High Concept:

Whether your plot or your premise is stronger, what that means, and why it matters

If you hang around writers conferences, eventually you’ll hear the term “high concept.” A high concept story is pretty much the holy grail of commercial fiction—a story that sells itself. (Sometimes at auction, for a lot of money.) But when you ask people to define what “high concept” means, they start running into problems.

“It’s a story you can sell, easily, with a two sentence pitch.”

“It’s a story that grabs you the moment you hear about it.”

“No story that uses the word ‘struggle’ in the pitch is high concept.”

But when these same people describe a few high concept pitches, you begin to get a sense of what they’re talking about.

“A terrorist wires a city bus with a bomb that will go off if the bus slows to less than 60 miles an hour.”

“A girl who attends a high school that trains kids to be spies falls for a normal boy.”

“A doctor framed for murdering his wife must find the real killer while being hunted by the police.”

You instantly know the central conflict of these stories, and that conflict is strong enough to grab your interest—that’s the essence of what high concept means. The premise, the basic set-up of your story, is immediate, clear and compelling. And please note that this basic set-up is something that will emerge in the beginning of the story. Events that happen in the middle, or even the climax, are no part if what makes a story high concept.

So how important is it to have a high concept story? Well, it certainly helps when you’re trying to sell it. A high concept pitch will be instantly noticed by agents, editors and readers. On the other hand, no matter how compelling your premise, if the novel isn’t well written, if it fails to live up to the potential your pitch promises, it still won’t sell. Having a high concept story opens the door—but the novel has to be strong enough to walk through on its own.

It’s also worth noting that neither the Harry Potter books, nor the Twilight series, are high concept. Boy goes to school for wizards and fights powerful bad guy, and Girl falls for sexy vampire, aren’t high concept premises. But these two series are among the best sellers of the last decade. Their success is due to good storytelling, and good writing. And as for the movie Up, it’s premise is: Old man whose wife has died sails off to have adventures in South America. Up is about as far from high concept as you can get—but I predict it’s going to be a smashing success, because it’s simply one of the best, and most moving stories I’ve seen in a long time.

In fact, strong plots full of complex twists and great character arcs, and with all the heart in the world, (which is pretty much the essence of Up) are the reverse of high concept—because it’s the things that happen in the middle and at the end of the story that matter most. High concept doesn’t mean “good.” But it does mean “easier to sell,” and anyone who has tried to sell a novel knows that’s not a trivial matter.

I’d love to end this tip by telling you how to take a strong plot novel and make it sound high concept. (I write strong plot novels that aren’t high concept, so I really wish I could do that.) But the truth is that if your novel doesn’t have a high concept premise, there’s no way to make it high concept. You needn’t despair—look at Harry Potter and the Twilight books—but you’re going to have to put extra effort into making your cover letter and synopsis compelling, because you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to pitching. And if you’re one of those people who naturally come up with high concept story ideas, rejoice. You have a profound advantage when it comes to selling—but you still have to write a novel that delivers on the your pitch’s promise. No matter how high concept the premise is, a bad book won’t sell. And sooner or later, a good book—whether high concept or strong plot—will.

Summer 2009

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