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"High Concept"? Sufficiently Unique? - Write a Tale That Might Actually Sell


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Aspire to be a great genre author? So what's your high concept?

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If you fail to grasp the vital importance of this second question, you will fail to conceive much less write a publishable genre novel - thriller, mystery, fantasy, horror, crime, SF, you name it. Just not going to happen. Don't let any writer group or self-appointed writer guru online or writer conference panel tell you otherwise. You're competing with tens of thousands of other aspiring authors in your genre. Consider. WHAT IS GOING TO MAKE YOUR NOVEL STAND OUT from the morass of throat-gulping hopefuls who don't know any better?

Believe it or not, 99.5% of the writers in workshops all across the country *do not* arrive with a high-concept story. If anything, their aborning novel child is destined for still birth. They strut forward proudly waving their middle or low concept tale while noting how their hired editor from Stanford, or Iowa, or the Johns Hopkins MA program just "loves it!" As a professional, you inwardly groan, listen to them jabber, and realize within 30 seconds or less that you've heard a version of this story at least twenty times already. One of our NWOE contributors, famous literary agent Richard Curtis, talks about this sad phenomenon in The Seven Sins of Novel Rejection:

  • "Writers don't always realize that stories that may seem unique to them are trite in the eyes of agents and editors. For every plot you write, we may see dozens of similar submissions. I freely confess to being easily bored, and I've stopped castigating myself for it, for I realize boredom is a critical symptom that a manuscript has gone wrong."

Btw, did anyone warn the hapless writers noted above of this trite condition before they submitted to Richard?... No. Of course not. And why? Because they didn't know any better. Now consider this. *You* will be the bad guy because you are ethically obligated to inform them in the next workshop that their story ideas are cooked to a char. You do so in the most tactful way imaginable, and you make it clear you will brainstorm the solution with them. Nonetheless, the usual symptoms are observed: face drops, eyes freeze over, lower lip begins to quiver, and if the writer happens to be a narcissist, they naturally begin to snarl and plot disruption. But let's return to the issue at hand.

First of all, what kind of story isn't a high concept?

Several writer websites mimic each other and define a "low concept" story in this manner: 1. Not easily explained; 2. Character driven; 3. Talks about everyday life... Well, let's pause and reflect. One could actually possess a high concept novel yet be unable, at least temporarily, to express or "explain" it properly in one or two lines. We must differentiate between the actual product and the communication of that product, and by doing so, invalidate the relevancy of the first point above. In truth, with proper communication, one can explain (term should be "pitch") either a low or high concept, therefore, the nature of the concept itself, it's relative complexity or simplicity, staleness or freshness, has nothing to do with the difficulty of pitching or discussing it, and everything to do with the ineptitude of the person attempting it.

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As for point two above, a low concept pitch or hook line might be "character driven," but it doesn't need to be. It could be plot driven and still be low concept, therefore, "character" or "plot" driven isn't the real issue here (see Log Lines and Hooks With Core Wounds--character plays a big role in hooks). And as for point three, this is actually a false statement. For example, one could pitch or discuss a story idea that sounds like a GAME OF THRONES rehash, and last we checked, ice-eyed zombies bent on global acts of decapitation cannot be classified as everyday life. Which also points out what? The aspiring author MUST know their genre inside out, else how can they reasonably determine what is an overdone story idea and what is not?

Alright, so how do we define a high concept? First from Wikipedia as it relates to film:

  • "The term is often applied to films that are pitched and developed almost entirely upon an engaging premise with broad appeal, rather than standing upon complex character study, cinematography, or other strengths that relate more to the artistic execution of a production. Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which describe their entire premises in their titles."

Will we be fortunate enough to possess a novel title that describes our premise so efficiently? Most likely not, but we must possess a high-concept genre story nonetheless if we expect to be as competitive as need be while immersed in this insanely competitive market. A high concept must therefore be defined as "a story premise that presents itself as sufficiently unique and commercially viable at the same time." In other words, the premise when expressed as a hook or logline doesn't sound like one professionals have heard a hundred times in the past month. Instead, it immediately presents itself as relatively fresh, like a story publishers can market, perhaps even one that might make its way into television or film.

Let's look at examples from various genres (note they're sufficiently unique):

  • DRAGON RIPPER by Melanie Bacon (historical mystery) - The sister of Sherlock Holmes, anxious to prove herself and earn her rights in a man's world, teams with the daughter of Jack the Ripper to fight an ancient evil society threatening the streets of London with murder and mayhem.

    GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (domestic thriller) - An unhappy and frustrated husband returns home to find his wife mysteriously missing, not knowing she has faked her disappearance and written false diary entries to implicate him in first degree murder.

    DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes (literary classic) - A delusional 50-year-old Spanish nobleman obsessed with chivalric notions asks a fat farmer to join him as his dutiful sidekick and the two venture forth to fight windmills.

    THE HAND OF FATIMA by Ildefonso Falcones (historical fiction) - A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God.

    THE BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY by Jonathan Stroud (young adult fantasy) - In seeking revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, an apprentice mage unleashes a powerful Djinni who later joins him to confront a danger that threatens their entire world.

Again, strive to understand your genre before you initiate your first steps towards writing a novel, and in this way, with a little wisdom and imagination, you've got a chance at inventing a high-concept that will sell to both New York and Hollywood.

We should all be so lucky!

Scimus Via.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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