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?

Becoming a Storyteller: Creating Conflict, or, Do I Have a Green Thumb for Fiction?

Drama is life with the dull parts taken out.  –Alfred Hitchcock

This post’s information comes to you via the works and words of one James Scott Bell, an author of numerous thrillers and books on writing craft, including Conflict & Suspense. James Scott Bell contributes regularly to Writer’s Digest, is an active teacher at writing conferences, and has a useful, entertaining Twitter account (@jamesscottbell), where he links to helpful articles on writing, provides tips and quotes, interacts with other writers and fans, and shows us mortals how to dangle the carrot:

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bell at the 2012 Writers Digest Conference in New York City. I attended his workshop on Conflict and Suspense, and after recently reading his article, The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them, for the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, I dug out the notes I had scribbled during the session.

Along my journey toward becoming a storyteller, I felt Conflict was something I had a good handle on. I mean, I know that without Conflict you don’t have a Story. I know it’s the struggle between two opposing forces, and I thought I did a decent enough job of sewing the seeds of Conflict into the lives of my characters. As it turns out, I might not have the greenest of fiction thumbs. I’m too soft on my characters, and when I do start to squeeze ’em a bit, it’s too late.

When I leafed through my notepad (Useless Bit of Information #1: As a lefty, I prefer Steno notepads to regular notebooks whose binding crowds my hand.), I found that one of the first bullets under James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense session read as follows:

Soil for Conflict: A Lead Character that Readers Care About

This struck me for two reasons. First, because I had spend part of the afternoon working on an interview for Julie Kolb, whose awesome blog is: 500approaching50.wordpress.com, and answered one of her questions with a gardening metaphor. She had asked if I kept any of the stories I’d written when I was young, and here was my answer:

Do you still have those early stories? 
The earliest stories I have kept are from my college days as part of the creative writing program at Florida International University. I can look back and see the seeds of something greater. I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time watering those seeds though. The one complete novel manuscript that I have developed over 10 years, with its roots stretching way back to high school and much of the first draft being grown through college.

Second, my wife had quite literally just asked me to go water the plants in our new garden. (Useless Bit of Info #2)

During his talk, James Scott Bell discussed how true character is revealed in times of trouble and conflict. He said suspense is the withholding of a resolution.

Bell went on in the session to describe different types of Lead Characters to plant in said Soil. There’s the Positive Lead, vindicating or representing the values of the community; the Negative Lead, or someone who doesn’t represent the values of the community; and the the Antihero, someone who doesn’t want to be involved in any community. Bell said, foundationally speaking, we need a bonding with the Lead Character before we can get to the next part. Death.

Bell said in order to truly reveal these Lead Characters, the threat of Death needs to be involved. He went on to describe three types of Death: physical, professional, and psychological. The article in Writer’s Digest really does a nice job of developing this point. Our job is to make the Lead Character’s problem feel so important that failing to overcome it will mean a permanent setback in their life.

As I said in my answer to Julie’s question, many times I’ve seen the seed of Conflict in my fiction, but I haven’t done enough to cultivate it. I haven’t watered the plant of the story, and I’ve failed to let the Character bloom to his full potential. The guidance of writers like James Scott Bell helps me understand the different methods I can use to better tend this garden of fiction.

Check back soon, as I’ll have another post dedicated to James Scott Bell’s article: The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them and how I’m the jackass that has made ’em all.

Conflict & Suspense
James Scott Bell signed my copy of Conflict & Suspense, and he told me to keep writing. He’s a pro, so I guess I’ll listen.