In a recent post entitled High Concept Rules, screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder discusses some aspects of what makes a film “high concept.” The term that struck me most was “primal.”
Primal — Bruce Snyder, Distribution President at Fox, used this very word in a recent interview to help explain why Taken was a hit: Someone took my daughter. I have to get her back.
That makes absolute sense, doesn’t it? It’s not completely abstract, but it’s also not very specific and yet it conveys a visceral sense of what the film is about. To my mind this works precisely because there’s no mention of characters or location or any other concrete clue as to the specific content of the story. It’s just the raw emotion at the heart of the story, expressed from the point of view of the main character.
Of course we’re talking high-concept here. These are scripts you need to be able to pitch in a few sentences at the drop of a hat. Once produced, these are movies that are marketed to a mass audience using exactly this kind of pithy, gut-level copywriting. But isn’t this also an excellent way of examining for yourself what’s at the emotional heart of a screenplay you’re still working on, even if you’re never going to say as much to another human being?
Sometimes explicitly identifying a central emotional motive in a story can help to focus the action, create unity and direction. If the main subject is, say, revenge (as in Taken), then everything about the characters, the narrative, the locations and so on becomes focused on one or other aspect of this drive. Everyone who is anyone in the movie has an opinion and a feeling about revenge and acts accordingly.
It’s a similar mechanism to articulating the theme, or the premise, or the designing principle, or the central moral question, depending on whose screenwriting jargon you prefer. And it’s similar also in that not all writers like to know what they’re writing about while they’re writing. In other words it's entirely up to you to determine when, if at all, in the writing process you want to clarify what is “primal” about your story.
Just as visualizing your trailer is a great way of exploring the essence of your story, it seems to me that formulating what is “primal” about your story is yet another useful implement to put in your writer’s toolbox, to be taken out and used at your own discretion.
Thanks to Blake Snyder for pointing that out!