Justine: Hook, (Log)line, and Sinker…er, Synopsis, pt. 3

Even the title

Even the title “Jurassic Park” is its own form of high concept. Poster (c) 1993 Universal Studios

So, I’ve got a logline and synopsis…the last thing I’m missing is my high concept (the hook).

I dread this.

Well, let me clarify. I dread this for Three Proposals. I’ve had no problems coming up with high concept ideas for the other stories that are swimming around in my brain. But for this one? Ugh. It’s been a struggle.

For the uninitiated, a high concept is a way to convey the story in a few short, easy to recognize ideas that hook the reader (or listener). Here are some examples:

  • “What if we could clone dinosaurs?” – Jurassic Park
  • “When he said ‘I do,’ he never said what he did.” – True Lies
  • Snakes on a Plane” – (sometimes the title is the high concept)
  • Jaws” – (ditto on the title)

James Bonnet, writer and story consultant, identified in his article Conquering the High Concept four basic things you should identify to help create your high concept:

  • Fascinating Subject
  • Great Title, which tells the audience not only what the story is about, but the genre
  • Inciting Action, which is the problem of your story
  • Hook, which reveals the uniqueness or special circumstances of your story. Bonnet used a few examples: a baby left on a doorstep, not of a kindly nanny, but of three bachelors; star-crossed lovers meet not at a church social, but on the Titanic; a volcano erupts, not in the desert, but in the middle of a city.

So I did this for Three Proposals:

  • Fascinating Subject – a pretend/masquerade marriage
  • Great Title – Three Proposals isn’t all that exciting. I’ve been tossing around The Masquerade Marriage. Maybe that suits the story better. Another option is The Marriage Sham.
  • Inciting Action – Susannah’s uncle forces her to marry someone she doesn’t wish to
  • Hook – To avoid a real marriage, Susannah agrees to a fake one, or perhaps “she’s married to someone she isn’t really married to”

But I still felt stuck. So I did a bit more surfing on the ‘net and found some more suggestions on the Writing Room website to help me come up with a high concept.

  • Think of opposites…stories, scenarios, and stereotypes that are turned on their ear. The examples they have are a lawyer that can’t lie (Liar Liar) and Peter Pan grows up (Hook).
  • If that doesn’t work, ask “what if?” The Jurassic Park example above does this. Just try to think of this from a unique perspective.
  • A third prompt is putting a spin on the traditional. Pick a favorite book or movie and spin it. Pretty Woman is Cinderella on the streets of LA.

I’ve thought a lot about movies that could help describe my high-concept. For example, one of the books I want to write is about a spy who’s been hired to find a missing girl. What no one knows is she had a baby out of wedlock at a home for unwed mothers and refuses to return to her family until she finds her infant daughter, who’s been sold. My high-concept for this one? James Bond meets Philomena.

But for Three Proposals? I’ve thought about movies with real-but-fake marriages, like Greencard and The Proposal, but they’re not quite the same. Still, they might be worth trying.

Here are some examples I’ve come up with (you can tell I’m not modest, because these are horrible):

  • What happens when a woman falls in love with the man she marries, but isn’t really married to?
  • It’s like Greencard, but with an illegitimate marriage and no French accents.
  • It’s a marriage of convenience that isn’t even legal.
  • Two strangers who “marry for love,” but aren’t really married.
  • It’s like True Lies, but with an illegitimate marriage and no foreign accents.

(Yeah, that last one was a stretch…I know).

In any case, that’s the best I could come up with. If you have suggestions, no matter how silly/off-the-wall/crazy, I’m wide open. Throw them out there. Ditto if you need help with your high concept. Perhaps with enough collective brain power, we can come up with a good high concept idea for 3P, or for your story.

6 thoughts on “Justine: Hook, (Log)line, and Sinker…er, Synopsis, pt. 3

  1. Like your examples show, it seems that the high concept has to be one short sentence that’s either catchy or so understandable that an editor buys the project without seeing the execution, right? So, for example, “cloning dinosaurs” or “A Boy and his X” or “a Georgette Heyer” or “Film A meets Film B.” Aren’t “Greencard” and “The Proposal” essentially comedies? I’m thinking 3P should steer away from those connotations (unless it’s a comedy). Maybe something like “Jane Eyre meets The Dating Game.” In Jane Eyre you’ve got the sham marriage of Rochester and his wife in the attic and the almost-sham marriage of Jane Eyre and Rochester and then finally the real marriage after the wife dies in the fire. And The Dating Game: unknown romantic choices that you can explore. You can no doubt do better, I’m just thinking off the top of my head.

    • Actually, those are pretty good suggestions, Kay. Thanks! I hadn’t thought about the comedy part, but you’re right…3P isn’t really a comedy. You’re right, too, about high concept being a catchy sentence that essentially sells the book. One website I read (by an agent!) said to come up with the high concept first, THEN write the book. I’m not sure I could do it in that order, but he’s advocating selling the idea, then actually putting it on paper.

      • This morning I thought, “Jane Eyre meets The Dating Game? I stayed up too late,” so thank you for that nice response! Well, we’re brainstorming, right? About writing the high concept first—I suppose if it charges you up with a fresh idea, it could work. There’s certainly lots of leeway plotwise after you say, oh, right, Jane Eyre meets The Dating Game.

  2. Interesting you read that advice from an agent. The ‘high concept’ for My Girls was ‘Thelma and Louise run off with the prom queen’. Since it went from being a full-on road-trip book to having the road-trip contained in Act II, that doesn’t quite fit anymore. Now I’m having a hell of a time finding movies made recently (within the last 20 years ago) that center around strong female friendships. In addition to making my life harder at the moment, that fact makes me very sad. The best high concept I have thus far for my story is ‘Thelma and Louise meets Steel Magnolias, updated with cell phones, sexting, and cyber-stalking.’ UGH.

    For 3P (or MM), I love Kay’s idea of Jane Eyre meets the Dating Game. I was trying to think of period pieces, particularly movies, involving a lot of secrets and intrigue, but drew a blank. I think you might be onto something with modern-day movies with fake marriages or relationships, with the twist being the Regency setting. I’m obviously terrible at this, but I’ll let you know if inspiration strikes.

    • Lack of girlfriend movies is sad, Nancy, and I can’t think of any lady-friendship movies, either. Maybe, “Buddy Movie with girls”? Girls and boys don’t seem to have the same kind of bonding rituals, though.

      As for me, a lot of what I’ve written is broad concept. Interspecies love affair? Been done, for decades. Were-animals? Been done, A LOT, often in conjunction with other genres, because there’s nothing really exciting about a were-animal anymore. You need a were-animal AND genetic cloning. Or, in my case, were-animal AND spirit photographs — and I have to tell you, getting that connection down on paper is really, really difficult.

      I think, though, there’s a market for some stories just because they fit nicely into a genre. There was a point in my life when I was picking up anything called “Regency.” And I still like a good ghost story.

      Something came to me about 3P when I was reading your post. Your girl is trying to win her independence with lies. And somehow, the lies become the truth, when she really does fall in love with her “husband”. “She faked her marriage to gain her inheritance . . . and when it became real, she had everything to lose.” Or maybe “she had love to lose” or something.

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