How to Find a High-Concept Story Idea that Sells

How to Find a High-Concept Story Idea that Sells

Reader, there are two things I have a sixth sense about.

  1. Whenever I hang out with a friend or family member who is pregnant, I can tell almost immediately what the sex of the baby is going to be. I’m never wrong. I have absolutely no idea how or why I can do this. All I can tell you is that I get a feeling that hits me in the gut, and I know. I just know.
  2. As a script and story consultant, when I take a look at a client’s portfolio, I know almost immediately which one of their scripts has the best fighting chance of being sold, optioned, produced, or gain them a major opportunity. I get that same feeling that hits me in the gut, and I just know.

In another lifetime, I very well may have been a midwife. That could explain the baby thing. Honestly, I chalk that one up to magic and inspiration.

In this lifetime, I like to think of myself as a script and story midwife. And luckily, there’s a tangible way I can quantify the successes of their stand-out screenplays.

Case in point, between 2019 and 2022, one of my dearest friends from college who became a writer/director brought me five of his scripts to consult on. Each script needed work, but all of them showed great promise. My client obviously knew how to write. He had spent over ten years learning the craft of screenwriting, working on sets, as an editor, and writing script after script in whatever free time he had.

Of those five scripts, there was one that stood out above all the rest. I told him that’s the one—that’s the script that’s going to go first.

Why did I say that?

  1. My client had a personal connection to the story idea. He’s a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he wrote a movie about two people who were fated to meet, based on people he knew, the person he was, and the people that populated his community.
  2. My client’s craft was spot on. He can write fun, sharp, witty dialogue that easily lends itself to the romantic comedy genre. He knows how to write action that pops off the page. He understands how to structure a story, and how to take and implement development notes that will make his story the best it can be.
  3. And here’s the most important part—he had a killer concept.

I don’t mind telling you the concept because you can watch my client’s short, Russ and Dru, online, and there, he tells you himself.

He wrote, “The Black version of Sleepless in Seattle.”


After about four full-read consults with me, his screenplay was ready to be circulated.

And guess what?

The short attracted attention, and he linked with a producer for the feature film version of the concept. That screenplay sold to a major production company, and the film shot less than a year later.

But enough about me and my intuition.

Let’s talk about what I can tell you that will help you develop a killer high-concept story idea that will turn into a screenplay you can sell, too.

First of all, let’s get clear on what ‘high-concept’ means.

A HIGH-CONCEPT story is one that is very easy to pitch because it has a simple, clear premise, often including dramatic irony.

For instance, in The Silence of the Lambs, a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, enlists the help of an incarcerated serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, in order to catch another serial killer before he murders his latest victim.

See the irony? FBI trainee + a psychopathic serial killer + ticking clock on catching a killer together = ironic high-concept premise.

Here are a couple more examples:

In Isn't It Romantic, an architect who hates romantic comedies and was taught to believe women like her will never find love, finds herself stuck inside of a romantic comedy where the only way to escape is through making a man fall in love with her.

In "Breaking Bad," a lowly high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer, and in order to financially take care of his family, he transforms into a ruthless drug kingpin in the crystal meth trade.

Another way to think of a high-concept idea is to put a unique twist on a story’s genre or characters. That’s what my client did with his screenplay.

Here are some other notable examples:

Austin Powers is what you would get if James Bond were funny.

"Cobra Kai" is a TV series that uses a twist on The Karate Kid. Instead of centering on Daniel LaRusso, the series follows his arch nemesis, Johnny Lawrence.

Lastly, you might build a high-concept story idea through finding a really cool title.

As an exercise, set a timer for 3-5 minutes and come up with as many story titles as you can. Don’t use A.I. Do it yourself. 😊

After you have a bunch of titles, read them back to yourself and pick your favorite two or three. Then, do a little brainstorming about each one by asking these questions:

If this were the title of my movie or TV show, what would it be about?

Where would the story start?

What main character/protagonist would be at the center of the story? What is their dominant trait, and what ironic situation might they get into because of that?

What does this character want?

What makes that want hard and/or ironic to get?

Where would this movie or series end?

And voila! You have now pitched yourself 2-3 new high-concept story ideas.

To review, you can build a high-concept story by:

1. Character + Dramatic irony

2. Putting a unique twist on genre or character

3. Constructing a pitch around a super cool title

You can use these tools before you start writing your script, during the writing process, or after a draft to help define your story. Every writer’s process is different. Some writers won’t start before defining their premise, and others will want to write to discover the premise as they go along. It’s all about what works for you.

If you would like more high-concept storytelling tools, please check out one Merridith's quarterly logline Symposiums (the next on June 5th), or her course on writing the perfect first 10 pages, coming up on April 10th. Learn more about Merridith's consulting and coaching services on her site.

Join Merridith's new Symposium session, The Perfect Ten
The Perfect Ten

*Feature Photo: The Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

Merridith Allen is a theater-trained storyteller with a background in martial arts. She writes about women wrestling with their demons.
More posts by Merridith Allen.
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