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Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is High Concept and what does it mean to writers and readers?

Whether you're a reader or a writer, I'll bet you're wishing for that terrific book to come your way...the one that makes your heart beat with anticipation, and won't let you stop no matter what.

Does that happen often for you?

It probably happens only when you come upon a high concept book...something that strikes an inner chord with you...makes you say..."Yes, I have to read that."

High concept could be the term that explains why some books that may not be that well-written, have main characters we can't identify with, and have many flaws, become overnight sensations. Yes, of course, word of mouth and/or great promotion can do that, but, for me at least, their popularity stuns me.

Alexandra Sokoloff  is my guru for this topic. Although she writes about screenplays, what she says is just as true for books... Whether you're a writer or a reader, I've jotted down some "rules" about high concept books.

First rule

It's high concept if the book can be explained in one sentence and the majority of people who hear it will want to read it.

Second rule

 It could be a high concept book if it's whimsical and helps us pretend the real world doesn't exist. I guess any escapist theme will do...

Third rule

It could be high concept if it's so intriguing we've all been there (or would like to be). Star Wars, ET, X-Men, Sleepless in Seattle, Kate & Leopold, anything with Simon Baker in it...oops, gotta control those fantasies.

Fourth rule

It's topical and hits a nerve or fetish. Examples? Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fifth rule  (Here's one that explains the zombie craze to me, not that I understood the vampire craze that came before it). 

It contains a cultural metaphor for the moment, i.e., information overload has turned us all into brainless undead, which are what zombies are!

Sixth rule

If you can exploit a primal fear, you're in with a high concept book. Examples? Jaws, Jurassic Park, Exorcist, and yes, zombies taking over the planet! No wonder Ms. Hocking is a millionaire!!

Seventh rule

Even though it may read as a mishmash, be sacrilegious or controversial and you'll be high concept.  This includes: Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, some of Mel Gibson's films and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Eighth rule

Retell a classic or a fairytale and you're in. Recently there have been scads of retellings and they do well.

Ninth rule

Answer the question, "What would you do if...?"  Of course, the question has to be sexy, indiscreet, and possibly ridiculous, ala  Indecent Proposal. This movie was a while back,but it asked the question, "Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars?" As Ms. Sokoloff writes so well, the movie promoted a zillion water cooler discussions as people fantasized about having sex with Demi Moore or Robert Redford...Personally, Demi's gorgeous and a great actor, but she does nothing for me, but Robert Redford, now there's a man...oops, fantasies again!

Tenth rule

Tie the premise to a theme or holiday or setting that makes the story universally appealing. There are plenty to choose from: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Paris, London, turning forty and still terrific, etc. Flirting with Forty had both Hawaii and gorgeous bodies (Heather Locklear and Robert Buckley...no, Heather was the one turning 40; Robert was like 25, but he fits the gorgeous bodies category..Whatever happened to Robert? And speaking of gorgeous, why isn't Hugh Jackman making romances anymore? I like him much better as a stunning lover ala Kate and Leopold than as an X-man with metal things coming out of him...but that's just me).

Eleventh rule

Choose an old-fashioned romance. Ms. Sokoloff helped me understand why so many people adored Twilight when it did nothing for feminist, me. Take an annoying, plain, stupid, selfish, clumsy, unkind girl and a superhero or two and voile! Magic...


For more of Alexandra's brilliance, go to
http://www.screenwritingtricks.com/2010/02/what-is-high-concept.html