September 21st, 2015

What is High Concept?

PictureKate Moretti

We’ve all seen the examples: Wizard School, Dinosaur Park, Titanic. Don’t shudder everyone, high concept is back. Whether it was ever “out” is somewhat debatable. We see it on agent’s manuscript wish lists, in rejection letters, in publisher submission pages. Everyone seems to want a compelling pitch, to heck with characters and world-building and coming-of-age, right?

Not so fast.

First of all, if you’re knee deep in a “low concept” story, this post might not be for you. Maybe you should maybe stop reading. Because you’re a writer and if you’re anything like me, you’re about to panic. Don’t. The world needs low-concept stories. We need love stories, we need human condition stories, we need coming-of-age. Just, do you, okay?

But maybe you’re in the tossing around premises phase of novel writing. Let’s talk about what high concept really is (and isn’t!).

Confusingly, the definition changes and it’s subjective. Google will tell you that “high concept” means you should be able to pitch it in a sentence. A woman in the throes of divorce moves back to her hometown and discovers newfound love.

Well, there you go. That’s high concept.

Not really.

A few things to remember. High Concept must be:
1. Unique. Sorry, Charlie but the logline above? It’s been done to death.
2. Widely intriguing. This doesn’t mean that its low-brow, just that anyone who reads it will find something to relate to. There are universal themes in all great fiction: love, death, revenge, moral code. Where’s the emotional edge?
3. Easily summarized. Get it down to 25 words or less. This honestly might be sheer organization of words. But try to write a 25 word logline. If you can’t do it, then you’re probably not in the “high-concept” ballpark.

Easy peasy right? Sigh.

Don’t despair, you can work with this and figure out a way to draw out your premise. Alternatively, trying to turn a low concept idea into a high concept one might birth a really wonderful novel.

Let’s work with the logline above. It ticks the easily summarized box and it has some universal themes: love, moral code. But what it lacks (and in a big way) is originality.

One way to build in originality is to peruse the headlines. What does the world care about these days? Don’t be afraid of tackling a controversial topic.

A woman in the throes of divorce moves back to her hometown and discovers newfound love, only to discover her lover will be deported.

Now suddenly, you’re writing a novel about a woman who loves an immigrant. Maybe she marries him to keep him in the country. Maybe she doesn’t, then what happens to their relationship? The point is, sometimes putting a finer point on your premise forces you down a different path.

A woman in the throes of divorce moves back to her hometown and discovers newfound love, only to discover her lover will be deported to Iran.

Now, we’ve got a whole new ball of wax. We have incredible novel fodder and if done right, some real potential to explore racism, immigration, international intrigue…. Wait, what did you say? Oh. That’s not the novel you wanted to write? You wanted to write a little love story, right?

Ok. I hear you. I do.

A woman in the throes of divorce moves back to her hometown and discovers newfound love, only to discover her lover is dying of ALS.

Too depressing?

A woman in the throes of divorce moves back to her hometown and discovers newfound love, only to discover her lover is a space alien.

Hmmm, maybe not universal enough.

The point remains, what is it about your love story that will be new to the audience? If you can tease this out or, in the case of those writers just brainstorming a premise, use this exercise to develop something instantly intriguing, you might have a more salable novel when you’re done.

But why can’t I just write the book I want to write?

You absolutely can. Like I said, the world needs low concept stories. But if you’re just trying to break into this business, it might not be a bad idea to back-burner your introspective literary tome and come up with something a little different. Something that will grab a reader (or an agent, or a publisher) by the shirt collar and say hey, you, read this now.

Does that mean guns and car chases and formulaic thrillers? No. It actually means the opposite of formulaic. It tests your brain to work creatively in large ways, not nuanced ones. As writers, we’re so conditioned to examine the details: dialogue, micro-tension, wordplay. Thinking big picture can be a challenge.

So share your logline. What does it bring to the reader? How does it grab them?

About Kate:


Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like.

Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.

Contact Kate: Website | Facebook Twitter | Amazon | Tall Poppy Writers

35 comments to What is High Concept?

  • Great explanation of high concept. In fact, most concise I’ve seen. Thanks !

  • Holly Robinson

    Kate, you rock! This is a great post about a tough subject–I keep hearing “high concept” from my agent and editor–definitely something for all writers to consider when they’re pitching their next books or starting on a manuscript. I love how you’ve boiled the concept down here.

    • Thank you Holly! It’s such a confusing buzzword with different meanings to different people. I’m sure if another writer could write a whole other blog post on it, and it would look completely different ;).

  • Fae Rowen

    Two years ago, when I started working on a new book, I described the plot and characters to my WITS partners. Jenny Hansen said, “Oh, this is high concept.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but every time I pitch it, people want to see it. I’m finally sending it out, Laura.

  • I have a somewhat high concept type of brain – I think it’s the touch of ADD that runs around in there. I want to conceptualize quickly. However, the definition of it is always so murky – this is a wonderful post.

    Here are a few other helpful posts here for the readers on loglines:

  • Okay, sorry it took me so long to post, but I was working on my logline for my next women’s fiction. Here is is:

    When her soul-mate is diagnosed with ALS and begs for help to end his life, a loving wife can’t say yes. But after his attempted suicide leaves him a broken stroke victim, she agrees to help ease his passing. Discovering her complicity, his devout, grieving daughter has her step-mother arrested for murder.

    I’ll be the guinea pig – high concept?

  • Sandra Hutchison

    Oh, thank you. That may be the best explanation of that I’ve ever seen. (Now can you explain “upmarket”?)

  • sonjayoerg

    Okay, Kate. You are causing trouble in my world. I am now convinced that my infant WIP needs a higher-concept setting. The interpersonal dynamics need something bigger and louder to bounce around in. Great post!

  • This opened up my brain–my brain is now flowing all over the library… I love this–I feel like this will help me write a better, tighter book!

  • Does this ring okay for a New Adult paranormal romance?

    “A reverse fairy tale where a changeling falls for a woman who THINKS she’s a witch, but is actually something else entirely–and is his key to escaping the fae realm forever.”

    This is so hard!

  • Loved this post. I’ve been trying for years to write a logline.

    After moving to a new town, a sixteen year old discovers the ghost from her past found her and is out for revenge.

    • Kate moretti

      Alice, my answer is MAYBE. What are the ghosts? What’s in her past? What kind of revenge? The difference here will be in the details. My third book logline would look very similar to this: A woman starts a new life and five years later is confronted by the ghosts of her past out for revenge. (ghosts in my case being metaphorical, not real ghosts).

      For mine, I can change the details: A woman escapes her past to seek out her biological mother, only to discover that someone will stop at nothing to keep them apart. To be honest, it’s still not “high concept” as the uniqueness to this book lies in the twist ending (always tricky to pitch and market!).

      So maybe your premise needs refining (to be more unique) OR maybe the premise is fine and the logline doesn’t call out enough finer details to really shout: HEY THIS IS DIFFERENT. If it’s the former, don’t panic. Many times, the leap from been there, done that to HEY YOU READ THIS is only a detail or two away. Good luck!

  • All this time I though ‘high concept’ meant artsy. So high concept is something that wouldn’t be amiss on a cinema screen- larger than life sort of stuff. Or have I misunderstood (again!)?

    Is this high concept or low concept?

    A 17 year old child solider and his brother must risk everything to escape the brutal militants that kidnapped them and return to safety, and hopefully their family, over the border.

    I thought it was just sort of coming-of-age/survival but after reading your blog…maybe it’s unique enough?

    • Kate Moretti

      High concept sort of means the opposite of artsy! It means you can SEE the entire premise in one shot. If it would be a great movie, it’s probably high concept. Most people think this means fast action and car chases. You’re right, larger than life. For mystery/thriller writers, it comes naturally, although sometimes the struggle is with the “unique” part. I’ll throw out twenty premises before I find one that I feel hasn’t been done to death.

      I think your idea is completely high concept and also very timely. Good luck with it!

  • Kate I read your post and am sitting here with egg on my face. I have been trying to write a blurb for years and never made it. I’ve seen ‘high concept’ before but like so many of the things I need to be able to do and thought I don’t need this for a long time. Well it’s the end of a long time and all the things I needed in the far future I need in the next two months if I manage to stay on my time line. I’m going to reread this at least one more time and will send you a sample in another post here in a day or so. You can tell me if I am at least past the ticket gate in the ball park. You guys are killing me when you explain this stuff I’ve always been able to say I read that but it was Greek to me and now it is not. LOL

  • Great insights. Great inspiration. Great expectations for our writing community. And we can rise to those great expectations … especially with your generous help. Kate, thanks!

  • Great post! Thank you for this — as a writer who does her best to be high concept with ideas, there were a few great reminders here.

  • I don’t always comment here (I know, I should! You gals are amazing!), but I had to try this one. Here goes:

    A jaded country star visits his childhood hometown and discovers his soulmate. Suffering a deadly heart defect, will death steal her, and his chance at love? ~26 words

    I know it doesn’t tell you much. Maybe I need to work on it. 🙂 Great post, Kate!