Friday, April 23, 2010

High Concept?

My agent told me recently that all novels need to be high concept these days. No longer can a mere coming-of-age novel cut it (i.e, sell it). According to her, high-concept does not mean it must have vampires, fallen angels or other paranormal elements, but it must have a hook and must be about something.

Wait a minute, I assumed all novels need a hook and must be about something!

So I looked up high-concept on Wikipedia: “High concept is an ironic term used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise.”

Second hit on google is screenwriter/pitcher Steve Kaire. He gives five rules for creating high-concept:
1. Premise should be original and unique.
2. Story must have mass audience appeal.
3. Has to be story specific.
4. The potential must be obvious.
5. the Pitch (flap copy) should be one to three sentences long.

He also describes Non-High-Concept (phew, it exists) as: “projects that can’t be sold from a pitch because they are execution driven. They have to be read to be appreciated and their appeal isn’t obvious by merely running a logline past someone.”

So my questions are thus:
How do you define “high-concept?”
What do you think of “high-concept” in contrast to “non-high-concept” or “concept?”
And here’s the fun one—what would it take for your current writing project to be “high-concept?”


  1. Interesting definitions, Lisa. Though plenty of adult fiction is high concept, it seems to be much more pervasive in YA.

    Non-high concept would be another term for old-fashioned, I guess, which is what I heard about my stuff recently. And I think I figured the first thing to do to make my recently set-aside YA project high concept: move the dead body to a very early page. Make it a murder mystery instead of a story with a murder, a very different kettle of fish.

  2. Capture the zeitgeist in a "novel" way. By staying tuned to what's current (zeitgeist), you amp up the chance that there is a built-in audience, and by choosing something people haven't heard before (novel), you're commanding their attention. Then, contact a screenwriter such as myself and double your literary properties:

  3. My agent told me that all NF needs to be high concept nowadays, too. My take is high concept is a new handle or frame as a way of telling the story. I posted on this a few weeks back. No new stories, just new ways of telling them. But in my mind, a riveting frame can't make up for mediocre writing and superficial story lines.

  4. Okay, this whole high concept thing makes me extremely cranky. It just seems like another way to distinguish between mass market and literary fiction. And obviously there's a place for both. It's like with movies--not every one is a Hollywood blockbuster. Some indie films do well, critically and commercially. Because some people still have brains.

    FYI--I reviewed the new Lynne Rae Perkins YA novel, As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth, for The Horn Book. I could never adequately describe it--or any of LRP's other novels--in three sentences. It would be disrespectful to try. Yet Horn Book is giving it a star. And her previous novel, Criss Cross, was equally sophisticated, and what was that fancy award it won? Oh, right...

  5. what is "obvious potential?" does this refer to money making potential?
    I wonder if high concept just means a fantastical sell. It's all in the marketing, not the story?

  6. or does obvious potential mean the three sentence logline should tell the reader exactly what the book is about with a sort of obvious hint as to the turnout of the whole plot so that no readers will be dissappointed or surprised?

  7. High concept (as I understand it) means that you're able to pitch the novel in a sentence and it's a killer concept. i.e. "Giant white shark terrorizes costal town!" or "To punish the districts for their rebellion, each district must offer up one boy and one girl every year to fight to the death on national TV." Or, "Snakes on a plane!"

    Now, two of those high-concept pitches turned out some good stuff. The other pitch, not so much, though my husband could quote Samuel L. Jackson's famous line all day. And does.

    The nice thing about a high-concept pitch is that it gives your story plenty of horsepower right away. It's like you take your regular story and install a hemi, and then when you rev it up it shatters the windows up and down the street. The tricky part is to write a story where you can hit the gas and drive it fast around a bunch of hairpin curves and not go off the road.

    Somebody block that simile already!

  8. P.S. Also, high concept novels have explosions.