Friday, June 15, 2012

A Strange Attractor

Do you have a strange attractor?

I’m not talking sex appeal or pheromones, but the aspect of your story that provides a built-in pitch, a wow factor, an aha! element that packs a visceral punch.

It’s like high concept only different.

At its most basic, the definition of high concept is a premise or idea that can be summed up in one sentence.  But screenwriter Terry Russio (Pirates of the Caribbean) says an idea must be more than just clear and simple, it must also attract an audience (and professionals) to your project.  It must have what he calls a STRANGE ATTRACTOR.  “Strange meaning unique and attractor meaning compelling.  Something unique that is also compelling.”  An element that is so clever, so ingenious, so kick-ass it turns other writers pea green with envy.  And who doesn’t love that?  (By the way, if you haven’t been to Russio’s website,, OMG, run, don’t walk and prepare to spend hours because each essay there is a gem.)

A strange attractor is more precise than high concept because it zeroes in on the most compelling aspect of the premise.  A good attractor defines the characters, shapes the plot and drives the action.  Conversely, even the most innovative concept can fail if the writer mistakes what element of the story is going to hold the reader.  

Let’s explore some examples:

Concept:  An alien has behaved badly in his home world and is sentenced to the worst punishment imaginable—he is banished to planet Earth.

Not a bad premise and it can easily be summed up in one sentence.  The potential of the setup is obvious and instantly conjures all kinds of scenarios for conflict and whacky hijinks.  It’s the old stranger in a strange land concept that strikes a universal chord.  I’m intrigued and heading to Netflix. 

But wait.  What about the…

Strange Attractor:  Arriving on our world, the alien immediately finds he has a problem—his head explodes easily and frequently.

Yes!  Now this movie is going straight to the top of my queue. Admittedly, the attractor is a little over the top, but it’s fresh and fun, the most unique and compelling aspect of the premise. How the alien deals with the problem of borrowing human heads will define his character, shape the plot, and drive the action.

Concept:  In the year 2019, vampires rule the world.

Excellent idea.  I’m envisioning Underworld  meets The MatrixTwilight meets Blade Runner.    

And now we stir in a little…

Strange Attractor:  The vampires are running out of blood.

Suddenly it becomes Thirty Days of Night meets Marie Antoinette.  Nothing wreaks havoc like a hungry mob—especially a mob of vampires—and I’m salivating at the prospect.

Concept:  In the small town of Cherry Falls, there is a sexually bewildered serial killer on the hunt for virgins.

Strange Attractor:  The best way to stay alive is to lose your cherry!

Enough said, I think.

So in summary, a good attractor can flip your high concept on its head, spin it, twist it, and then knock it on its backside, generating all sorts of interesting situations and conflict.  It captivates the reader and elevates the premise.  It attracts and compels.  It thrills, chills, and excites.

The strange attractor…take one along on your next writer’s journey and see where it leads you.


Jordan Dane said...

Wow, Amanda! Great post. I never heard this STRANGE ATTRACTOR thing. I'd heard of high concept, but this really tweaks a story from the inside out. It sounds like something an author would think through before writing--for best results--but an author could enhance "the pitch" of an existing book by zeroing in on its selling point--the attractor twist.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anita Grace Howard said...

What an AMAZING post! I'm bookmarking Russio's website to visit later. Thanks for sharing it, and for introducing us to the Strange Attractor phrase!

Amanda Stevens said...

When I first read about the strange attractor in Russio's essay, I had my own aha! moment. High concept has always been a little foggy for me, but for some reason, his explanation of a strange attractor made it all click into place. :)