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What is high concept? And dear god, do you have a simple way to write a logline before the actual writing has started? How do you write a logline?
Dear, dear Flailing,
Wow, that went downhill fast. Here, sit down. Put your head between your knees. Here is a paper bag for you to breathe into. Out, two, three, four. In, two, three, four. Better? OK, here we go.
High concept just means it’s easily summarized, easily sold. It’s the thing you can quickly picture being made into a film. It was first coined at the movie studios in the 1970s to describe ideas you could imagine right off the bat. Jurassic Park was high concept. The Wizard of Oz was, too. The Silence of the Lambs? Also high concept. Anything you can summarize in one or two lines is high concept. Think broad commercial appeal; it has a big, obvious conflict.
Personally, I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around why it’s called high concept when a lot of these ideas might be termed lowbrow by the literary elite (of which, it might be said, I am not one), but then again, this is just a lesson in how important point of view is. Me, I’d queue up to spend a lazy afternoon watching Groundhog Day over and over again before I’d spend it trying to wade through Ulysses, but that’s just one reader.
About writing the logline before you write the book: Don’t do that. Even if you did write a logline before you wrote the book, it’d be likely to change once you got into your first real taste of the conflict. I can’t think of any situation in which you’d try this. You’re putting the cart before the horse.
Loglines are something you get better and better at the more you practice. And one way to practice is to get used to reading them. One of my favorite sources is the section of the newspaper where they list the television shows for the day. Writer Rick Polito’s most famous work, potentially, is the one-liner he wrote in 1988 about The Wizard of Oz: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Yes, that one’s a humdinger. And it’s not great, because it doesn’t actually describe what the work is about. So go for something as zippy, but, um, topical to your novel. Don’t worry: every single week, writers try to describe movies and show episodes succinctly and clearly, and you’ll still find plenty of inspiration.
Mostly loglines are just this: Setting + Protagonist + Conflict (Antagonist) + Goal.
After you’ve studied a couple, try your own hand at it. Mostly loglines are just this: Setting + Protagonist + Conflict (Antagonist) + Goal. (If you apply this formula to the one I just gave you for The Wizard of Oz, you’ll see it fits neatly.)
Have fun with this. And oh – one more thing; you’ll see we’ve drawn mostly from the film world for the answers to your question. That’s OK. A little cross-pollination is good.
You can do it,