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.
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.
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?
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.