High Concept: Let’s See What You’ve Got

When I was working on these posts, I had a dream.  (I know!  I’m now in the inspired-by-a-dream club.  *Here’s waving at you Ms. Meyer!* Now if only my dream will likewise elicit a license to print money….) In my dream, I was a kid in the back seat of the family SUV, driving north on I-5 somewhere in Washington state.  I looked to my left and there!  I saw it!

Elephants in the river!

And when we got to our destination, people were talking about it.  “Did you see them?” they asked me.

Elephants in the river!

I sure did, and what a sight it was. I can still picture the mental image.  The water was clear enough that I could see their feet beneath the surface.  Two adults a teen and a cutsie little baby.  And when the baby went under, my heart leapt and I held my breath until its safe recovery. What an emotional experience.  Elephants in the river.

So is it High Concept?

Upon waking from my dream I certainly thought so.  Elephants in the river is exciting.  It would make headline news. Elephants in the river promises all sorts of fun and games in a story because elephants are darling and vegetarian.  It also leads to all sorts of questions:  What are elephants doing in the river?  Of what Something Sinister are elephants in the river merely a symptom? And if elephants are in the river, what else is in the river? Maybe something of the carnivorous variety?

So yeah, I think it’s on the track to high concept.  But… can we make this concept stronger?

Sure, let’s get more specific:

Elephants in the Columbia!

The river in my dream was a stretch of the Columbia that runs along I-5.  You’re not likely to see elephants in the Columbia, which makes it more high concept than, say, the Zambezi River in Africa.  But we could still make it stronger:

Elephants in the Hudson!

The Hudson, of course, is a river that flows past New York City.  That area is much more densely populated than anywhere in Washington, which makes elephants in the river a bigger problem, gives it more conflict.  Further, I doubt there are even fish in the Hudson, which makes it all the stranger–more curious, more fresh–to see elephants in the Hudson than to see them in the Columbia (where, among other varieties of fish, we have salmon–yum).  The Hudson is also more familiar to the masses thanks to that pilot who used the river to land his plane.  So yeah.  Just possibly, I think we’ve raised the concept a tad by playing with the setting.

We might also be able to raise the concept by changing elephants to something else, maybe lions or crocodiles, but our flexibility here would probably depend on what the real threat in the story is.  And on how much we’re willing to veer away from our original inspiration.  Sometimes I come up with concepts that would interest me for the two hours it would take to watch the movie or maybe the eight hours it would take to read the book, but that don’t inspire me enough to power me through the two months or more it would take to write about it myself.  No shame in that.  There are plenty of great concepts out there that will inspire us.

Speaking of plenty of concepts, if you’ve got more than one idea floating around in your head, feel free to work with more than one at the same time.  I’ve been applying what I’ve advised over the last week to a couple of different projects, and I’ve found that having two ideas going works wonders for keeping yourself detached enough from any one idea or particular aspect of an idea.  Detachment is huge, because detachment allows you to mold the idea and apply the high concept criteria ruthlessly.  And this ruthlessness is also huge, because ruthlessness with our concepts makes for more well-rounded and universally compelling concepts that hit all the high concept criteria, rather than half-baked concepts that are totally awesome to just us.  I admit, this took some trial and error on my part.  I thought focus, focus, focusing on ONE idea would make it burst to life, but it soon stagnated and I could feel it wasn’t where it needed to be and I started to get frustrated which stopped up the project even more.  It was only after I started working on another idea, both word-processing pages up side-by-side, that the first idea budged into new, compelling, high-concept territory.  Anyway.  Something to try if your top concept gets stuck.

So what kinds of concepts are you playing with?

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