It is the holy grail of film and fiction, the high-concept premise, a single-line idea so strongly entrenched in what is visceral and timeless in the shared human experience that it will appeal to the broadest possible audience.
I embarked upon my fool's journey to find the secret to crafting a high-concept premise some time ago and found helpful clues from a number of sources, including blog posts from Alexandra Sokoloff and Nathan Bransford and some of the brilliant residents of Nathan's forum. What I came up with is a combination of questions to lead me through this unfamiliar terrain. Today I thought I would share some of these questions.
Is something strange entering the lives of my characters, or is something integral to their lives leaving them?
Is this thing a force, an object, a type of character, or a situation?
Is it timely? In answering this question I try to look for issues that affect as many people in the world as possible. Possibilities I came up with within a few minutes included: eco-disasters, pandemics, terrorism, globalism/economic collapse, religious conflict, resource conflict, wealth inequity, corruption, protracted war, nuclear proliferation, fascism.
Is it timeless? Something that would have been interesting to people a century ago, though perhaps in a different form? Something that could conceivable still be of interest twenty years from now?
Does it exploit a primal fear? Does it play upon the human fear of death? The fear of the unknown and the corresponding need for clarity and security? The fear of the outsider and the corresponding need for community? The fear of chaos and the corresponding need for order? The fear of insignificance and the corresponding need for respect?
Does it involve a situation that is archetypal without being cliche? A tough distinction to make sometimes.
Are the stakes very high? What is the physical danger posed to my character(s)? The emotional danger? What are the dangers for society at large?
Is it reminiscent of a famous person or event?
Is it an idea that will appeal viscerally to many people?
Is it an idea likely to hold personal meaning to my primary target audience?
Is it based on a topic or scenario that I feel passionate about outside the context of the novel?
It it based on something I fear terribly?
Certain themes stand out for me in these questions: timely, timeless, loss, the unknown, fear, passion, visceral...