Becoming a Storyteller: High concept, or, Wait–what?

High Concept FictionLeafing through the 2013 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, you might come across an odd term: “High-Concept“. If you’re at a similar place in your journey to become a storyteller, you might be just as baffled as I am by the term. Thanks to a recent article in Writer’s Digest, a little research, and some help from a few published professionals, I might have a decent working definition.

I hiked up to New York last year, novel manuscript tucked securely in my backpack, and I found myself completely unprepared for what I saw when I got there. The publishing world was evolving right before my eyes, and, for someone who was a stranger in a strange land, I didn’t know where to look first.

I first came across the term while sitting at the writer’s conference,  in various workshops. “High-Concept.” Seemed very important. But no one seemed to have a straight explanation. Made it seem even more important. Over the last year, I’ve noticed the term quite a bit, as I’ve trolled through writing sites and mags, listened to authors speak, and read the submission guidelines for various agents.

Here’s what the all-knowing Wikipedia has to say about “High-Concept”:

High-concept is a term used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that aren’t as easily summarized. The origin of the term is in dispute.

Author Steven Pressfield, scribe of The Legend of Bagger Vance among other things, said the “High-Concept” era of Hollywood began in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

He says the following on his site stevenpressfield.com:

What exactly is High Concept?

Let’s start with its opposite, low concept. Low concept stories are personal, idiosyncratic, ambiguous, often European.  “Well, it’s a sensitive fable about a Swedish sardine fisherman whose wife and daughter find themselves conflicted over … ”

ZZZZZZZZ.

Low concept can be great. Personally I go to a lot of low concept movies. But low concept is low. High Concept is high.

1. A high concept story can be pitched in 30 seconds or less.

2. A high concept notion doesn’t depend on stars.

3. It’s almost impossible to screw up high concept (though plenty of us did.)

Here are three classic high concept premises:

“Speed.” A criminal rigs a bus full of passengers to explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 55 mph.  Cop and innocent gal must save bus and passengers.

Basic Instinct.” Homicide detective finds himself in a torrid love affair with a sexy female suspect who may be the ice-pick murderess he is trying to capture.

Die-Hard.” Terrorist gang takes hostages in office high-rise after dark, seeking millions from the company’s vault. What the criminals don’t know is that one resourceful cop (whose estranged wife is one of the hostages) is in the building, aiming to stop them (and save his wife.)

I’m not entirely sure that “Speed” is the best model for police advice (shoot the hostage?) or anything, but, hey, what do I know?

Jeff Lyons, founder of Storygeeks.com, tackled the subject for Writer’s Digest in their latest issue. He says there’s no consensus on the true definition of the term, but there are seven common traits of what makes a story “High-Concept”.

7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche market)

Taking a look at some of these Qualities doesn’t necessarily clear up the ambiguity of High-Concept storytelling. Entertainment value is hard to pin down. Everyone has different tastes. And writing something entirely original seems like an exercise in futility.

The “what if” question seems like the basis of all storytelling, not just High-Concept storytelling. What if dinosaurs were cloned? Well, that’s what Michael Crichton asked himself before penning Jurassic Park. I think all stories start with this fundamental question. What if X happened? What if so-and-so did/said this? I’m not sure this idea is exclusive to High-Concept.

The highly visual bit should go right along with good writing. Imagery. I mean, I like to hear this because my own fiction has been described to me as visually appealing, but I just thought that it was the way to go. I try let the scene reel out in my head before I create the manuscript.

The “high degree of originality” and the “inclusion of some truly unique element” seem to be intimately intertwined. It’s difficult to develop a truly original concept these days, as most stories have been told. As a writer, it’s become more about what new Voice and spin can you bring to a traditional story or fable or plot. I guess, spinning a new, unique element into the weave of an old story is the aim for so many of us these days. Once upon a time in a college writing class, I was told that there are only two possible plots.

  • A rider comes to town.
  • A rider leaves town.

At it’s most basic level, that’s probably true, but it feels like oversimplification.

I think developing a unique element is paramount to storytelling, but we also need to tell the story we want to tell. (Or, the story will tell itself on its own terms through us.) Hopefully, we all find that “mass audience appeal”.

I posed the question to several publishing professionals on Twitter this week, and a couple of them were kind enough to reply. James Scott Bell and Chuck Sambuchino are both Writer’s Digest personalities and talented authors in their own right. They definitely know more about this sort of stuff than I do. Here’s what they said:

Okay, dear Reader, what do you think? How would you define High Concept?

9 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: High concept, or, Wait–what?

    • It’s absolutely more of a Hollywood term, but as I’ve conducted my research on agents and publishers for my work, “High-Concept” fiction has popped up over and over again. I’m not sure I’ll ever claim my work is high-concept in a query letter, unless its something the agent specifically seeks.

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  1. Maybe High Concept refers to how much money someone is willing to pay you for the publication rights to the work. The higher the concept, the higher the perceived value.

    That person who purchased your work has to justify to the board of directors why they spent the money and their answer is “The work we purchased from David Fernandez is high concept material.”

    If my premise is true, then every agent, publisher and Hollywood Producer is seeking a high concept novel.

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    • Based on what I’ve heard from the Writer’s Digest guys, It seems like you’re on the money here. It’s an interesting way to look at fiction though, through a Hollywood lens. Thanks for reading.

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  2. I always learn something new and interesting when I’m able to find time to stop by your blog. I have heard this term, but frankly, it just sounded like so much pop-speak, I didn’t pay any attention to it. I’m not sure I’m going to now, because I don’t have much interest in writing based on the concept. At least, not at the moment.

    So tell me, are you going to aim for this idea in your own work? Or are you still mulling it over, and wondering how to make it apply? Will your personal style of writing lend itself to these precepts? I’m just curious, because as I say, I learn a lot from your blogs, and your responses to comments.

    Thanks for another well done post, and the quoted references, too.

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    • I do appreciate it when you stop by, Marcia! I’m glad you find what I put up here interesting. What drew me to the term was the repeated reference to it by literary agents. I’m not sure I’ll specifically aim for “High-Concept”, but I think the majority of when I end up working on shares some of the characteristics associated with it. We’ll see where it goes.
      I’d like to think my personal style lends itself to the concept, but until an agent/editor says so, I guess I won’t know for sure. Thanks again for stopping by!

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      • The way you broke it down, it sounds to me like most well-written fiction would have at least some of the elements mentioned, and I’ll bet yours does, too. When I said I wasn’t going to aim for it, what I was mostly referring to was the high levels of entertainment value and originality. Those are not bad things at all, of course, and many of the books I read probably meet the High Concept criteria. It’s just that personally, I’m not aspiring quite so high at this point in my newborn career. I’m just trying to learn how to put together a pleasant romance with a bit of a mystery attached. My target audience probably doesn’t read a lot of High Concept, but that’s okay. It’s a good genre for teaching me the ropes. Maybe it’s just Middle of The Road Concept? 😀

        But I’m still keeping all of this in mind. You never know what I might be working on next. 😉

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