by Peggy Bechko
A writer writes, but let’s face it that writer also wants to and needs to sell. So the ideas he or she puts out there have to be good ones. Gripping, engaging, exciting, maybe funny. Every writer I know has more new story ideas tucked away in files on computers than can be counted. And most of them are good ideas. But are they GREAT ideas, because that’s what a writer needs to get that work sold whether a screen script or a novel or an article pitch.
So that leads us to the question. How to take one of those good ideas and make it great, a gripper if a novel, a high concept if a script? One that’ll hook the reader whether editor or script reader or your fans.
I’m going to focus mainly on the screenwriter here since we are on TV Writer, but really the principles apply broadly. The truth of the matter is a new twist on that old, yet good, idea is needed. Something that will make the story more compelling and fill seats in the theater or glue eyes to the novel’s page. The “high concept” in the movie biz. And a ‘high concept’ is: A story the writer can pitch in one good sentence that will allow a film exec or an editor to instantly visualize the story.
Simple, right? Well, not so much. But have no fear, you can definitely teach yourself to do it. All it takes is a few different approaches. Think about all the movies you’ve seen and the books you’ve read.
There’s the ‘buddy’ story. You know, toss ‘em together, shake it up and see what happens. Take two (or maybe more) people with diverse interests, goals and personalities and throw them together for a time. Think about the movie Speed for one. For that matter, Gone With the Wind for another. Scarlett and Rhett sure didn’t have a lot in common.
There’s also always the ‘what if’ stories and these are one of my great fall-backs. What if a giant radiated monster runs amok in New York? Keep asking yourself what if all through your project not just at its initiation. What if the main character knows another who’s a reporter out to cut her teeth? What if there’s a crazy camera man who’ll do anything for a shot? What if said giant radiated monster is pregnant? (Godzilla) You get the drift and you’ve known it before I brought it up, so it’s a good reminder. Use ‘what if’ to the hilt and you’re going to come up with a winner.
A clock ticking, a defined time for something to happen, is a stress and anxiety builder. It can help create the unexpected and that’s great for any fiction endeavor. It can be as in your face as a bomb that’s going to explode or something much subtler in the way of a deadline. Be creative, toss in some ‘what ifs’ and create a real eyeball gripper. Want to give yourself a taste of it? Set your own deadline for creating something, a short story, a set number of words, a list of ideas and hang tough to it. It’ll give you a feel for fighting the clock even if your activity isn’t as sweat-inducing as disarming a bomb that’s going to explode in sixty seconds.
There’s a huge number of films and books out there and what high concept really boils down to is putting a twist on something you know.
Think about Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series of books (one was adapted to film). Odd Thomas is a fry cook, an everyday sort, but he sees things others don’t and has a ‘sixth sense’ that leads him to things others don’t even snap to. A fry cook hero, a self-deprecating one at that.
Did you see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? How about the new fairy tale adaptations? Into The Woods. Snow White And The Huntsman. Just as examples.
And finally, work with something that really clicks for you. Something you find fascinating. Love space and monsters? Really know your stuff about Werewolves or interplanetary flight? Enthralled with a murder case as Truman Capote was with In Cold Blood?
Your own interest and excitement over the subject will lift your story out of the slush pile. After all, if you have a deep interest, other people will too. So unleash your passion on the world. Dig deep and come up with your own gripping tale.