September 3, 2008

Where You Sit on the Shelf

In Hollywood there’s a term called “high-concept.” At its purest, high concept is a film idea that can be boiled down to one sentence or less, and that one sentence will instantly let you know what the film’s about and make you want to see it. Some famous high-concept pitches you’ll probably recognize quickly would include “Aliens blow up the White House” or “Big lizard, Big Apple” (although I hope you didn’t sit though that last one). Steve Alten got quite far with “Jurassic shark” (I never thought the book was that great, but I love that line).

One part of a high concept story is that it’s easy to tell what genre it belongs in. There’s a reason this appeals to executive types. Knowing the genre makes a story—be it a novel or a film—easier to market. If your title cleverly (or not so cleverly) reflects this, all the better. To paraphrase Kevin Smith, no one’s going to walk into Zack and Miri Make A Porno thinking it’s a meditation on the Holocaust. By the same token, if you try to define Batman Begins as a romantic comedy (or market it as one), you’re going to find it misses the mark and fails on pretty much every level.

Story the first…

An acquaintance of mine recently asked me for some feedback on a screenplay she’d written. Her formatting was fine, the dialogue was pretty solid, and she’d come up with a pretty decent core idea. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out what genre the script was. Twenty pages in I couldn’t tell if I was reading a comedy that needed another draft or an action flick that needed three or four. I still couldn’t tell at the fifty page mark. Even when I finished, I was lost as to what kind of story it was. And part of the problem with that was it made the script very hard to interpret. Was this scene going for comedy or high drama? Action or absurdity? Since I couldn’t tell what goals the script was trying to achieve, I couldn’t tell if it reached them or not.

If you were looking for your book at Borders or Barnes & Noble, where would it be? What about the DVD release of your screenplay? Here’s another tidbit of advice from very quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth. It’s not like anything else is very hard to sell.” While everybody wants to be the publisher/ producer behind a groundbreaking new bestseller/ blockbuster, no one actually wants to be the person who takes the risk of something new and untested. It’s always going to be much safer to go with something proven such as an apocalyptic horror novel in the vein of The Stand, a television show that’s like an updated X-Files, or a film that’s like Die Hard but in a building.

(no joke—that last one was an actual Hollywood pitch. Bonus tip—actually know the stories you’re comparing your work to and not just what people say about them on message boards)

Story the second…

In other posts I’ve mentioned my first attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map. With queries and conferences, I’ve had the chance to pitch it to several agents. And one problem I had from the start was… what genre is it? It had lots of horror ideas and beats, without question, but it wasn’t a straight horror novel. By the same token, there were many fantasy elements, but it really wasn’t a fantasy. A fair amount of gore, but not to splatterpunk extremes. It was set in the real world, but I dreaded calling it urban fantasy. You could even argue a sci-fi label because there was a large time travel element, except there was absolutely nothing scientific about it…

So how the heck would I pitch it without making it seem like some horrible everything-but-the-kitchen-sink amalgamation or… well, not like anything else?

In the end… I made up a sub-genre.

Yep, that’s right. I beat the Kobayashi Maru by changing the rules. After much wrangling and about 200 drafts of a query letter, I made up a classification that fit my story and explained its place in the book store.

End result? Requests from three major agencies.

This doesn’t mean a writer who crosses several genres is doomed to difficult sales, mind you. It just means you need to know what you’re crossing. An action-horror screenplay would interest many producers, but they’ll be annoyed if they open it and don’t find any horror elements. Or worse, an abundance of romantic comedy situations. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what they picked up the script to find. Likewise, if you send your sci-fi western short story to a mystery digest magazine, it’s not really their fault when you get rejected.

If you’re writing a genre, study it. Read four or five different books by different authors. Watch five or six different films by different writers and directors. How does your material stack up with theirs? Do you have the same beats? The same themes? Similar types of characters? Do they get the reactions you want your writing to get? When your work gets listed as one of the top five –insert genre here—books or films, can you name the other four works on that list alongside yours?

If not… get back to your desk.

And no matter what, get back to writing. You’ve wasted enough time on the internet for now.

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