Ideas are common. Good ideas are less common. High concept ideas are rare. The good news is, they can be constructed if you know how.
When you’re writing, you’re constantly creating. It takes a lot of energy and mental effort. I think of my brain like a battery. It needs recharged. When I’ve spent all day expending creative energy, it needs to be fed with experiences, listening to other people’s thoughts and ideas, and discovering new things about the world. We also need an environment where even bad ideas are allowed to be shared, where mistakes can be made without shame, and our minds are allowed to go to new places without fear of what others will think.
So every day, I like to make sure to learn something new and write down one possible way that idea could be used as a premise for a story. I read the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I especially like their Demystified articles. Or I ask a questions about how something is done. I used to love watching “How It’s Made” with my kids. There’s so much information out there now, it’s easy to learn new things.
Most of these ideas will be okay. Some will be terrible. Some will be great.
As a storyteller of any kind, the ideas that garner the most attention and usually reach the largest audience are high concept ideas. There are the general tenants of a high concept idea or premise:
The ability to entertain a mass audience…
This just means it needs to appeal universally. It should have at its core something that will ‘speak’ to or is a common experience for most people. It’s the human experience.
An emotional focus….
This will usually manifest as a theme that resonates emotionally with a lot of people.
Asks a ‘what if’ question…
These are questions you could ask yourself or that could arise from combining ideas together. More about this later. But it’s the question that creates curiosity. Like what if instead of normal animals in a zoo, you could see dinosaurs and add in a theme part ride or safari–Jurrasic Park.
It’s unique and original…
Not everything about the story will be unique, and rarely are things original. But things that are done in a more unique format or medium that showcase an idea in a different way can make something higher concept. An example is the movie Avatar. It took a basic story like the Pocahantas legend and added in the idea of aliens and then added in the idea of body-borrowing. Mix that with our next tenant.
With movies, this is easier to conceptualize. For the written word, it has to be vivid, use specific words that create new and amazing worlds.
Now take two or three of your own amazing ideas and put them together. They can sound crazy. They might sound outlandish. But that’s how to make things fresh and exciting and different. If you do this enough, you’ll begin coming up with high-concept ideas that you love, that are ideal for showcasing the theme you’ve been toying around with, or fit perfectly with that main character you’ve always connected with.
Here are some other places you can look to learn how to get new ideas…
TED Talk: Where do ideas come from?
by Steven Johnson
How does the metaphorical lightbulb go off? Is it a flash of genius? The power of crowds? These heady talks explore the nature of ideas themselves: Where they come from, how they evolve, and how each of us can nurture them.
Smithsonian Magazine: Where Do New Ideas Come From?
With close study, the genealogies of even the most original ideas can be traced.
Scientific Magazine: Where Do Ideas Come from?
They’re nurtured by informal dialogues in environments where mistakes are tolerated and critical thinking is encouraged.