Of High-Concepts and Strange Attractors

I get a lot from reading and listening to screenwriters.  Today, while skimming some of the links posted below, I happened upon, Wordplay, the site for Scheherazade Productions, the company of screenwriters/producers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. http://www.wordplayer.com/

The heart of the site, according to the Intro page, is the Columns tab, a growing collection of essays where Elliott and Rossio share some of what they learned during the five years it took them to earn their first paycheck as screenwriters.  I was hooked at the start of Column 01, A Foot in the Door.

Somewhere in my own efforts, I stumbled upon a stunningly simple and vital concept: before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), I should be able to describe my story in a single sentence. Trial and error (error meaning tens of thousands of words of meandering prose) has made it an article of faith.

In his essay, Terry Rossio brings the concept alive in graphic detail as “The Warner Bros. Hallway Test:”

As a screenwriter, your choice of film premise is your calling card. Not your witty dialog, not your clever descriptions. Not your knowledge of structure and subplot and subtext.  The very first decision you make as a writer — ‘what is my film about?’ — will define your creative instincts in the eyes of the industry.

Rossio asks us to imagine a busy producer and director stopping by an office where a first reader is 40 pages into our screenplay. “What’s it about?” they ask.  What will the reader say?  What brief reply would catch and hold a director’s attention?

Once I heard a screenwriter try to describe, “High Concept,” which he claimed was a necessary ingredient for a story these days. Like most of the audience, I didn’t quite get what he was talking about. In Column 02, Rossio says that as a matter of fact, a story that can be summed up in a sentence is High Concept, but for him, that does not convey the special mojo that lifts a story above its peers. He “stole” a phrase from the mathematics of fractals: Strange Attractor.

I know this sounds a bit silly, but bear with me. Put ‘strange’ (meaning ‘unique’) and ‘attractor’ (from ‘attractive,’ meaning ‘compelling’) together and you get ‘strange attractor,’ or ‘something unique that is also compelling.’

Which would be just another, forgettable, “yeah, yeah,” bit of advice, if the author didn’t go on to give some examples:

“A group of ex-psychic investigators start a commercial ghost extermination business in New York City.”

“A defense attorney falls in love with her client. As the trial progresses, she doesn’t know if she’s sleeping with an innocent man, or a murderer.”

It begins to make sense. What is unique is not ghost stories, or love stories, or murder mysteries, per se, but the unexpected or quirky slants that were central to these movies. I remember coming across this “high concept” description of The DaVinci Code online some time ago – so simple yet so forceful I remember it without even trying:  A late night murder in the Louve leads to the discovery of a secret the Vatican has tried to suppress for two-thousand years.”

When he starts to outline specific qualities these strange attractor stories seem to share, Rossio begins with this image:

It’s as if thousands of people in Hollywood are combing the beach for that next great film idea, magnifying glasses out, checking every facet on every tiny grain of sand they come across. And then somebody points at a big, beautiful conch shell laying right out in the bright sun and says, “Hey, let’s make that!” You look at that big glorious pink and white crustacean and can’t believe you missed it.

If there were a magic formula, it wouldn’t be magic for very long. There are, however, some fifty essays on this site that promise to offer a lot of ideas and food for contemplation about the special qualities that can make a story come alive.

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