

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In the next story course article, I will show you how to create an intriguing threat.

Or, even better, come to my October 26 – 27 intensive weekend seminar in LA and we’ll talk about it then. I’d love to see you there.

Read The Threat and the Essential Elements of Story

About James Bonnet

James Bonnet’s Story Consulting