The Past Defines the Theme

It’s easy to come up with a high-concept idea and start writing. However, it’s hard to make anyone care about any high-concept idea if there’s not a solid emotional story behind it.

The high-concept behind “Rocky” is that a down and out boxer is given a once in a lifetime chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. The emotional story behind this high-concept is that Rocky is trying to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum.

The high-concept behind “Aliens” is that space Marines battle a horde of aliens. The emotional story behind this high-concept is that the hero (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley) is trying to save a little girl because she never had a chance to watch her own daughter grow up.

Most screenwriters (and studios) focus on the high-concept because that’s easy to see and understand visually. Yet high-concept stories mean nothing if nobody cares about them.

So start with a high-concept and then look for an underlying emotional story. The first key is that the high-concept must challenge the emotional story. It’s hard enough for Rocky to prove himself that he’s not a bum, but it’s even harder when he has to face the heavyweight champion on national TV.

It’s also hard enough for Ripley to fight a horde of aliens with limited weapons, but it’s even tougher when she has to protect a helpless little girl at the same time.

Lesson #1: The high-concept idea must make the emotional goal of the hero as difficult as possible.

A second key to linking the high-concept with the emotional story is to make sure the villain is pursuing the same type of goal as the hero. This parallelism keeps the story focused because if the villain is pursuing a wildly different goal from the hero, then the story gets diluted and audiences have no idea which story they’re supposed to care about.

In “Rocky,” Rocky’s emotional need is to prove himself. Yet when Rocky knocks Apollo Creed down, he embarrasses Apollo, who then feels the need to knock Rocky down to prove himself as well. Now both the hero and villain are pursuing the same type of emotional goal.

In “Aliens,” Ripley’s emotional need is to protect a helpless little girl. Yet the alien queen’s emotional need is to protect her eggs, which Ripely torches with a flame thrower. Hence Ripley and the alien queen are both fighting to protect the young.

Lesson #2: The villain’s goal must parallel the hero’s emotional goal somehow.

Finally, every story is all about redemption from a mistake in the past. If your’e ever stuck on your story, think of a mistake from the past that’s haunting the hero and that mistake is what the hero is trying to solve in the present of your story.

In “Rocky,” Rocky has been a bum all his life so fighting Apollo Creed is his only chance to prove himself to the world that he’s not a bum, and the only way he can do that is by putting up a great fight against a man who has never lost a fight.

In “Aliens,” Ripley has been in suspended animation for so long that her own daughter left behind on Earth has already aged, grown up, and died. This subtle point is often overlooked, but it feels Ripley’s motivation because now when given the chance to save a helpless little girl, it mirrors her own sense of loss at never knowing her own daughter.

Lesson #3: The hero’s present goal is meant to redeem a mistake from the past.

By tying a high-concept story with a strong emotional story, you’ll create a much stronger screenplay than simply focusing on a high-concept idea and load it up with car crashes, explosions, and gunfire at random intervals.

The high-concept attracts people, but the emotional foundation makes them care and love your story in the end.

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