High Concept or Gimmick Writing

If you follow me, you understand the power of High Concept fiction.

High Concept fiction has perhaps, the greatest commercial viability. In a nutshell, the story revolves around a new and unique central idea. This idea holds the entire narrative together, creating maximum reader engagement.

In contrast to a Low Concept (or no concept in some of the indie of indie’est works), where there is no central new or unique idea containing the narrative. Low concept works are often character driven, straight dramas. “Slice of life,” being a prime example. Often these narratives are confined to a single location, and/or take place over a condensed amount of time.

Dinner Rush, a narrative that follows a couple of restaurant owners during a night, as different characters come and go. Birdman, Michael Keaton’s 2014 movie that follows his struggle as an out of trend actor, trying to make a comeback. Mickey Rourke’s the Wrestler, about an aging wrestler trying to navigate professional and personal hurdles of life.

These are all examples of fiction that have no underlying narrative concept, or Low Concept works.

Keep in mind that Low Concept in comics is particularly tricky. Effective low concept comic fiction MUST fire on all cylinders to engage the reader… the approach is unforgiving.

But hey, I’m digressing here, because what I actually wanted to write about today was the difference between HIGH CONCEPT and GIMMICK WRITING…

Get your brain thinking about High Concept.

If you hope to have a break out hit, odds are it’s going to be a high concept piece…

but what you want to watch out for if GIMMICK WRITING masquerading (or taking over) High Concept fiction.

I recently watched the movie Tenet. Hmmm, I’m not really going to try to explain this headache causing movie, but instead just point out that the HIGH CONCEPT is that a bad guy has aquired technology from the future that creates “anti-time.” The hook is, if left unchecked, the anti-time will annihilate regular time and everyone dies.

So, the GIMMICK in this movie, is that much of the action in Tenet is filmed backwards. It’s weird and hard to explain, but basically, explosions, bullet shots, even car chases and fist fighting all reveal themselves in partial reverse in the movie.

If you ask me, Tenet focused too much on the Gimmick and not enough on the concept. The movie was lost to the new “effect,” as so many modern movies are.

High Concept fiction often (maybe always) plays with Gimmicks to some degree. Gimmicks on their own are not toxic.

The trick is making sure the gimmicks always serve the concept, AND NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

When you focus on the gimmicks for the sake of the gimmicks, you’re sunk.

Another example;

Memeber that little franchise with big nasty black Aliens who bleed acid when you hurt them?

Well, that’s a GIMMICK of the concept. Acid blood. They even call it out on the nose in the first movie, if I remember correctly, “Ohh, that’s just great acid for blood. You don’t dare kill the thing.”

Of course, the Alien franchise (at least the beginning), didn’t try to cram acid blood in every frame and every scene. It wasn’t all Rip Taylor popping up in every scene throwing confetti, “Surprise, acid blood!”

Contrast that to Tenet, where it sure feels like Rip could have jumped out every few minutes screaming, “Surprise, backwards time!”

One more example before we split;

2005 DOOM. One of the best uses of the High Concept gimmick, kinda-sorta. 

So, a bunch of marines zip over to a Mars research facility, where they’re locked down and take on a bunch of mutant-demon things. The gimmick, which isn’t totally reflective of the concept itself, BUT of the game which the movie is based, comes in toward the end of the flick, where the film switches to the protagonists, first-person point of view and goes on a video game homage, mutant killing rampage.

The 1st player video game perspective gimmick, wasn’t jammed in your face the entire movie, overshadowing the concept and other highlights of the movie (whatever they might have been).

The fact that director Andrzej Bartkowiak saved the perspective switch gimmick for the end, really delivered it as a payoff to the audience and fanbase, serving the narrative and concept… as all good fiction gimmicks should. 

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Newcomer or veteran writer, if you’re working on a project that needs commercial success, Nick urges to you read this intro article.  And for every writer putting eyeballs on this, why haven’t you picked up my genre guide yet?

Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.

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