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Concept In Screenwriting [Do You Understand It?]

The screen industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not only have independent dramas all but disappeared, many of the cinemas that used to program them have too.

It is now more difficult than ever to get a screenplay optioned or sold, if it doesn’t appeal to the main movie-going demographics. Being a great writer is not enough; your story must stand out immediately, and for this to be possible, you need to have a strong, fresh concept.

Check out which movies work and which don’t, often you’ll find that those with poor concepts fall by the wayside.

High Concept vs. Low Concept

Many have tried to define what high concept really means. I believe the following all apply:

  • concept in screenwritingcan be expressed in a simple sentence
  • immediately appeals to the imagination
  • can easily be remembered
  • has never been done before
  • doesn’t need a star cast to attract an audience
  • not necessarily on a blockbuster budget

Examples of high concept movies were:

  • Die Hard
  • Armageddon
  • Air Force One

But also low budget films such as:

  • Phone Booth
  • Buried
  • Liar Liar

From this list, you might think that I count a movie like Locke among high concept, too. I don’t. Only filmmakers get excited about seeing Tom Hardy in a car for an hour and a half. It would have been different if he had to save the world before reaching his destination, though. So, stakes…

High concept scripts don’t always need to be written to the very highest standards. Studios understand that money can be made, and they will be more than happy to buy the script and worry about some further development later. In this case, they are really interested in the idea, and less in the writer or script.

You will find that many original blockbuster films (not remakes or sequels) fall in this category.

Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies, Michael Clayton, Armageddon) responds to people’s pitches. You’ll learn how he distinguishes good concepts from ‘execution dependent’ scripts. Later we will explain further what this means.

EXERCISE:

Choose 5 highly successful films, then 5 poorly performing ones. Now see if you can identify whether they are high or low concept.

Execution Dependent Screenplays

If your story is low concept, don’t despair. Low concept screenplays written by newcomers do sell – on occasion. What makes those scripts attractive to buyers (producers/studios)?

First and foremost, they must be page turners. If you have a story full of suspense, and that moves so fast; or if you boast a writing style that is so seductive that the reader can’t put the script down, you are on a winner…

Low concept ideas are often called ‘execution dependent’. It means that they can still work, provided the writer is highly skilled. And if you demonstrate superior writing skills, the studio or producer may well be interested in hiring you to write something else for them.

Finding Good Concepts

concept in screenwritingEverybody is capable of coming up with great ideas. The problem is that too many people settle for their first idea, and think it will write itself. Or worse, they believe that people will pay them money for the idea, even before the script is written.

I am contacted regularly by people who are convinced they have the next blockbuster idea, and hope I will find them someone who will write it for them. This is not how it works. Ideas are ten a penny. Unskilled writers overestimate the power of their ideas. Once they try developing them, it shows they weren’t really valid movie ideas in the first place.

The best way to finding a sellable concept, is to brainstorm many, and regularly. Don’t sit around waiting for that great movie idea to hit you. Thousands, tens of thousands of screenwriters have made it a daily habit to brainstorm concepts, to write down loose ideas they have in the course of the day, and review them regularly. If you don’t do this, the odds are stacked against you.

To trigger your brain into finding original concepts, you may try the same techniques people use to battle writers block. To become a successful writer, you will need to find out what works for you.

Now, how do you test a concept?

By writing the Logline.

-Karel Segers

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 1

  1. The 6-point summary of “high concept” is the best and clearest explanation I have read anywhere of what “high concept” actually means. It’s all to easy to not have a clear understanding of this elusive notion.

    The brainstorming-for-concepts suggestion is a good one for most writers (especially beginners). Though experienced and refined ones may find that the technique needs to be less procedural and more tailored to individual imaginative talents to be of greatest benefit to them. (Not many fall into that category, however. And probably a debatable point even amongst those few. But, in my own case, I would say the point is true.)

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