Monday, March 31, 2014

Three Paths to High Concept

Someone's hungry for a good story.
The industry calls it High Concept. Screenwriter Terry Rossio calls it the Strange Attractor. I've called it the needlessly wordy Why Didn't I Come up with That First. Whatever you call it, it's all about concept - it's all about story.

And for goodness' sake: it must be simple.

If someone asks you what your film/script is about and it takes you longer than three sentences, then it's not simple enough. It has to be an idea at once clever, ironic, and easily imagined. It's hard work, which is why scripts sell for as much as they do when they sell.

Jurassic Park: people are stuck on a theme park island full of genetically engineered dinosaurs.
The Godfather: a straight-edge former soldier must commit mass murder to protect his crime family.
Up: An elderly widower physically moves his house from the U.S.A. to Paradise Falls in order to keep a promise he made to his late wife.

Films turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. An ordinary character often (and should) become extraordinary over the course of the story: they awake something within themselves and perform tasks that they (and the audience) never believed they had the power to accomplish.

So much the better if the circumstances in which your characters find themselves are extraordinary. This means coming up with an idea that's at once simple and yet brilliant. Taking something that everyone has heard of and turning it on its head. Dinosaurs - but alive today on an island theme park. A geeky introvert - but an expert on seeing how people connect (The Social Network). Kids going off to boarding school for seven years - to train to be wizards and witches (Harry Potter). Reality - actually virtual reality (The Matrix). A famous, doomed ship - with a love story (Titanic).

The point is, you want a reader to hear your idea and say, why didn't I come up with that? Start with something simple and recognizable - then twist it in a way that only you can do. How?

1. Be Literate - Read the news. Read books. Read classical literature. Read mythology. Read the back of a cereal box. Whatever you choose, make it your business to learn at least half a dozen things each day that you didn't know the prior day. The point is to glean conflict. Who's fighting whom? What's the latest scandal? What's the plot twist in Oedipus Rex? Now how can you turn that on its head? Sure, there's tension between North and South Korea. What if there was a similar tension between North and South Dakota? Or between neighbors? How can you blow up the conflict? How can you shift it to something more comedic? Or darker?

2. Be Primal - Beyond a certain age, we all experience loss, love, pain, death, fear, and desire. Whether you're in America or Nicaragua or Sweden or Ethiopia or China, everyone has a relationship with these primal, human experiences. But not everyone has the same relationship. In fact, no two people have the same relationship with these constants. What's yours? What do you fear or desire? What's something you wish you had? Or wish you never lost? Or wish you had the power to do? See what I'm saying? Luke Skywalker dreamed of adventure... and adventure appeared in his lap in the form of R2-D2 and C-3PO. What little kid doesn't wish for the power to fight bullies and injustice? Thanks to an invitation to Hogwarts, Harry Potter learned just that. What's something we all experience? What's an engaging way to explore it?

3. Be Yourself - Use your voice. It takes that which everyone experiences and distills it down to what you experience, alone. What are your interests, hobbies, tics, superstitions? How can you develop those into full-blown situations? How could you play with time period, setting, and circumstance?

Here's an example: let's say you like board games. Now let's set this idea in the near future - the human race might be expanding into space, and on long interstellar flights, they have to remain occupied in zero-gravity. But how will checkers and chess work in a zero-gravity environment? What if your character came up with a way to create games with artificial gravity, but NASA realizes that your invention could work on a larger scale (i.e., for the humans themselves)? And what if, once abused, this technology could have direct and awful ramifications for gravity on earth?

This is far, far away from the best idea in the world. However, the point is that it only needed to start with something small, something personal, and with a dash of imagination, could become something potentially much, much bigger.

The irony of storytelling is that in telling your own story, you're telling everyone else's story (and vice-versa). In Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton was telling a tale about relationships between parents and children. However, as a premature baby who was himself not expected to survive (like Nemo himself), Stanton was also telling his own story. Being literal, primal, and yourself means being clever, relatable, and personal. And that's what the very best stories are.

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