Join Jessica Brody for an in-depth discussion in this video What is high concept?, part of Develop Blockbuster Story Ideas That Sell.
- [Jessica] What is high concept and why is it so important for ideas to be high-concept? Well, in a nutshell, high concept is what they call publishing gold, or Hollywood gold. It's the Holy Grail of both the book and movie industry. When an agent calls up an editor or a movie producer with a new project from one of their clients, one of the first things they'll say is, it's high-concept. Why do they say that? Because they know it'll get the editor or producer's attention because high concept sells.
Let's start with one simply definition. A high-concept idea is an idea that can be pitched in one sentence and immediately conveys why it's cool or interesting. Now, you might be thinking, just one sentence? That's impossible. How can I describe an entire book or movie idea with only a sentence? It can't be done. Well, let's play a little game and see, shall we? See if you can name this book or movie from the following description. An ambitious, clean-cut new lawyer joins a prestigious law firm but realizes he can never leave because it's secretly owned by the Mob.
If you said The Firm by John Grisham or the movie starring Tom Cruise, you're right. That was fun, let's do another. An awkward orphaned boy discovers he has magical powers when he gets recruited to attend a school for witches and wizards, and he must finally prove his worth when the evilest wizard of all time sets out to destroy him. The answer is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, obviously. But how about this one? A young computer programmer discovers he's living in a computer-generated dreamworld, while in the real world, a band of rogue humans are fighting for their freedom against a dystopian society run by machines.
One of my favorites, The Matrix. Okay, let's do one more. The life of a simple bookshop owner is turned upside down when he meets the most famous film star in the world and falls in love with her. So, you see, the stories don't have to be big action thrillers or epic fantasy sci-fis, they can be a sweet, romantic comedy like Notting Hill. Hopefully you're starting to get the picture, because what do these four stories have in common? They were all effectively described in one sentence that gave you a clear image of the story and why it's cool or interesting, and they all made millions of dollars.
But why, why did these movies and books all make so much money? They were good movies and books, sure, they were, but before anyone went to see them or picked up the book in the bookstore, first and foremost, they were easy to sell. One sentence and you automatically get a good sense of what you're going to experience as a reader or an audience member. In one sentence, the reader or viewer can get a clear mental picture of what the story's going to be, or at least why the story's interesting. One sentence and you already know why this is going to be awesome.
Let's break it down even further. I'm going to introduce you to a concept, which I call the chain of awesome. In every creative industry where there's money to be made, there is a chain of awesome. That is to say, in every creative industry where something is being sold as a product, like a book or movie, there's going to be a long chain of people convincing other people that something is awesome, otherwise known as a sales chain or a chain of selling. Let's take the publishing industry for an example. Like most industries where you're trying to make money as a writer, the chain of awesome starts with you.
In order to get your book published by a major publisher, you first have to get a literary agent, and to get a literary agent, you have to sell your book to a literary agent. You have to convince an agent that your book is awesome and is going to sell loads of copies. The agent will then have to sell your book to an editor at a publishing house. In order to buy the book, the editor has to convince a team of people at the publishing house that the book is awesome. This team consists of the sales team, the marketing team, and the publicity team. But the chain of awesome doesn't stop there.
Once the book is sold to a publisher and is getting ready to be released, the sales team has to sell the book into the bookstores. The book sellers in the bookstore have to sell the books to the readers. Then, on the promotional side, the publicity and marketing teams have to sell the book to people like reviewers, bloggers, and the media. And let's not forget about your agent who's still out there selling your book to foreign publishers and movie producers. All of these people have to prove the book is awesome, and they don't have a lot of time to do it, which is why high-concept ideas are so great.
It boils down this entire chain into one sentence. It makes the job of every person on the chain easier. And remember, the chain of awesome starts with you, which is why the best way to make money writing a book or screenplay is to start with a high-concept idea that sells itself. So, how do we know if an idea is high-concept? I'm so glad you asked because our entire next section is dedicated to that.