High-Concept and Emotional Change

Most people look for the high-concept idea in a story such as “A lone policeman faces off against an army of terrorists in a skyscraper” (“Die Hard”) or “A teenage girl must survive a reality TV death arena show in the future” (“The Hunger Games”). A high-concept immediately grabs your attention and makes you want to know more. Without a high-concept idea, you risk losing an audience before your story idea can even be read, let alone produced.

The problem with a high-concept idea is that most people falsely believe that a high-concept idea is enough to create a great story. It’s not. Just look at all the weak sequels of great movies. “Alien,” “Die Hard,” and “The Terminator” all had great sequels but then the screenwriters focused solely on a high-concept idea and forgot about the second part that makes a story great, which is an emotional change. Subsequently, the following sequels of all three movies gradually petered out the story idea because they focused only on the high concept idea and not about the emotional change of the hero.

Ultimately, stories are about people we care about. Not only do we care about people, but we need to emphasize with them. That means we have to root for the hero to win and cringe every time something threatens to make the hero lose. How do you make a character sympathetic? First, you make that hero an underdog because everyone can relate to someone with the odds heavily against them. Even if you don’t like that particular character, just knowing they’re striving to achieve a goal that’s heavily against them is interesting enough.

Second, you make the hero flawed in some way. The hero must gradually change to overcome his or her inherent flaw that’s keeping them confined. The hero needs to strive for an emotional goal and that requires changing. In “Alien,” the hero initially is an officer who follows orders and regulations. Only when she later learns that the company deems her expendable to keep the alien alive does she finally rebel against the company regulations. It’s a subtle change, but it’s an important one because it gives the hero (and the audience) a sense of shock and a motivation to change.

Now look at “Alien 3” where the hero simply fights the alien and doesn’t really change at all. Even though the hero in “Alien 3” is also an underdog, there’s no emotional change. The hero is the same person she was at the beginning of “Alien 3” as she is at the end. In “Alien 3,” the big scene is supposed to be her sacrifice of herself to kill the alien, but that scene feels contrived and disappointing because the previous two “Alien” movies showed the hero defeating the alien. In “Alien 3,” the hero loses. Even worse, the hero doesn’t seem like a real person but a cardboard character that heavily relies on our knowledge of the first two movies to make her understandable.

The emotional change is most effective when the hero suddenly realizes that his or her old way of thinking no longer works any more. Now the hero has to find a new way to live, which should result in a better life for the hero.

The big question isn’t how will the hero defeat the villain in the end, but can the hero change in time before it’s too late?

If you focus solely on whether the hero can defeat the villain, you wind up with an action ending devoid of meaning. If you show the hero changing, then defeating the villain verifies that the hero has indeed changed.

In “The Karate Kid,” (both the original and the remake), the hero trusts the mentor’s lesson of a unique fighting style to defeat the villain. The ending actually consists of two conclusions. First, the hero must show that he has changed, which occurs when he adopts that unique fighting style. Second, the hero must use that change to defeat the villain.

In “Star Wars,” Luke first trusts the Force by turning off his targeting computer. Then to show us that he’s right in changing that way, Luke blows up the Death Star.

So your endings need to be more than wrapping up a battle to satisfy your high-concept idea. You need to include an emotional change to go along with your high-concept idea. With your high-concept idea, find the hero who has the most to lose if he fails to change. Not only must the hero risk losing him or herself, but your hero must also risk letting others get hurt if he or she fails to change and defeat the villain.

The emotional change is really the key to supporting a high-concept idea. A high-concept idea by itself is actually worthless. You need an emotional change to go along with any high-concept idea, and that change must cause your hero to become a better person.

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