Writing High-Concept Television

Recently I had a question from blog visitor petergosiewski about how to go about writing high-concept television, and I thought it was probably deserving of a complete post. So here we go…

In many ways, writing and selling high-concept television is like writing and selling any kind of television – it’s a combination of novelty, familiarity, clarity and luck! But there are specific difficulties with trying to sell high-concept ideas, and specific strategies that might help.

Be simple. In Inception, Eames says that in order to incept an idea into the subject’s head, you have to implant the simplest form of the idea. And pitching an idea to a producer is very much like performing inception. Until you have the simplest form of the idea, you won’t be able to sell it, and you probably won’t even be able to write it.

Wolfblood has evolved a fairly complex mythology, with wild packs, ancient traditions, ‘fixers’ helping out their fellow Wolfbloods, and all kinds of other rich details. But none of that was there at the beginning. The simplest form of the idea – the thing that sold – was basically  “A teenage girl who’s secretly a werewolf meets a boy with a very different view of their shared secret”.  In order to create the richness, we had to start with a simple foundation and build our way up from there.

As always – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentence, it isn’t ready yet…

Be character-focused. Whatever your concept, it has to be grounded in specific characters in order to be relatable. It’s how the concept affects those characters that will keep people watching, not the concept itself. No one watches a soap opera because they’re interested in (for example) the moral complexities of euthanasia: they watch because they want to see what lovely kindly Joan will do when ailing husband Fred begs her to help him die.

This means you want to find the characters who are most affected by the concept, and who are put through the greatest physical and emotional stresses by it. In the earliest version of Wolfblood, there was no Shannon – but we quickly realized we needed a character who would be profoundly affected by the secret Maddy had been keeping, someone whose whole life had been shaped by their secret, even though she didn’t know it yet…

Be sure that your concept will sustain a series. This is partly about the ‘story engine’ of your series: is there a murder each week, a secret to protect, a new enemy to fight, a life to save? Producers sometimes ask something like  “What’s the plot of episode two of season three?” – in other words, will we still be able to generate stories out of this universe at that stage?

But it’s also about finding a concept that has enough richness and flexibility to grow across series after series, and for each character to react to it in unique and interesting ways. This will sometimes require a radical shift in your story universe: Battlestar Galactica discovered new stories and new sides to its characters when it stranded most of the human survivors on a planet under Cylon rule for several episodes, for example.

Avoid the traps of destiny. Beware the ‘chosen one’ as a concept: you’re then completely at the mercy of your lead actor. If he or she decides to quit, your show’s over. Destiny and fate are probably also best avoided in any form –  audiences warm to heroes who forge their own path, not simply do what destiny has already predicted that they will…

Make sure your idea can be achieved on a budget. In Wolfblood, we can’t afford to show the characters in wolf-form every episode. What we can do is show them using their ‘wolf powers’ – sight, hearing, sense of smell – to overcome problems and save the day. That’s basically what makes the series achievable on our budget. So where are the low-budget elements of your idea that you can achieve every episode?

Appeal outside your genre. I know every nice girl loves a vampire these days, but there was a time when teen girls wouldn’t watch supernatural drama. But they watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Why? Because it had a competent, witty heroine who was kickass in the face of danger, yet struggled as much as they did with family, friends, school, and love life.

So how can you use casting, humour or subplots to expand your audience beyond the usual fans of your genre? The wider your appeal, the longer you stay on the air.

If anyone has any other thoughts on high-concept television, feel free to chip in…

Unstoppable Force, Meet Immovable Object

One of the phrases you hear bandied around in film and in television on both sides of the pond is “high concept”. It gets misused a lot, and not only by amateurs and newbies – but essentially it’s a term for stories that could be summarised in one sentence, stories that any busy exec could grasp even if a writer button-holed him in an elevator for thirty seconds. One of the most famous classic high-concept pitches was the pitch for Alien, which, allegedly, was just  “It’s Jaws in space.”

Another superb high-concept pitch sold today, according to Variety: an R-rated comedy called “Cherries” from writers Jim Kehoe and Brian Kehoe.

“Cherries” follows three naive dads who set out to stop their daughters from making good on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

More details, courtesy of Scott Myers at Go Into The Story, at  http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2012/11/spec-script-sale-cherries.html .

Not really my kind of movie, but damn, great concept!

But wait a minute, there’s something else we can learn about movie concepts here. “Cherries” isn’t just an idea, it’s a conflict. And it’s a conflict in which neither side is going to give way.

Those dads are determined to keep their daughters pure as the driven snow; the daughters are determined to go all the way on this very special night. Can you see either side backing down? Agreeing to give up and go home? Even finding a compromise?

Nope. And those are the kinds of conflicts that drive movies. James Bond and Blofeld will never agree to disagree. The shark in Jaws won’t listen to a reasoned argument. Old Joe and Young Joe in Looper will never find a compromise that gives them both what they want.

If there’s no way you can imagine either side in your central conflict giving way, then you’ve got yourself a movie…