Monday, August 30, 2010

High Concept

School is back! Yeah it is!

Ahem. Sorry. I just walked into a blessedly quiet house and I had to do a little jig. I am looking forward to hours –yes HOURS of not hearing the plaintive wail of “Mooommmieeee!” Sigh. Enjoy the silence, indeed. ;)

High concept. It’s a story line/idea that is easily understood by the general public in just a few sentences. It started with movies but now, high concept rules publishing as well.

Here are a few high concept stories:

Indiana Jones meets Marvel comics

War of the Roses meets The Assassin

Alice and Wonderland meets Blade Runner

A young man meets his destiny while fighting a rebel war.

An unwanted boy forced to live under the stairs finds out he is a famous wizard and the catalyst to ridding the wizarding world of a great evil.

Do you know those movies, books?*

High concept sounds exciting, edgy, fresh and yet by its very nature it is NOT fresh because we immediately get an idea of what the story will be. High concept takes old tropes and spins it on its head.

Big business, ie publishers and movie makers love, LOVE high concept. Because a high concept is understood by the public it is not as hard to sell to the public. Easy sale –easy dollars. Right?


Here is the thing. A story can sound as cool as all get out, we’ll lap it up, buy that book. But without emotion it falls flat on its ass.

Let’s take that unwanted boy out from under the stairs, shall we?

Harry Potter is a world-wide phenomenon. What kid or grown-up hasn’t felt alienated, unwanted, alone at some point in their lives? And feeling that way, how cool would it be to find out, hey, you can do magic! You are rich and famous! Of course that story is going to sell. It taps into a very base need and desire.

But that isn’t why Harry Potter is the beloved story that it is. It is because J.K. Rowling makes these people real. Her characters have emotions, beautiful, ugly and every thing in between. And because they live and breath on the page, their whole world is real and we the reader are sucked in and vested in their lives.

High concept sells. There is no doubt about that. In truth, publishers are going to want to know what your story is about, want to be able to say “ah” when they hear it, and they are going to want this all in a matter of a few sentences. But readers?

Readers might pick up that high concept book in a heart beat, but if it is simply smoke and mirrors they are putting right back down.

NOTHING. NOTHING beats emotion in a story. If you are writing a thriller, your reader better catch their breath, squirm in their seats; if you are writing a romance, your readers better sigh at some point, they better feel a flush of heat and think “whooo!”; if you are writing a coming of age, epic saga, we had better tear up at some point.

Readers need to care. Thus your characters need to care as well.

Gimmicks come and go. Heck, I can name at least a dozen books where the hero and/or heroine have the same powers, same name, same obstacles to overcome. Doesn’t matter. Some of those stories have sucked me in and made me care, and some of those stories have just plain sucked.

So by all means, embrace the high-concept. It can be your best friend. But remember that it is simply that –a concept. It is not the true story. The true story is your character’s emotional journey.

And now I will leave you with this bit of fun. I fear I might have acted this way yesterday when I was shopping for school supplies. *cough*

*Laura Croft, Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Matrix, Star Wars, and of course, Harry Potter. :)


  1. Nathan had a post on this the other day too. I'm afraid I'm slightly confused, which is invariably what happens when I come across marketing terms. I mean, you're not supposed to call your novel high concept when querying, are you? Or start writing about wizards and vampires just cos it's popular at the moment? So who's the label for?
    Just wondering... :-)

  2. hehe, too funny that he had a post on that as well. :-)

    No, you don't call your novel high concept in a query. Nor is high concept really about what is popular. In the simplest terms, high concept means that you (the reader/viewer/whathaveyou) understands what the story is based on a few lines of text. So if I say, "A daring archaeologist is forced to steal the Arc of the Covenant by Nazi's who want to use it as the ultimate weapon" the mass public goes, "oh, that sounds like a good story!" Because we can easily see the inherent conflict in the story and immediately wonder how it will be resolved.

    But high concept doesn't have to be confined to genre stories. For instance, "A man seeks forgiveness from the friend he allowed to be brutalized when they were children." Kite Runner. Or, "A Civil War solider deserts the army and faces unknown dangers to return to the woman he loves." Cold Mountain. Both examples are "literary" but they have a high concept that allows you to understand the main scope of the story in a few lines. Although, I'll say it here, that by the fact that they are high concept makes me consider these books mainstream or commercial fiction with a literary voice. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of many true literary fiction works nowadays. I think a lot of people _think_ they are writing literary when really they are writing commercial fiction.

  3. Oh now I get it! Thanks Kristen!
    So, hmm, let me see if I can distill my story into a high concept phrase...
    Evicted from Spain as a Jew following the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, a young girl must come to terms with her identity and what family really means when she discovers that she was born into a Catholic family.
    Nah, that sucks, and it doesn't mention the romance angle.
    In the summer of 1492, a young girl journeys across the Mediterranean in search of her true family - and falls in love with an unexpected stranger.
    Gah, that sucks! If he's a stranger, of course he's unexpected! And it doesn't cover the religion angle. Or the fact that the story goes on into 1493.
    Blurbs are hard! *whine*