So what do you do when you’re writing a High Concept Comedy script that requires you to lay a little pipe before getting to the hook? Let’s say you’ve got a brilliant hook like “teenager goes back in time and has to get his parents to fall in love” but there’s just no way you’re going to be able to set that up in ten pages. How do you get fickle readers to keep reading?
Remember: Tone. Genre. Craft.
Look at Back to the Future. Remember the first image in that film? It’s a ticking clock. From the first line of the screenplay, we’re aware of time as an element. Even before Marty enters Dock’s workshop, the camera has panned across the room. It passes a few expository newspapers, all while showing off Doc Brown’s Rube Goldberg-like device for getting canned dog food. That tells us something about Doc. Then Marty enters and through his phone conversation with Doc, we get a decent sense of their dynamic. This is important because they don’t really interact again until about 15 minutes into the film, when Doc makes his first on-screen appearance.
There are plenty of things to learn from Back to the Future, but with a film like this, the important thing is to set up the dominos that will eventually be knocked down. For this film in particular, that includes details like Principal Strickland mentioning Marty’s father was a “slacker.” He also says, “No McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.” To that, Marty says “Well history is gonna change.”(THEME ALERT.)
Every subsequent scene contains details that are important. Marty’s band fails a tryout, and then he wavers about sending his demo in. Even with his girlfriend’s encouragement, he’s scared to take a chance. (CHARACTER TRAIT ALERT.)
As the two kiss in front of the Clock Tower, a woman comes over to solicit donations for the Clock Tower, which was struck by lightning 30 years ago (EXPOSITION ALERT.)
Marty goes home to find his father being bullied by Biff…. (IMPORTANT SUBPLOT ALERT) and amid other details, his mother tells the story of how she and Marty’s dad first fell in love. (PAY ATTENTION – IMPORTANT BACKSTORY.)
There’s a lot of exposition there, but there are just enough hints of the script’s themes that most readers would probably have faith that this is all leading somewhere. We’ve got a teenager, a crazy inventor, lots of references to time and history, and Marty’s entire world established in about ten minutes, give or take. If you were to show those pages to someone with no prior knowledge of the film, it wouldn’t be a surprise if most of them guessed that Marty would somehow end up back in time and witness a few of the past events he’s been told about.
Most of the time in high concept comedy, your lead character HAS to jump off the page in the first few scenes. The character – not the plot – is really what carries the film. The hook is just a means to explore that character.
Liar Liar – a lawyer who lies as easily as most people breathe is forced to tell the truth for an entire day.
Bruce Almighty – An egotistical news reporter is given all of God’s powers and learns ultimate power isn’t as easy as it seems.
Groundhog Day – A jaded and selfish weatherman is trapped in a loop that forces him to live out the same day over and over again.
If you change the defining traits of those lead characters, the entire theme and story changes, even if the situation they are trapped in remains the same.
So in high concept comedy, I’d say you can never forget this rule: Define your characters early and often