From Dream to High Concept


This is a post about high concepts and how, perhaps, to get to them. It’s going to take a little while to get to the point, so I thought I’d mention that first off.

The Dream: low concept

I had this peculiar and complex dream yesterday that someone was trying to destroy the Marvel Universe (and no, this mysterious villain was not a shadowy figure with giant mouse ears). The interesting thing about this particular dream was that it wasn’t an attempt to destroy it from within. Someone was trying to eradicate it from the real world. Joe Quesada (the current editor in chief) was next on their hit list, and there were creators who had been entirely eliminated from the timeline already.

Len Wein (creator of such iconic characters as Storm and Wolverine) wasn’t doing so well. The only two of his characters I saw were Kitty and Nightcrawler, though there was some reference to Colossus. Stan Lee & Jack Kirby were doing better: all the original X-Men, including Xavier, were still on hand, although it appeared that Jean was, as usual, dead. They, like people outside the comic, were fighting for the universe’s survival; Xavier seemed to be concentrating on–struggling to–keep memories of who and what they were in the X-Men’s minds, so they could continue to fight. It was fairly clear that–perhaps despite the villain’s intentions–the unravelling was happening more or less linearly.

But one of the most interesting things was that according to the Resistance (who appeared to come from the present and future and could go into either *our* universe or the comic book universe with equal ease, depending on where the fight needed to be taken), the villains had already succeeded in wiping out the most popular female superhero from the Marvel universe. Had succeeded so well, in fact, that none of us who were modern fans had ever heard of Gemma Fade: she had simply never existed in the Marvel timeline. Had succeeded so well that the Resistance, even with their ability to move through time, weren’t certain what Gemma’s powers or story were, only that she had, at one time–in one world–been an iconic superhero who stood shoulder to shoulder with Superman in global recognizeability.

Now, I call this a low-concept idea because it belongs in somebody else’s universe (if I already worked for Marvel, it’d be a high concept you’d never read about because I’d be so busy pitching it!). We all have these: ideas that really kind of rock, but what the hell do you do with them when they’re so thoroughly grounded in something somebody else owns?

The answer depends, I think, on whether the serial numbers can be filed off; on whether the idea is inherently tied to the Marvel/Star Trek/Harry Potter/You Name It universe, or if it’s something that can be lifted out and placed into a new setting. And very frequently, they can be: there’s nothing new about The Adventures Of A Boy Wizard, or a Ship Of Daring Explorers, or indeed about the most basic underlying concept of most stories.

Occasionally, it’s not possible, or it’s too much work. This is why my Highlander fan fiction novel, IMMORTAL BELOVED, is and always will be fan fic: it’s too wedded to the Highlander universe. I’ve looked at it dozens of times, trying to find a way to lift it out of Highlander. I *could*, if I kept the immortal love story and sacrificed the part where immortals chop each other’s heads off…but for me, in that particular case, it’s too much work for not nearly enough reward. What I love about that book is that it *does* belong in the Highlander universe, and I wouldn’t want to change the story enough to take it out.

On the other hand, I’ve had any number of people email me to say, “Have you ever seen Disney’s “Gargoyles” cartoon?” after reading the Negotiator Trilogy. My general answer is NO OF COURSE NOT WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT I WOULD NEVER RIFF OFF A DISNEY IDEA, but yes, of course I have. And if you take “Gargoyles”, mix it with the late 1980s “Beauty and the Beast” television show, add in some other exotic races, and shake hard, you (or I) get the Old Races. I’d have had to have filed those serial numbers a lot harder to wipe out any link to “Gargoyles”, but really, aside from their one fatal flaw–they turn to stone at dawn–my gargoyles and Disney’s have very, very little in common. My Old Races are, as a high concept, a long way away from the ideas they were born from.

So how do you get there? Well, as a friend and I were discussing with Gemma Fade, what you’d do in her case is take the idea up about thirty thousand feet and remove her from the Marvel universe in specific by placing her against the backdrop of comics in general. This is something people do within the comics industry with a reasonable degree of regularity: they’ll pull back from an original world far enough that all you can see of it is shadows, and then they cast just enough light to show you whose shadow it is. Skirting copyright, yeah, but one of the things about comic readers is we tend to be voracious, and therefore tend to recognize the guy who isn’t being shown. It makes room for in-jokes, nods and winks all over the place…and it would allow for the Gemma Fade story to be written as a (graphic) novel that took a very meta look at comics universes in general. It could be enormous fun.

It would, however, be a huge idea. It would take spreadsheets, a huge amount of forethought, and a minimum, I think, of three viewpoint characters: Gemma herself, a Resistance fighter, and a modern comics reader caught up in the destruction of her fandom’s universe. And possibly a fourth character from the comics who wasn’t yet disappeared, like Gemma is. This would be a book-length story, at the least. So I am not writing it.

But if I were, Gemma’s story might start here:

“The landscape is barren. Windswept sands, jutting stone with edges softened by time, and a hard white sun above it all. I push my hands into the sand until they are buried wrist-deep, and from there gain the purchase necessary to drive myself to my feet. I stagger a few more steps, as buffeted by the wind as the land around me is. I have no destination, no goal; all I can think are a scattering of words so remote they hold no meaning to me.

This is Krypton to Kal-El, I think. This is the red sun to a man raised beneath the yellow. This is power, stripped away.

I have no idea who I am or what I mean, but these incessant thoughts tell me that something is lost. That once, I would have understood the words echoing in my mind; that now, there’s something to be regained, a battle to be fought and won. And this is all I know about myself, now:

It’s reason enough to keep going.”

I think it’s an idea–not Gemma Fade specifically, perhaps, but the practice of taking an idea spawned from something else and pulling up thirty thousand feet–worth looking at. We as creators don’t work in a vacuum, nor should we pretend to. The trick is always, *always*, in taking what we have and making it our own. Sometimes it’s not going to work; sometimes an idea only works because of the rules of the universe it was spawned from, and removing it from those rules dilutes it too much. I think that more often, though, we use those ideas as springboards, and that there’s nothing wrong with getting as much leverage from them as we can.

So go forth, absorb the stories around you. They’ll get jumbled up and changed around and hammered and stretched until they’re yours, high concepts born from low. It’s how the creative process works!


6 comments to From Dream to High Concept

  • What a cool post. And I totally love the opening of your idea. If I was standing in a bookstore, leading those first lines of a book, I’d absolutely buy it. Of course we absorb, we borrow, we take the stories around us and make them into something of our own. Actually, this is one of the reasons the Mouse’s takeover of Marvel is so alarming — they don’t seem to understand that. They are so hyperprotective, so willing to throw up razor wire around anything they own, that they stifle the type of creative process you describe here.

  • Yeah, it’s the ol’ “no new ideas” thing again. Almost every story has already been told, it’s the way you tell it that makes it new and fresh.

    I’ve been considering writing a superhero screenplay that’s not based in DC, Marvel, or any other of the big companies out there. Seems everyone who does that always writes a comedy spoof. I wanna write a serious one.

    And I’m sure there’s ways around the Highlander thing (I can think of a couple), but yeah, it’d probably be a lot of work to rewrite it.

  • Kelebe

    What a great post. As someone who has written tons of fanfic, but who is trying to make the leap from fan- to original fiction, this is something I have been trying to do with all of the ‘fan’ ideas that come into my head. Some have actually detached from their canon fairly well, and they have made it into my big idea book of novels I might write one day.

  • Fantastic post, Catie!
    >>We as creators don’t work in a vacuum, nor should we pretend to.
    So freaking true!

  • C. E.,

    Another approach you might consider is to start by asking yourself, “What would people in real life do with super powers?” Would any sensible person with the strength of, say, Ben Grimm be risking his life against bad guys, when he could be making a good living in industry or construction? Think of how much money window cleaning companies could save by hiring people who can levitate.

    Take an ordinary schmo, give him super powers, and then put him or his friends and family in danger. What would an ordinary schmuck who happens to be able to light fires with a thought do in a crisis? Ordinary people have superpowers, not heroes; what do they do with those abilities?

  • *laughs* That’s a question I hope to explore in the comic book I’m writing, Alan, if I get to go any further than we’ve gone with it. 🙂