Recipe for success? High concept.

06Feb09

At conferences and editor lunches, the question I’m getting most is “how is the economic climate changing how you do business.”

The short answer is that it’s not a matter of changing, it’s about refining. And for me, that refining is mostly taking the form of, more than ever, looking for the Big Book–fiction or nonfiction–and what makes a Big Book almost always comes back to high concept.

Ok great, you say. What is high concept and how do I get one?

Well, the classic agent cop-out is “I know it when I see it,” but quite honestly–that’s what high concept is. It’s an idea that is immediately accessible & appealing to a large group of people, that taps into the hive-mind if you will, but with the added spark of feeling new (even if it’s as old as the hills).

Twilight has that feel. Sophie Kinsella owns high-concept. So did Michael Crichton. And it’s not just for fiction–Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Roach are terrific examples of high-concept (and bestselling) nonfiction.

How do you know if you’ve tapped into that? Honestly, I think it’s often intrinsic. I know that’s not what you want to hear, and you can teach yourself to work & think this way, but some writers are naturally drawn to the Big Commercial Plot, while others are just not.

And I see a lot of writers who refuse to accept that what they are naturally drawn to isn’t high concept. This might be you if you have ever tried to make an existing manuscript high concept. Often people do this by patching in something they heard was “high concept”, and then they wonder why it’s not selling/getting requests. It’s not about taking your quiet family saga and sticking a vampire into that. You can’t make an apple into an orange by spray painting it. Often, making the leap to high concept is a matter of redirecting your passions and strengths into an area with more commercial appeal. For instance: turning the Salem story inside out and giving it a totally new spin is high concept; a novel set in the heretofore underreported witch trials of Borneo is not. For writers who are drawn to the obscure and the un-covered, who think “but no one has ever written about this! why write about things people already know?” I hear you–this feels remarkably like commercial pandering. But I would encourage you to think about three things: 1. it is all in the execution but no one will ever see your execution if your premise doesn’t catch their attention; 2. it’s hard to be attentive to things we don’t recognize on at least some level; and 3. who do you write for? If it’s for readers, think about it not as selling out, but about seducing people into your world, giving them a point of entry that lets them feel comfortable. High concept is all about the touch of recognition that makes readers ready to go along on your ride.

High concept is about making it easier for people to pick up what you’re putting down, which benefits you at every stage of the publishing game. Everyone is busy. I’m busy. Editors are busy. Booksellers and publicists–I don’t actually think they ever stop moving. And readers, who are inundated with noise and ads and coop, are busy and overwhelmed. To get and stay published, you have to make all those people stop for 300 pages worth of time. Yes, they will be seduced by your glowing prose. But aren’t the odds of that a whole lot better if that glowing prose comes with a premise that makes them go “Ooh?”

For instance, my author Libby Sternberg is an incredibly smart, gorgeous writer. Her work is nuanced and sharp. But the film rights to one of her manuscripts were optioned before a publishing deal was even in place, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that her book, FIRE ME, has a crystal-clear high concept:  when her boss announces the company must lay off a staffer, a young woman spends a day at the office trying to convince him that she should be fired. Of course there is a lot more to the book. There always is. But you can see Amy Adams darting around creating workplace shenanigans already, can’t you?

If the idea you’re kicking around is really high concept, it should feel natural to come up with a one or two sentence affair that conveys the general premise of the work. It won’t capture every detail of course, but that’s ok. The essence of “oh neat” should be coming through. This blurb is what should headline your query. If yours is really good, I’ll probably bogart it when I pitch the book to editors. For instance, debut YA author Rachel Hawkins had a line in her original query: “where the traumas of mortal high school are nothing compared to the goings on at “Freak High,” which made it all the way through to my pitch letter and the Publisher’s Marketplace announcement of her sale.  So you can see that one strong concept line can really have some serious legs.

Of course, there are plenty of ways for this to go terribly, terribly awry. I just caught the trailer for a certain upcoming movie, which just cuts to the chase and lays its high concept on out there, saying, “It’s Sweet Home Alabama meets Legally Blonde.” And while I have no doubt that killed in the pitch meeting, the trailer still leaves me feeling meh–because it feels contrived, like it was cooked up in a focus group. Which is why I do caution people about the “x meets y” formula. While it is helpful, and I use it in my pitches all the time, there can be a sort of cart-leading-horse feel to a project that’s created this way. Sometimes I can feel that an author sat down and said “I’ll show you, publishing. Today I shall write a book that is Back to the Future meets Joe Versus the Volcano.” And other times authors go way too far with the comps in an attempt to capture every aspect of their books: “Schindler’s List meets Joe Versus the Volcano,” for instance, which just leaves me very confused.

And as we all know now, that reaction is the opposite of high concept.

About these ads


50 Responses to “Recipe for success? High concept.”

  1. Excellent post! Thank you so much for the insight into the publishing world–a glimpse few of us get to see.

  2. Great post! I’m glad you decided to tackle this.

  3. Fun post!

  4. Even though it’s about screenwriting, a really great book to read is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

  5. Thank you for sharing your insight, this was well worth it. Now I have more motivation to hope the agent reviewing a partial will feel that it is high concept…

  6. 6 Robin

    That is the first time I’ve heard high concept explained in a way I can both understand and repeat. Thank you!!

  7. 7 Christine Fonseca

    What a great post. Thank you for your keen insight.

  8. This is great information, and definitely something I can use. I love how you describe it as a mode of thinking, not just a switch in some aspect in the novel that’s already written. Honestly, to be a best-selling author, you have to think that way, not just write it.

    I’ll be sharing this post with all my writer friends.

  9. “Well, the classic agent cop-out is “I know it when I see it,” but quite honestly–that’s what high concept is.”

    Didn’t we just have that recently? High concept in four words: Jane Austen Meets Zombies.

    That unpacks so much, if you’re familiar with both works. Two totally different worlds that no one ever thought about combining. And hearing that the first time brought out a spontaneous and uncharacteristic burst of laughter, followed by a slap on the head and a “why didn’t I THINK OF THAT.”

    The thing almost writes itself. And best of all: no living author to contend with, although I suspect old Jane is trying to reanimate herself to go after whoever’s writing this.

    Now, not all high concepts are created by mashing two elements together, but that’s one way.

  10. Yeah, “high concept” is also applied for screenwriting.

    -great title
    -great hook
    -something for EVERYONE (ie: the audience… old people, children, families, couples, etc)
    -a story that can be summed up in a few words or one sentence.

  11. For my upcoming novel The Toast Bitches, I use “Sex In The City meets 30 Rock,” and a few eyebrows go up. We’ll see if it works.

    One problem with “this meets that” is that many people may not know the work being referenced, therefore the concept means nothing to them.

  12. Argh! So, I am so new to all this that I didn’t even know there was such a thing as high concept! Now, I look at my book and think… hmmm really? Is this high concept? Is this sort of high concept… there is just so very much to learn, how do people ever break through in this business?

    haha, and freak out over, I PROMISE! Thank you for teaching me about high concept!

  13. 13 legendoftheprotectors

    Great post. And now back to the query board. :)

  14. Thanks!!!

  15. Best explanation of high concept I’ve read, thanks. I think what confuses some writers (me included) is that exactly what is commercially appealing, is subjective. But as always and with everything — it’s in the delivery.

  16. Ever-so-helpful information. Thanks.

  17. Thanks for the information on high concept, Holly. This was a great post. I’m sending a few friends over to read this as I can never really explain it right :-)

  18. 18 Jessica Milne

    “For instance: turning the Salem story inside out and giving it a totally new spin is high concept; a novel set in the heretofore underreported witch trials of Borneo is not.”

    That statement startled me, because that’s my current project (the first, not the second). A modern Salem feel, but it’s not witches they’re after anymore. It’s good hearing that at least one other person thinks that would be interesting!

  19. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  20. 20 Jael

    Love it! If you don’t naturally think in high-concept you can always figure out a way to make your logline exciting, but if you’ve got the premise right you’ll get that “ooh.” It’s not selling out and it’s not cheap. It’s just… helpful.

    You still have to execute on it, of course, but that initial hurdle of getting people interested, high-concept really helps with that.

  21. Excellent article, thank you.

  22. Excellent post, Holly. Thanks!

  23. A brilliant post. I am printing it to study and study what high concept is and how to apply it to my stories. Learning never stops and that’s what makes life interesting and challenging.

  24. It’s even better if you can describe your concept as elements of an already successful work mixed with elements of another previously successful concept. Of course that didn’t help me sell my idea of a cross between Corn Flakes and Wheaties, but that day will come.

    Sex Mahoney for President

  25. Your are Great. And so is your site! Awesome content. Good job guys! Interesting article, adding it to my favourites!

  26. Shorter is better with a pitch, but the “high-concept X meets Y” pattern just as often leads to confusion. How do you know the analogy will work the same way in someone else’s brain?

    I actually just wrote about this with regard to business marketing, but the root point is similar.

    Thanks!

  27. Hey–great piece–I think I’ll link this I like it so much. (from one of your other incredibly smart, gorgeous authors ;-)

  28. When I was a music publisher I was constantly ask, “What are you looking for?” If I decided to tell them the truth I would reply, “A Hit Song”. Songs like books are graded on whether or not the agent thinks they are a HIT. High Concept is a Movie term used when pitching a script idea. Sum it up in a High Concept. For instance, “Harrison Ford has a dog and sells it to Meryl Streep. She raises it and the dog saves the life of Brad Pitt.”

  29. 29 Lars

    Yep, that explained it perfectly . . . a woman who wants to be sacked is high concept. Give us a break. That’s just your promo of your author.

  30. Revising a story to make it high concept seldom works. As you said, spray painting the apple… But this article gives writers a lot to think about when it comes time to decide what to write next. Have the high concept in place before you start writing, and your book will be a lot easier to sell.

  31. 31 henya

    “High concept.”

    I absolutely love it.
    Epiphany; a 200 watt bulb flashing over my head.

    Thank you for this post.

  32. 32 pam owldreamer

    High concept explained in concise language.High concept, as writers we pursue as it waves at us seductively from it’s fortress. Few scale the walls and we all pray one of the warriors is us. Thanks I didn’t understand what “it” was before the post.

  33. Very interesting post. High concept doesn’t just keep the tills ringing, it keeps the artform developing. Who thought of making a towering love story out of time travel before Audrey Niffenegger did? Now, we have all been shown the way to push the boundaries a little further.

  34. Wonderful post! I’d heard the term high-concept, but never understood what it meant until now. Thank you!

  35. I found this article through Colleen Lindsay’s submission guidelines ( I am writing a new query that will catch her attention) for the munroe mansion. Doing my research on Literary Agents this week, I’ve queried a few. I had an idea of what “high concept” was but this really amplifies how important it is. I just wrote a screenplay for the first time in my life and I had to come up with a 25 word log line (a hook, line and sinker pitch line) So I can relate to the two being almost the same in that respect. :)

    Thanks for educating me today. I learned something new, and I like that!

    I’m not sure who wrote this article, I’d like to quote on my writers blog
    “Seducing people into your world, giving them a point of entry that lets them feel comfortable.”

    my version is
    Wrap your words around them, and draw them in. :)

    I am writing about my experiences as I learn about the world of Queries to Literary Agents, If you can let me know who the author of your quote is, I’d like to give them credit for their words of wisdom. :)

  36. Thanks for the interesting blog! Just went to RWA nationals and before that, had never heard the “high concept” term . . . learned A LOT about it there though. Hopefully the blurb for my query is high concept enough and an agent will want me soon:)

  37. Thank you for sharing your insight, this was well worth it. Now I have more motivation to hope the agent reviewing a partial will feel that it is high concept…


  1. 1 Great article on High Concept Ficiton « The Musings of Christine Fonseca
  2. 2 High Concept « The Adams Zone
  3. 3 Publishing Blogs Weekly Round-Up « Luv YA
  4. 4 Publishing Blogs Weekly Round-Up « Luv YA
  5. 5 Jane Sevier » Got High Concept?
  6. 6 Taste of Kiwi » Blog Archive » Interview with agent Holly Root
  7. 7 The X-Factor - Find your High Concept |
  8. 8 Whispers of Dawn ~ | Ye Olde Blog wherein Sally Apokedak opines
  9. 9 Ansha's Blog » Blog Archive » High Concept is not a four-letter-word.
  10. 10 Elevator Pitch or High Concept? | Learn to Write Fiction
  11. 11 What is a High Concept Novel? « Amanda's Blog
  12. 12 On High Concept | Identity Theory
  13. 13 High concept? | Jen Brooks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 100 other followers

%d bloggers like this: