Every screenplay comes from a concept, or a “what if?”. It’s the very foundation from which you develop your story. So it’s crucial that you’ve thought long and hard about your concept before you commit to writing your screenplay.
But have you ever given thought as to what kind of concept you’re working with?
In screenwriting, there’s two kinds of concepts: high concept and low concept. You’ve probably heard about these two but you’re not sure what they mean, or why they’re important to know. From a writing standpoint, knowing what kind of concept you’re working with is crucial because then you also know what kind of story you’re telling. It guides you in solidifying your structure and informs you of the kinds of characters, themes, plot, dialogue and world that you should employ in your screenplay. From a marketing standpoint, the concept is the first thing you tell producers about your screenplay when you pitch. It consolidates what your screenplay is about and gives audiences an idea as to how your story may unfold. If they see that the concept has potential, congratulations, you’ve made a sale!
So let’s get straight into it and define the difference between high concept and low concept:
The short description of high concept is: “a concept with a clear and unique premise that can be summed up in 1-2 sentences.” Because the quality of the premise is important in high concept movies, they tend to be more focused on plot rather than character.
Let’s elaborate a little further. What’s a clear and unique premise? It should be clear enough that you can already picture it in your head, while being unique enough that the “what if” from which the premise hangs is original, offers a twist on an ordinary concept, or is basically out of the blue. In other words, the premise is “unlikely” or “extraordinary” in an ordinary world. This doesn’t mean that the things that happen in high concept movies should be otherwordly; Home Alone is a high concept movie that operates within the bounds of reality. What made it high concept is because of a premise that is unlikely – what are the odds of a 10-year old kid being left alone at home by his family by accident and having to fend off burglars by himself?
Take the concept of The Matrix for example. It’s built around the concept of humans living in a simulated world, while the reality is that they are enslaved by machines. Unlikely? Definitely! Hell, it’s even unrealistic! But does it sound intriguing, original and something you can tell a story around? Absolutely!
Look at the premises behind other high concept titles such as The Terminator, A Quiet Place, Mad Max, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Harry Potter and others, and you’ll notice this pattern of original, unique premises. You can basically “see” the movie already based on the concept itself!
Before anything else, don’t let the term fool you. Low concept does not mean an inferior kind of concept. Rather, where high concept movies are hinged on unique concepts and more plot-oriented, low concept movies are more character driven and follow the change in character arcs, personal relationships, and the world the characters inhabit much closer.
What stands out in low concept movies isn’t the setting or the premise, but the characters themselves and their situations, their sources of conflict. Many family dramas, coming-of-age tales and some romantic movies fall under low concept because the focal point of these movies are characters, not situations or plots. You can observe these in low concept titles such as Manchester by the Sea, Ordinary People, Lost In Translation, Green Book, Marriage Story and others.
Consider for example Good Will Hunting, a movie about a troubled genius who reevaluates his life in order to reach his full potential. Read that again. Can you see how this movie will play out like how you would after reading high concept premises? Nope. But what makes this a great movie and the recipient of the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is how it handles its characters, particularly its titular character. What makes it special is the emotional story that unfolds as Will wrestles with his traumas, fractured relationships and choices in life.
Like I said, if you describe low concepts like the one above, it would be hard to see how the movie will play out based on the concept alone. This is the one disadvantage that low concepts have as compared to high concepts. The money in low concepts isn’t in the premise. It’s in how emotionally dense it pans out as it charts the arcs of its characters.
SO WHAT KIND OF CONCEPT SHOULD YOU USE?
Both high and low concepts have their pros and cons when it comes to writing and marketing. Either way, writing for the screen is a tough act. In other words, there’s really no one definitive answer. The quality of a screenplay doesn’t depend on what kind of concept it uses, but rather in how well it tells its story. The concept lays the foundation for the storytelling, so if you want your screenplay to tell the story well, pick the concept that will do your story justice.