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What Is a High Concept, and Do You Need One? by Danielle Burby

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Agents and editors are always saying they want a high-concept story, but what does that mean? And if you don’t have one, can you still land an agent and sell your book?

The definition of high concept is difficult to pin down because it involves a certain level of the X-factor—that specialness that defies definition. In other words, conversations about high concept often end with I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it. So instead of searching for a definition of high concept, let’s look at some of its features:

High concept is built on a unique idea/hook that makes the agent sit up and say, “Whoa! I’ve never read any stories like that before!” or “A story like that has never occurred to me!”

High concept is easy to explain/pitch in one or two sentences. What makes a high concept so appealing is that it immediately gives the listener a very clear idea of what to expect from the story. Some examples:

  • Teen girl at a secret spy school meets a normal boy and hides her identity while falling in love. (Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You, the first book in the Gallagher Girls series)
  • Woman witnesses something shocking from the window of her train and may be the only person who can tell the police the truth. (Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train)
  • After a spin-class head injury, Alice forgets the last ten years of her life, including the births of her children and divorce from the love of her life. (Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot)
  • A female med student auctions off her virginity online. (Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price)

High concept is appealing to a wide audience. This is a big reason agents and editors want high-concept projects. They are easier to sell! The commercial value of the story is immediately apparent in that brief, one- or two-sentence description, which makes it easy for agents to pitch to editors, for editors to pitch to the sales team, for the sales team to pitch to booksellers, and for booksellers to pitch to readers. High-concept stories are easy to market. Essentially, a high-concept book sells itself.

High concept involves high stakes. Not every story is high concept, and that’s okay. But if the feedback you consistently get on your work is that it is “quiet” or that the agent just didn’t fall in love, it’s possible that a high concept is the thing you need to pull ahead of the pack.

High concept values action and plot over introspection and backstory. Think movie adaptation here. What are your novel’s “movie trailer moments”—periods of high conflict or tension? If you can’t identify a handful of them right off the bat, and if your novel is more about your characters’ inner lives (thoughts, emotions), then you’re probably not writing a high-concept story. And that’s OK, but now you know the difference!

Here’s one (but not the only) recipe to help you play with generating a high-concept premise: “It’s [trope or familiar story or storyline]…but [with a twist].” A favorite example is “It’s a Western…but set in space” (Firefly). Or “It’s Emma…but set in an over-the-top 1990s high school” (Clueless).

Once you have your high concept, the story is what you make of it! If you are an author who wants to write big, commercial, action-packed plots, you can do that with a high concept. If you’re an author who would prefer to write deeper stories that tackle issues, you can do that, too. The high concept is about getting people through the door. Your unique, individual, execution is what will make readers continue to turn the page


13 Responses

  1. jose enrique muzaurieta said:

    A set of intersex twins,one a serial killer with both male and female reproductive organs, is on a killing frenzy.Detective Franco Grimaldi and his team are baffled completely until the forensic pathologist announces that semen has been found during autopsy.
    This story has all of the elements of a Karin Slaughter novel jacked up to a more horrific level.

      1. Lynley said:

        It must be strange for men to occasionally be confronted with a list of female examples. Women have been confronted with entirely male examples all our lives and are quite used to it.

        1. ump said:

          It’s also strange that Mr Cleghorne (which makes him sound like a relation of the Brandybucks even to me, and I’m English) thinks that those examples *are* all aimed at women. I haven’t read Girl On A Train, but it sounds like a straight mystery novel. I don’t think it’s wise to assume that it’s aimed at women alone just because it has a female main character and “Girl” in the title. Otherwise Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy be would aimed at the Iranian gay eunuch market – and that’s a fairly limited niche.

    1. ump said:

      >> A set of intersex twins…

      That’s definitively NOT high concept: it’s just a list of plot elements ending in a non sequitur. (Why should a killer with two sets of sexual organs be “more horrific” than any other kind?)

  2. EK said:

    Would the high concept rule apply even when writing a series/trilogy?
    It is so natural in this case to want to start with the back story first, that end with a cliffhanger that leads to book number 2.

    1. ump said:

      >> It is so natural in this case to want to start with the back story first

      Does Deadwood start with the town being discovered or Al Swearengen arriving?

      Does the Harry Potter series start with his birth or The Dark Materials start with Lyras?

      …And so on through the Dune, The Godfather, Gurren Laggan, Buffy, The Shield, and Steven Universe.

      High concept is about ***hook***. And the hook is called that because it’s what catches the reader – so it has be right here at the start, whether it’s boy wizards, bad cops, or giant robots. No one is going to read a back full of back story in the hope that in a second book you write about something they care about.

      1. ump said:

        …So Deadwood starts with the mixture of conflict and alliance between Al and Seth that drives the plot

        …HP starts with “Hey, you’re going to wizard school” and Pullman’s series with a critical overheard conversation

        …Dune with “You’re special and your father is going to die..”

        …The Godfather was “These people are gangsters and the Godfather a kind of king” and a series of examples of how they work

  3. Cynthia Yoder said:

    This was great input to help me get to the essence of my book-in-progress. To understand what that one-line description might be. When you are in the writing, that clarity can be so elusive! Those examples are especially helpful. Thanks so much!

  4. Bryan Fagan said:

    It is a business and the product needs to stand out in order to have a chance. All of us on this board have top notch imaginations and because of that coming up with a high concept idea isn’t all that hard. I like to read and write about odd things but most all I concentrate on the quality of work I produce. So I guess in the end: Don’t worry what the agents want. Write a kick ass book and soon, a smart agent with an eye for talent will give you a call.

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