When I was ten years old, my friend Tom Kelly was the king of the What If. He was the Michael Jordan of the hypothetical – so good at it that his tongue flapping in mid-dunk only made him that much cooler.
I cannot remember even one of Tom’s What Ifs, but the sort of thing he’d say is:
“What if shoes had retractable ball bearings so you could fly downhill and cruise around whenever you wanted?” (This was before Heelys, you understand.)
“What if you made a robot that looked just like yourself so it could go to school for you?”
“What if all of the adults in the world suddenly started talking baby talk?”
I marveled at Tom’s prolific facility with the What If. My mind just doesn’t work like that. Still, I try. I am a high concept kind of guy, only much more slow-witted than Tom. If I hear of a book or a movie that is rooted in a strong What If, I am all over it.
Divergent: what if each person were forced by society to choose a faction advocating only one positive quality as its driving philosophy?
The Lightning Thief: what if the Greek gods had children with latent supernatural powers and who lived among us?
Liar, Liar: what if a lying attorney, by the magic power of his son’s birthday wish, was for 24 hours incapable of telling a lie?
I am a sucker for these sorts of stories.
The Hunger Games, for example, is a modern iteration of Richard Connell’s classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” While the latter asks the question, “What if the hunter literally becomes the hunted?” it also asks, “What if our society devolves to the point that we revert to killing each other for sport?” With lyrical touches and a profound understanding of the explosive potential of the tinder of a good heart in the dry dark of an evil world, Suzanne Collins spins a modern fable around these What Ifs, in a YA framework.
This is what I want for my fiction. To begin with a captivating What If and build from it a powerful fable featuring strong characters, told with heart. Such stories are known as high concept because they begin with the big idea in mind. Though, as in The Hunger Games, they may boast compelling characters, universal themes, and so on, these stories are conceived as ideas. They are idea-driven, not character-driven. The idea determines the characters.
When a big idea can be expressed in a brief What If sentence, the idea can spread like a virus. “Did you hear about Harry Potter? It’s about a boy who goes to wizarding school.” The implied high concept idea: “What if wizards lived among us and their children went to a secret school of wizardry?”
High concept is often related to Mental Real Estate, a concept developed and expounded by screenwriters Terri Rossio and Ted Elliot at their excellent site Wordplay. Basically, the idea is that there is a nice little space set aside in each of our minds for various ideas. A high concept story will usually take advantage of the power of ideas by planting itself in the fertile ground of a plot of mental real estate. So, for example, Divergent might be said to occupy the mental real estate of “the folly of narrow-mindedness”;The Lightning Thief might be said to occupy the mental real estate of Greek mythology; and The Hunger Games might be said to occupy the mental real estate of “killing people for sport.”
When I wrote Snoop, the screenplay that won me a screenwriting contest and a Hollywood literary agent, its success was, I believe, due in large part to its high concept. Snoop asks the question: what if a boy who considers himself the world’s greatest Christmas present snooper finds a way to the North Pole to prove himself by snooping on Santa Claus? The mental real estate this story occupies is in both snooping and Christmas. We all have in our minds a little space for snooping. In that space are memories of times we’ve snooped and of times, including times from book and movie scenes, when others we’ve known have snooped. In other words, pretty much everyone can relate to snooping – and that makes a story about snooping a good idea, especially if it’s never been done before.
Just as emailing all of your blog readers when you have a book to sell them leverages the platform you have built through your blog, creating a story from a high concept that is fertilized within a space of prime mental real estate leverages the appeal of big ideas that have already taken root in readers’ and viewers’ minds.
My suggestion? If you’re like me – or, better yet, like my friend Tom – strive to design a blueprint for a What If? with great curb appeal, construct it on a lush plot of mental real estate, and then populate the place with dynamic characters, some of whom we will love to love and some of whom we will love to hate. As far as I’m concerned, this is the storytelling trifecta: everyone wins!
(Photo by Oha-Lau2)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.