Day 9: Six Rules Of Great Concepts
When you watch people who are highly skilled at creating marketable
concepts, it just seems so natural for them. They operate as if they have
a software program installed in their minds that naturally directs them
toward creating great ideas.
Part of any mental process is a set of rules that help you succeed
and prevent mistake. We have rules for driving, rules for work, even
mental rules for social situations. In this case, rules aren’t about
restriction, they’re about being creative in a very specific way.
For a concept to be High Concept, it needs ALL THREE of these components:
High Concept Requirements
1. It is unique.
2. It appeals to a wide audience.
3. It can be said in one sentence and…you instantly see
the whole movie.
The problem most people have is the degree of each requirement’s
effectiveness. How unique is the concept? How wide an
audience will it appeal to? To what degree does it cause you
to imagine the movie?
One way to improve a concept is through the Six Rules of
THE SIX RULES
Here are six rules of great concepts. These are part of the thought
process of people who consistently create High Concepts.
And you’ll want to make these a part of your thought process because…
1. If they don’t instantly get your concept, they don’t request your script.
2. If you don’t clarify your concept, you’ll write a script that doesn’t
fully express the concept.
Instead, you’ll use these six rules to make your concept clear.
To demonstrate the Six Rules, let’s start with a poor concept and
see how it changes.
CONCEPT: An attorney loses control of his teen-aged son.
Not very interesting, huh? I’d put it at a 1 on our High Concept Scale.
In reality, I’d instantly be asking myself what fascinates me about this
idea and then take that through the 12 Marketing Formats.
But for today’s example, we’ll just work with the 6 Rules.
RULE 1: THE CONCEPT PRESENTS YOUR BIGGEST HOOK
This is usually your most unique part. Discovering the Hook of your
story is what Level 1, 2, and 3 are about. It is the most important
thing there is and that’s why we gave you many specific methods
for brainstorming a unique concept.
“Unique” instantly puts your pitch above most others because the
majority of stories pitched to Hollywood are truly average.
Too often, people are recreating the stories they’ve already seen. Or they’re
creating stories that most of us have already lived. “Average” scores
low on the High Concept scale and low on achieving producer’s goals.
The easiest way to create a unique story idea is to run a Fascinating
Core through the 12 Marketing Formats. That would be the first step
in this process. Find a unique story concept. Without that, there’s
not much use in proceeding to the next step.
For our example, let’s add contrast by sending the attorney to a
place where all his rules are violated.
VERSION A: An attorney loses control of his teen-aged son.
VERSION B: An attorney loses his son to a street gang
and descends into gangland in search of him.
On our High Concept scale, this is about a 3 or 4. We’ll improve it with the
next few rules. But if I went too far, I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate
the next two rules. So let’s say that is unique enough for the moment.
RULE 2: THE CONCEPT MUST PROVIDE A “SETUP / PAYOFF” EXPERIENCE.
If you miss this rule, your concept will lose at least 1/2 it’s power.
So make sure you understand the Setup / Payoff part of a great
Too often, I hear concepts that go like this:
“One day before the new President is sworn in, his wife
announces to him that she is going to file for divorce
during the ceremony.”
So I ask “And then what happens?”
I’m asking that because the writer just gave me a great setup.
It is something that could make a great movie and I want to
know the 2nd Act conflict. If that 2nd Act conflict is as good
as the setup, this will be a true High Concept.
Here’s what they say 95% of the time:
“And then it plays out.”
“Then we see how he’ll deal with it.”
Or some other version of that. What they are saying is that
they have an amazing setup and NOTHING ELSE. The next
two acts are going to be a lot of characters emoting and dealing
with the pain that was caused…instead of a great conflict that
this amazing setup deserves.
Just to clarify the problem through the Setup / Payoff model:
SETUP: One day before the new President is sworn in,
his wife announces to him that she is going to file for
divorce during the ceremony.
PAYOFF: And then it plays out.
See how weak that is. We’ve got a “7” setup and a “2” payoff.
You’ve got to do better than that in order to succeed as
Now, let’s look at our updated concept as a Setup/Payoff.
SETUP: An attorney loses his son to a street gang…
PAYOFF: …and descends into gangland in search of him.
Looking at it as a Setup/Payoff, we can use the LEVEL 1 process
to elevate both sides. Does he lose his son or is his son kidnapped?
Does he just descend into gangland or…does he have to fight the
gang leader to get his son back?
Two minutes work yields this:
SETUP: An attorney’s unruly son is kidnapped by a street gang.
PAYOFF: …and he must fight the gang leader to recover his son.
See the value of combining levels of this process. This movie isn’t
just about recovering the son, it is about how this attorney will
survive a fight with a vicious gang leader and hopefully get his
It is more interesting, creates conflict, and puts the attorney
in a pretty bad situation. Also, notice how there is a clear setup
and payoff that combine to create an interesting concept.
So our concept has become:
VERSION C: An attorney’s son is kidnapped by a
street gang and he must fight the gang
leader to recover the son.
We’re part way there. We have a setup and a payoff. We have
a clear 2nd Act conflict that will get you through that 2nd Act
without having to manufacture a bunch of subplots.
We’ve raised the concept to a 4, maybe even a 5.
RULE 3: THE CONCEPT GENERATES STORY QUESTIONS…
…that cause the listener to see the movie. This means you
point to the main conflict or dilemma. It doesn’t mean that you
hide the thing that will create the story questions.
Take a very simple example:
AIR FORCE ONE: A Terror group hijacks Air Force One and
holds the President’s family hostage.
>From that, a reader can instantly see certain conflicts. Story questions
abound. What will the President do? How will he save them? Will he
negotiate? Will he give in to their demands? Will they kill the family?
Or will he shoot down Air Force One?
Making the main conflict clear created plenty of story questions.
If I provided a sub-rule for Rule 2, it would be MAKE THE MAIN
CONFLICT CLEAR. Let’s look at the last version of our concept again.
An attorney’s son is kidnapped by a street gang and he must
fight the gang leader to recover the son.
The conflict is pretty clear. But is it the best conflict? Let’s make
two more changes from our 12 Marketing Formats. First, selecting
the right lead character. Let’s make him an ex-prosecutor so the gang
leader has more reason to hate him. Second, let’s create a more unique
dilemma — whether to spend 24 hours in a jail cell with a guy who
just spent 10 years in prison.
That gives us this:
VERSION D: An ex-prosecutor’s son is kidnapped and
the ransom note demands only one thing — that the
prosecutor spend 24 hours in a home-made jail cell with
a gang leader he put away ten years ago.
Now, the conflict is more clear. But take a look at the story
questions that come up…
– What will the gang leader do during that 24 hours?
– Will the prosecutor be tortured, raped, or even killed?
– How will the prosecutor survive the confrontation?
– Can the prosecutor even the odds in some way?
Every one of those story questions come from the increased
conflict — putting them in a home-made jail cell for 24 hours.
So it is well worth reconsidering your conflict and the story
questions it causes for the reader.
Where is our “attorney” concept on the High Concept Scale, now?
I’d rate it about a 6 or 7. It is a good conflict-oriented story, but I
don’t know that it would appeal to a wide audience. If I were really
writing that story, I’d test it to make sure a wide audience would be
But notice what happened in those first three rules. A concept idea
went from a 3 to a potential 7. Just by making sure it complied with
RULE 4: THE CONCEPT MUST NOT GENERATE CONFUSION OR
QUESTIONS ABOUT ITSELF.
If they have to ask “What do you mean?,” then the logline has no impact.
This one I see violated everyday. Someone will send me a logline that goes
Two superheros collide, creating reverberations throughout
This instantly confuses. If a producer doesn’t know you, they hand
up the moment they hear something like this.
Instead of creating story questions, it causes the listener to assume
that you either made a mistake or that you have no concept.
We don’t know what “creating reverberations” means. Is this about
physical destruction of the universe or about superhero politics or
is it a these two having an intimate relationship together?
All we know is that we don’t know. So we assume the writer isn’t
ready for the industry, yet.
Do you get that? Confusion doesn’t equal intrigue.
The other version of confusing loglines goes like this:
An impoverished mother takes a new job as a blackjack dealer
and discovers a sinister plot that puts her life in danger.
Besides violating other rules, the payoff is too vague. I see these kind of
loglines all the time. I always wonder if the writer is trying to make the
logline mysterious or if they just couldn’t figure out how to write it more
In this case, the first line is great. We see the character and the
situation, but when it comes to the conflict, we have no idea what they’re
talking about. We might wonder what the plot is, but because it is so
vague and could be 100 different things, it will only confuse us to try to
piece it together. It could just as well be written…
An impoverished mother takes a new job as a blackjack dealer
and (something bad happens).
Now tell me if you have a clue what happens in that story. Too many
loglines are written with an ending like this:
…a disastrous plot unfolds.
…they face the worst nightmare of their lives.
…they discover something more terrifying than death.
…they realize they must change or else.
…they get more than they bargain for.
…they lose everything as they struggle for their lives.
The problem with those endings is that you have no idea what the story is
about. You don’t want anything vague in your logline.
Remember, for a production company to take a risk on a new writer, they
need as much security as possible. Confusing them won’t give them security.
RULE 5: THE CONCEPT/LOGLINE SHOULD HAVE US SEE THE WHOLE MOVIE.
This is what gives a production company security — seeing an entire movie
unfold in front of their eyes — from just one sentence. That tells them
you are a professional writer and it has them buy into the movie…if your
concept is unique, marketable, and can be pitched in one sentence.
It is magical. Say one sentence; see an entire movie.
But can you really see the entire movie from one sentence? Let’s go
back to our example and see.
An ex-prosecutor’s son is kidnapped and the ransom note
demands only one thing — that the prosecutor spend 24
hours in a home-made jail cell with a gang leader he put
away ten years ago.
Without saying all the details, here’s what you can see in our
First act: Gang leader prosecuted by our lead character and convicted.
When released from prison, he and his gang kidnap the attorney’s son.
Second act: The ransom note arrives with a gang member. The
prosecutor has to deal with the dilemma that he may face death or
torture during that 24 hours.
Third act: The prosecutor comes face-to-face with the gang leader.
See what I mean? One sentence has you see all three acts.
When I first got to L.A., I’d pitch one of my concepts and I kept hearing
producers say “That’s a movie.” At first, it sounded so stupid, but I
finally realized they were saying that from my pitch, they could see the
ONE CAUTION: Don’t assume that you have to have a “detailed” logline to
have someone see a whole movie. Consider these pitches:
GIRLFIGHT, a female ROCKY movie.
40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN
Can you see the whole movie? I can. And it doesn’t matter if I’m right
about any of the details. What matters is that I, a producer, can
visualize enough to know that it could make a complete movie.
REMEMBER, in the world of concepts, LESS IS MORE. Shorter is better.
RULE 6: YOU MUST TEST YOUR CONCEPT TO SEE HOW
AN AUDIENCE WILL RESPOND.
Testing? What’s that got to do with the creative process? I think there
are two kinds of creativity — self expression and impacting others. If
all a person cares about is self-expression, then none of this program
matters to them. Their focus is on themselves.
But if you want to impact others, to have readers and studio executives
love your work, to entertain audiences, then you need to consider how
people will respond to your work.
In Day 11, we’ll go over testing methods that you can use from
anywhere in the world — with people you already know.
Take one of your ideas through the first five rules. Just to clarify, you
need to select one of the NEW CONCEPTS you created in the HC
Formats and take it through the Rules.
Show how each step changes the logline and what the final logline is.
If you have time, do it with more than one concept.
RULE 1: The concept presents the biggest hook.
RULE 2: The concept must provide a Setup / Payoff experience.
RULE 3: The concept must generate story questions.
RULE 4: The concept must not generate confusion or questions about itself.
RULE 5: The concept/logline should have us see the whole movie.
Then ANSWER THE QUESTION “What I’ve learned doing this
assignment is…?” and place it at the top of the page.
Title: [ProSeries 50] (your name) 5 rules
Send to: mailto:hal@ScreenwritingU.com
Deadline: 24 hours
As you run your idea through the first five rules, it will change and improve.
Use them often and they’ll become a natural part of your thinking.
As always, do whatever you can, then turn in whatever you have, no matter
how good or bad it is. Just do the assignment so you have a full
experience of these rules in action. And if you’re having trouble with one
concept, use another one.
I hope you’re having fun with this.
Copyright Hal Croasmun, 2002, 2014, all rights reserved.