The first order of business when you’re writing anything is to come up with an idea. What? You say you already knew that? But did you know that the key to selling yourself and your work is not to have just any idea but a commercial one?
By this I mean an idea that will appeal to your real buyer. I’m not talking about the audience. This is television. The audience gets the show based on your teleplay for free (plus some “carrying charges” if they’re watching via cable or satellite or one of the online pay sites). As a television writer, your buyer is the medium that gets you to that audience.
Ah, the beloved buyer! AKA the production company. The network or cable channel. Or, to be specific, the executives in charge at those places. The “Suits” we all know and dread. They’re the ones who run things. They control your access. They control your creativity. They control your pay.
The key to impressing the Suits and gaining support for you and your project, whether it be a new series idea, a television movie idea, or a notion for a new episode of an existing series, is the logline.
The logline is your hook, the concept you use to catch your hip, trendy, yet oh-so-conservative executive friend and reel him or her in. It’s a short, sweet summation of the high concept you must have in order to sell.
You’ve probably heard this phrase, “high concept” before, but few people, even those experienced in the Biz, understand what it is. Common explanations that I’ve gotten from students and pro TV writers include:
“An idea that’s bright, fresh, original, and commercial.”
“A concise idea that grabs everyone’s attention.”
“An idea that can be expressed in 1 to 3 sentences so even a 22 year old executive can understand it.”
“A sitcom about the Dali Lama.”
You may not believe this, but the first three expressions are as wrong as the last, although perhaps not as funny. (You’ll notice I only said “perhaps.”) To truly understand high concept, we have to know how the phrase originated.
The fact is, it originated out of fear. The fear development executives have of losing their jobs. So many things can go wrong when a project is begun, or “put into work,” that the Suits have to cover their tushies at all times. Because they’re in the development business and not the buying business – working with writers to create scripts instead of buying finished teleplays – they can’t justify giving a go-ahead based on the quality of the writing. There’s no quality to judge.
So high concept really means that we writers must come up with an idea or premise that’s so good on its face that no matter how badly it’s executed – bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, bad production values – people will still want to see it.
The practical test of high concept is that after hearing the idea each and every person who has been told it says in tones shaded with envy, “Whoa! I wish I’d thought of that!”
And yes, it’s true that you have to be able to tell it in one or two sentences. Not only because your listener or reader has a short attention span, but because the plain fact is that the best ideas are the simplest ones. Let me say that again:
THE BEST IDEAS ARE THE SIMPLEST IDEAS.
We may admire Byzantine, convoluted, deeply layered notions, and we may remember them for awhile. But they don’t stay stuck in our heads like jingles. High concepts do. For example:
- THE VAMPIRE DIARIES
Soap opera about a high school girl in love with two brothers…both of them vampires.
- ONCE UPON A TIME
Fairy tale characters are alive, well, in trouble, and going through all their trials and tribulations among us, in this world.
- PERSON OF INTEREST
Batman without a costume, only Alfred is a computer genius.
- MAJOR CRIMES
A former LAPD Internal Affairs Captain takes over an elite unit and has to fight for acceptance by her squad as well as for the convictions of the perps.
And here’s the high concept for a feature film purchased by a major film studio not that long ago:
After he takes office, an idealistic young president learns that the system is controlled by forces powerful beyond all imagining. He tries to fight them, and ends up not in the White House but out in the world, on the run from the most dangerous group of hit men alive.
Silly as it is, I love this premise because on every serious level it’s ridiculous, but as soon as you get to that “on the run” part you know the film will be a hit because it is giving today’s audience exactly what it demands.
An important thing to remember about your logline, which is really the attempt to duplicate the concise “TV Guide” description of a TV presentation (a logline in the magazine’s “log” of shows) is to make sure you phrase it so the idea jumps out at any reader or listener in the catchiest manner possible. This serves a dual purpose:
- A well-honed and smartly phrased logline is more apt to get the interest of the Suits for all the obvious, time-saving, jingle-like reasons
- A short and simple logline states your idea in a way that will constantly remind you as the writer of what elements of your project are most important.
A note about #2: Working out the logline and then writing with it uppermost in your mind will keep you focused on the elements that are the most primal, and therefore the most interesting. Which is especially important if you’re writing on spec, without the Suits to interfere with – I mean guide – you.
High concept loglines aren’t just for series concepts or TV movies either. They’re for episodes of current series as well.
Most series have writing staffs of anywhere from 3 or 4 to 8 or 9 people. Part of their job is to think of every possible story they can featuring their characters and situation. As an “outside writer” you have to come up with a premise for an episode that seems perfect for the show not just to the casual viewer, but to a group of highly talented men and women who have been steeped in that series so long that in a creative sense the reality of that show is the only one they know.
Yeah, that’s as difficult as it sounds. But it can be done. Think of yourself as the world’s most irresistible entertainer because when it comes to pitching that’s where you head has to be. Fill yourself with enough energy and confidence (and good ideas) to bring a smile to the face of the most jaded Showrunner and his/her team.
In a perfect world, you’d want every one of them to listen to what you’re saying and then leap up to hug you while they say, “Yeah! We’ve got to do that episode! Gibbs becomes a paraplegic! It’s a natural.”
Or: “An ancient magical artifact makes Artie fall in love with a bowling ball? That’s perfect!”
And remember, since this isn’t a perfect world, all you really need is for one person in the group – the Showrunner – to nod thoughtfully and almost-but-not-quite half-smile and give you the ultimate professional compliment, as in:
“Jack Bauer dies because he’s stopped drinking in order to be more like his hero, Captain America, but it turns out that teetotalers are susceptible to brain infections that destroy their fascist police state mentalities and leave them open to liberal bleeding hearts? Hm…That’ll work.”
Almost done. Except for:
THE MOST IMPORTANT TIPS I CAN GIVE YOU FOR A SERIES EPISODE PREMISE
- Unexpected twists and turns are the order of the day, even in sitcoms. Logic is imperative, but the logic has to be combined with surprise. The most successful stories these days are the ones where the writer wins the “Gotcha!” game.
- Lead characters in crisis are essential right now. Whatever the problem that kickstarts the story, it has to cause genuine emotional turmoil for at least one of the regulars (and in a sitcom that turmoil needs to be, you know, funny). The very worldviews of the main characters need to be challenged in the course of the episode.
- Be bold. Whatever your concept is, take it to the limit, even in the logline. Never hobble yourself. Don’t worry about not having a safety net, make your core idea fly.