Crafting a High-Concept Story Premise: Sources of Inspiration and Influence
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: you’re walking down the hallway of some crumbling old building in West Hollywood when you spot a well-known film producer stepping onto an elevator at the other end of the room. Instinct takes over. You hightail it across thirty feet of cracked linoleum and manage to slip in between the closing doors like a runner sliding into second base. Once you catch your breath, you mumble something about the weather to break the ice. This is your chance. The man standing across from you doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to hear the greatest movie idea he’s ever heard. He will laugh. He will weep. He will fall to his knees in delight and despair. And yet here he stands, totally unaware.
But wait - he’s pushed the button for the sixth floor. You only have thirty seconds to get your idea across, and it better be a good one. Thirty seconds to hook him in with a unique, potent, never-before-seen combination of just the right story elements, or an irresistible question. You’re already passing the fourth floor. It’s now or never.
This rare and wonderful opportunity is where we get the term “the elevator pitch.” It refers to the most intriguing or exciting thing about your story in the most concise possible terms. The best elevator pitches come from what are called high-concept stories. High-concept stories are defined by intriguing premises that are easy to communicate. This is perhaps best understood by example. What if a man realized that his entire life was actually an elaborately constructed television show (as in The Truman Show)? This idea would be considered a high-concept story. A quiet drama about a man slowly losing his sense of self as he ages would be considered a low-concept story; it takes more of an explanation to give the audience a sense of the story or how it might interest them.
In this post, I wanted to discuss a few sources that you can draw inspiration from in order to craft intelligent, high-concept premises.
Find inspiration in mythology and folk tales. These tales helped to create many of the archetypal elements that are common in modern stories; as such, the basic working parts of these can be broken down, adapted, and rearranged to form compelling twists on timeless ideas. From the destructive force of Ragnarok to the strange wonder of Homer’s Odyssey to the enduring charm of Cinderella, the stories of old are ripe for inspiration and influence.
Philosophical thought experiments usually employ high concepts in the service of exploring a question or idea. Read through a few of these, and once you’ve finished scratching your head, start thinking up a few of your own. These can become complex, unique elements to use in your stories.
Consider the infamous “Brain in a Vat” scenario, a contemporary twist on the “Evil Demon” scenario posited by René Descartes. The scenario goes like this: if a mad scientist were to remove a person’s brain from their body, find a way to keep it alive in a vat of life-sustaining chemicals, and attach the brain to a supercomputer that would stimulate the neurons in exactly the same way the outside world would, we would have no way to determine if our experiences were real. We could, for all we know, already be suffering this terrible fate; there would be no way to tell the difference. Sound familiar?
That’s right, The Matrix uses this exact premise to explore questions about the nature of consciousness, perception, and reality (it also borrows ideas from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation). This influential film is still a common subject of analyses or critical discussion. Dissertations and full-length books have been written on the complex ideas the film is grappling with and the unique way in which it explores them.
Imbuing your story with philosophical meaning (or using your story to explore complex ethical or metaphysical questions about our lives and the universe) is a sure-fire way to keep your audience thinking about your story long after it’s over.
Study other high-concept films. Find what their premises have in common. Many high-concept stories start with a question that subverts our assumptions about the world or human relations by showing us what the world would be like if it were changed in key ways. No matter how you may feel about The Purge films, it’s hard to deny the potency of its high-concept premise: what if, for one night a year, there were no laws, no social boundaries? How would the people around us react? How could we face them for the other 364 days of the year? Ask questions about the world around you, about society, about human nature; find ways to put our ideas about these things to the test.
There are many ways to go about crafting a high-concept premise; these are just a few places you can go to get you thinking in the right direction.