Concept is your one stellar idea. You hang an entire story around it. It carries your title, characters and plot all the way to awesomeville and back again. Hollywood prizes high concepts above all else, they’re pretty much the currency they trade in and people’s careers have been made (and sustained) on them. So there’s a lot of emphasis, and rightly so.
Examples of excellent concepts are things like LIAR LIAR (a lawyer can’t lie), TRADING PLACES (rich guy and poor guy swap lives) and FINAL DESTINATION (death comes back for people he missed). Boom, you’ve got the movie in your head in one second. A thousand possibilities immediately spring to mind. Half your work is done for you – your concept is a series of ‘What If?’ questions and all you need to do is answer them. A good concept can even sell a bad script, because studios know they can fix the details later as long as the magic is there at the beginning. But here’s the thing… I think the details ARE the concept, or at the very least, they’re how you present it to the world. And presentation is everything.
Take a concept and look at two executions of it. Let’s say it’s the idea of entering a world inside the human mind. On the one hand you’ve got INCEPTION and on the other you’ve got THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Pretty big difference.
Think about BACK TO THE FUTURE. That is a prime example of perfect execution. You name it, they nailed it. I like to think about the million other directions it could have taken. I remember seeing the film for the first time as a kid with my Dad. I was bouncing down the street afterwards, and I asked my Dad if he liked it. He did, although he was surprised they had a time machine but only went back thirty years. He thought they were going to visit Ancient Rome or somewhere, all these places throughout history (he would have made a shitty screenwriter). Now, with the concept they had (guy invents time machine, kid accidentally uses it), they had that option – but they restrained themselves and it was a great choice. Hell, the time machine itself was originally a fridge. Doc Brown was originally called Professor Brown, and he had a chimpanzee called Shemp. Eric Stoltz was Marty McFly. God have mercy on us all.
The point is, having an idea is one thing. Inspiration hits us all the time. But the execution of that idea is everything. What you chose to focus on, what you chose to leave out, how you take something that exists and give it a twist – this is just as important as the concept itself, maybe more so.
What I learned: This is where I’m at with a sci-fi thriller I’m writing. The concept has a lot to do with time travel, so I’m facing world of infinite possibilities and choices. It’s the easiest thing to overload a project with ‘cool shit’, but that’s a mistake. Do what best serves your concept and edit all the other stuff out. Take what you DO have and make it the best, most exciting version possible. That way you’ll be writing the next BACK TO THE FUTURE and not the next FREEJACK.