The other day, a discussion about ‘high concept’ broke out on one of the published author loops I belong to. It seemed that some writers were getting confused between a well-written logline or pitch (which should succinctly showcase your high concept) and the high concept itself.
Let me explain.
The best explanation of high concept I have ever seen was a guest blog post on Writers Digest by Jeff Lyons. You can read his whole post here: Writers Digest – 7 Qualities of High Concept Stories
As Jeff explains, a high concept story should have as many of the following seven elements as possible (the more of them the story has, the ‘higher’ the concept). Further to that, if your logline (one or two sentence pitch) can illustrate/evoke all the below qualities in just a few words or one-line, then huzzah, you have a high concept pitch. For instance, let’s take JAWS. Here’s the one liner that describes the high concept – Enormous, relentless shark terrorizes coastal New England town attacking victims on the 4th of July weekend. That one line evokes a powerful setting, a frightening antagonist, high stakes and a relatable protagonist (the town). Even if you had never seen the movie, a load of images immediately pop into your head, you completely understand the thrust of the story, and that’s the point of a high concept logline. Here’s how that one line fulfills all of the qualities below (I’ve put the specific Jaws example in brackets next to the quality):
7 (MAKE THAT 8!) QUALITIES OF HIGH-CONCEPT STORIES:
1. High level of entertainment value [shark attacks amid a setting everyone can immediately understand, the beach on the 4th of July]
2. High degree of originality [a successful movie about a shark attacking had not yet been done]
3. Born from a “what if” question [what if a shark came close to land and became a lurking menace in the ocean]
4. Highly visual [ummm…teeth, fins, blood, open ocean, very visual no matter how you slice it]
5. Clear emotional focus [life and death on the line, beat the shark or die – no clearer focus than that!]
6. Inclusion of some truly unique element [the shark is big, relentless and coming back for more victims. Unlike the old horror creature flicks featuring a vampire, a mummy, or a wolf man, the shark becomes a real life monster everyone can take seriously.]
7. Mass audience appeal to a broad general audience, or a large niche market [Jaws had a premise most people could immediately relate to and the threat was to everyone on the beach, men, women, children, families. The fear became universal, no pun intended!]
8. Incredibly memorable characters [the shark itself (implies man vs. nature), Quinn, the Chief, heck even the mother who slaps him on the dock for her son getting eaten. We all remember those scenes because the characters were well…memorable.] Of course, you can’t tell what the characters in JAWS will be like from the one liner above, but once you see the movie you ‘feel’ like it was a high concept because of the memorable characters, so I always include it as the eighth element. Who hasn’t seen a movie that fell flat because the story was there, but the acting or characters sucked? Or read a book that had a great premise, but the characters were flat?
So, a high concept is not just a one-liner or this-meets-that. There are a lot of this-meets-thats that simply don’t work because in stating them they don’t fulfill enough of the eight qualities above. For instance, Rocky meets The West Wing. Ummm, what? I can’t visualize that at all. I can’t tell you what the emotional focus is. Mass audience appeal, not really. So, in my mind, it’s not just the high concept statement itself, but what eight qualities the high concept statement fulfills and evokes in the listener’s mind. In other words, not every one-liner or logline is high concept just because you can boil your story down to one sentence.
I can boil the story of my day today down to one line: Stay at home mom runs errands, juggles household tasks, and looks after children, all while dreaming of writing her next book. There, I boiled my story down to one-line but it’s hardly high concept, LOL.
Now what about something like this: Peter Pan takes a holiday in Wonderland, where he becomes smitten with a young girl named Alice, only to learn he cannot stay in Wonderland or follow Alice back home, because he will grow old.
Okay so it’s not my best, but it’s got a lot more going for it than the story of my day. If done right, it would definitely have a high level of entertainment value because of the world-building, beloved characters everyone could relate to, highly visual, etc. And it’s definitely born from a what if…what if Peter Pan took a holiday in Wonderland? Clear emotional focus, sure – will the boy get the girl, even if it means giving up his most precious possession, his youth? Original, perhaps. Perhaps, not. I’m not sure if anyone’s written it yet, LOL.
Now, in my mind, no discussion of high concept would be complete without talking about the ninth ingredient, the secret sauce. If you take all eight ingredients above, stir gently and add the secret sauce you’ll have a NYT best-seller or a blockbuster movie. What is the secret sauce? Well, in the case of a book, the secret sauce is an ‘unputdownableness’ or uniqueness you can’t easily define. Perhaps it’s the writing style. Perhaps it’s the voice. Perhaps it’s the synergy of just the perfect eight ingredients being stirred together. Perhaps it’s how perfectly the eight ingredients blend and the flavors feed off one another creating a certain magic as they stew in the reader’s mind. All I can tell you is just like a good meal, if you find yourself devouring a book in one sitting, it probably had the secret sauce.
And on that note, I’m off to go start dinner because I’ve made myself hungry. Happy writing!
Marlo, I like the way you explain the high concept idea. All writers should understand and use these ideas in their writings, but not everyone can grasp the elements involved. It’s not an easy concept to fully understand. Thanks for your explanation.
You’re very welcome, Fran! Glad it was helpful. Thanks for stopping by!
Very cool, Marlo. Now I wonder if someone will write that Peter Pan novel…. 🙂
That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Who knows, maybe I’ll add it to my loooooong list of book ideas 🙂
Thanks for stopping by.
So much to think on! I’m rewriting my queries right now.
Glad it was helpful, Donna! And yes, if you look to the eight elements it should help you frame your query or pitch. If your short pitch or query does not easily showcase enough of these eight elements, then one of two things must be true – either you need to rewrite the query so it does, or, not enough of these elements are shining through because they’re not there in the first place, which is a bigger problem. This is why I’m a huge proponent of trying to write down the short pitch for a book before you even begin to write the book. If you can’t boil down the idea for a book, before you even begin, into one or two spectacular sentences that describes what it is about, then perhaps your story idea needs some retooling to include more of the eight elements. In other words, like it or not, authors must think of their books as a product and must have a clear vision of what they want that product to be before they even begin. If you were working at a company, you wouldn’t start building a product without having some idea of what you wanted that product to be at the end, or what you wanted that product to accomplish, would you? It wouldn’t make much sense. So the same is true for books. You must readily know what is going to make your book special. Or what’s the point in writing it? It’s either going to end up being boring, or too similar to something else out there, or deemed outright derivative. So I think it’s important to have a clear vision for your ‘product’ from the very beginning and evaluate from the beginning how you can make that vision have enough of the eight elements.
Thanks for stopping by!