When coming up with an idea, many screenwriters focus solely on a high-concept idea such as “What would happen if a man-eating shark were terrorizing beach?” (“Jaws” or “Jaws 4”) or “What would happen if aliens attacked the Earth?” (“War of the Worlds” or Battle: Los Angeles”). The problem with focusing solely on the high-concept idea is that it’s a starting point, but it’s never complete. The difference between “Jaws” and “Jaws 4” is ridiculously huge and the difference between “War of the Worlds” and “Battle: Los Angeles” is another huge gap. That alone should prove that high-concept is never enough. To make a high-concept idea work, you need a relevant story behind it.
In “Jaws,” the relevant story was about a sheriff looking to redeem himself by killing a shark. In “Jaws 4,” the story is an illogical plot about a shark that’s targeting one woman’s family and following her wherever she goes. Same high-concept but completely different plots. To make a high-concept idea work, you need a relevant story to back it up and you can create one by thinking who has the most to lose in your high-concept idea.
In “Jaws,” it would make sense for a sheriff of a beach town to have his reputation at stake when he can’t protect the town from a man-eating shark. It makes no sense for a shark to target one woman’s family. That’s why “Jaws 4” is such a weak movie in comparison.
With the high-concept idea of aliens invading the Earth, you could get a full-scale battle like “War of the Worlds” or a single example of an alien on Earth such as “Predator.” The high-concept is never worth anything until you create a plausible story to back it up.
Even then, the high-concept idea isn’t the plot. In “War of the Worlds,” the hero’s goal is to protect his daughter, not to fight the Martian invaders. Fighting and surviving against the Martians is simply what the hero must do to protect his daughter. Likewise in “Predator,” the goal initially isn’t to fight the Predator but to find out what happened to an earlier Special Forces team that disappeared.
When creating your own story, think high-concept first. Then think of a plausible story consisting of a hero who has the most to lose within your high-concept idea. In “War of the Worlds,” if the hero fails to avoid the Martians, he’ll fail to protect his daughter.
To see how a high-concept idea can work with a story focused on a hero who has the most to lose, watch old “Twilight Zone” episodes that aired between 1959 and 1963. The earlier episodes had a high-concept idea that had a hero with the most to lose while struggling to achieve a goal that has nothing to do with the high-concept idea. The high-concept idea simply provides a way to resolve the hero’s problem and the interest in the story is how the hero uses this high-concept idea to solve a pressing problem.
Watch the episode called “A Thing About Machines” The high-concept idea is that machines have come to life with a will of their own. To make this high-concept idea work, “A Thing About Machines” focuses on a snobbish man who hates machines. His goal is to overcome his loneliness, but he can’t do that until his overcomes his own bitterness and arrogance. His failure to overcome his own arrogance causes him to take his frustration out on his machines, which in turn fight back against him.
So “A Thing About Machines” isn’t just about machines fighting back, but about an arrogant man unable to change and treat others with respect. As a result, he suffers and the rebellion of his machines simply highlights his failure in an interesting way.
If you watch later episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” you’ll see bad stories where the high-concept is all there is with no interesting or relevant story behind it. That shows the danger of relying solely on a high-concept idea without a plausible story that really catches and holds our attention.
Come up with a high-concept idea and then come up with a story that can be interesting without that high-concept idea. Now when you pair a high-concept idea with a story that can be interesting without the high-concept, you’ll have twice the interest to grip an audience, and that will likely translate into a far more interesting story than just relying on a high-concept idea alone.