literature, writing

What Does Publishing Mean by “High Concept,” Really?

If you’ve done much research on getting your writing published, chances are you’ve come across the term “high concept.” Agents and editors sometimes use the phrase “high-concept fiction” when taking about the sort of writing they’d like to acquire, and you’ll often hear it touted by writing blogs as a surefire way to make your work more marketable. But it’s a difficult idea to summarize, and the majority of explanations of it are more jumbled than they are helpful. Google searches will turn up tons of results on high-concept movies, but attempts at explaining what makes those movies “high concept” are too often centered around existing marketing, rather than on the development of the premise itself. So what is high-concept fiction? What is the publishing industry’s interest in it, and is “low concept” necessarily a bad thing?

As with all my writing-related articles, I’m by no means an expert, and this industry is large enough that everyone’s definitions and expectations are going to be slightly different. This is just the perspective of one author. I’ve received better responses to a lot of my writing once I started thinking about what made a story high concept, and how I could use that to my advantage.

“High concept” is loosely defined

Researching basic definitions of “high concept,” you’ll find that most of them center around the simplicity and brevity of a pitch. High-concept stories are stories that can be effectively pitched in a sentence or two. In the film industry, high-concept stories seem to have experienced their heyday in the late 80s and early 90s. And from a marketing perspective, the appeal of high-concept movies makes perfect sense. If you can present a unique premise in a single sentence, it’s easy to market it in a way that will convince the masses they need to go see it in theaters. To go with some classic examples, think Jurrassic Park, Speed, or RoboCop. But the film industry’s approach to high-concept—at least at the time—was underdeveloped when compared with the current definitions. High-concept stories should be easy to pitch, but that doesn’t mean they have to be action-packed, predictable, or simplistic.

In fact, they probably shouldn’t be. It’s become something of an industry standard—through events like #PitMad and requests for one-line pitches in submission forms—that authors are expected to have a short version of their pitch ready and waiting, but that doesn’t mean that every story pitched is going to be high concept. The definition of what makes a story high concept has become increasingly more nuanced in recent years, with a focus on more than just simplicity.

At its core, high concept is about your premise feeling fresh without requiring too many frills to make it feel that way. It’s about stripping your story to the bare bones—and cherry-picking the right details along the way—so as to present a vivid and unique concept without needing to ramble on for paragraphs and paragraphs before it actually makes any sense. It’s finding the balance between originality and marketability. Truly high-concept pitches answer two questions, both of them with a resounding yes:

  • Will this story have broad appeal?
  • Can this story be summarized succinctly without feeling stale or played out?

Quoted in a Writer’s Digest article about high concept in the publishing industry, agent Angie Hodapp summarizes why high-concept pitches stand out from the slush pile: the vast majority of stories are either derivative, bland, or so outside-the-box that it would be impossible to turn them into anything marketable. High-concept stories are the happy medium: unique and fresh, but also straightforward enough to be easily understood, which then in turn makes them easier to market to the masses.

It’s important to note that high concept is not limited to fantasy, sci-fi, or action-oriented stories. Although the movie industry seems to have a habit of defining high concept based on plot or stakes, there are just as many high-concept ideas that work because of the impact of swapping out an archetypal character or setting (take, for example, Pretty Woman—high-concept because it takes some pretty basic romantic comedy tropes and drops a new, fresh character in the middle of them). Regardless of the genre, “high concept” is about distilling a story down to something that is both distinctive and easily understood.

How will understanding “high concept” help me pitch my story?

“High concept” is not the litmus test for whether or not you’re going to be able to break into the industry. There is no rule that says you can’t successfully pitch a quiet, trope-y romance or an immensely complicated thriller. That being said, even for low-concept stories, I think the appeal of high concept can be applied to the way authors choose to frame their ideas.

Most stories have, at the most basic level, been told before. When you strip away the idiosyncrasies that make characters and settings feel distinct, the majority of commercial fiction exists to meet certain expectations that are already established through conventions of genre. Romance readers expect a happily-ever-after. A lot of crime fiction follows the same basic pattern of murder, sleuthing, red herrings, and ultimately resolution. Many science fiction and fantasy stories are either building off of or directly responding to the idea of the monomyth.

To complicate matters further, an interesting and high-concept premise can rapidly go stale—particularly when the derivative follow-ups start hitting the shelves—which makes it difficult to pinpoint what’s going to feel high concept at any given moment; the high-concept stories of today are probably going to feel played out by next year. When The Hunger Games was first published, the YA dystopian premise felt pretty fresh to Western audiences (for the sake of brevity, we’re going to avoid the whole Battle Royale conversation here). But as soon as books like The Maze Runner and Divergent started cropping up, the basic premise was already starting to feel tired, and subsequent dystopian novels have been reliant on other facets of their storytelling to stand out from the crowd.

The question that we as authors have to ask ourselves is this: what is it that makes new stories stand out, if so many of them are following the same basic formulas?

Finding what makes your own story feel distinctive—and incorporating those details into your pitch—is the key to bringing that high-concept feel to even the simplest and most formulaic of plots. Maybe you’ve taken the conventional crime noir antihero and asked “but what if they were [blank] instead of a cynical straight guy with a drinking problem?” Maybe you’ve written a historical fantasy that’s set during the fall of the Inca Empire rather than the more commonplace pseudo-medieval European setting. Or, to go back to the example of Pretty Woman, maybe you’ve written a predictable romantic comedy with a lead that breaks convention and turns that feeling of familiarity on its head.

And, as always, utilize specificity to your advantage. Specificity is going to add to that feeling that agents haven’t read this exact pitch before, because the more specific you get, the less likely your pitch is going to overlap with other queries currently in the slush pile. Technically, you could pitch Jurassic Park like this: “a man visiting a theme park has to protect a couple kids from dinosaurs.” But if you look at the log line on IMDB, it gets a lot more specific, offering insight into the protagonist’s personality, the setting, the world-building, and the inciting incident, all in one sentence: “A pragmatic paleontologist visiting an almost complete theme park is tasked with protecting a couple of kids after a power failure causes the park’s cloned dinosaurs to run loose.”

It’s All Relative

As with most things in this industry, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules. What stands out to one agent or editor as high concept might feel completely underwhelming to someone else. Perhaps ironically, for a phrase that’s so often used to describe ideas that are easily summarized and understood, “high concept” can be a difficult concept to pin down. Everyone’s definition is going to be their own, but understanding what people mean by “high concept” in at least a broad sense will help strengthen your pitches, and perhaps your future ideas.

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