I’d heard the words “high concept” bandied about in publishing but when I tried to pin people down on the definition, there seemed to be no consensus about what it was. Yet everyone assured me it was an important thing to possess.
Frustrated with the lack of information, I turned to Hollywood for my education. What I found changed my life and the direction of my career.
But, while there was no dearth of data among scriptwriters about what a high concept was, I still couldn’t find a step-by-step manual on how to construct one.
I also needed to adapt what I’d discovered about high concept screenplays into novels. They are different mediums and while a lot of things are the same, there are some differences.
Using this method, I sold two novels to Time-Warner books based solely on a 25 word high concept pitch. Not only that, but after the sale was announced on Publishers Marketplace, my agent and I received interest from 9 movie production companies.
That’s when I knew I was onto something and that I had to share my techniques with other writers struggling to understand the high concept.
What high concept can do for you.
v Propel your manuscript out of the slush pile.
v Razzle-dazzle editors.
v Spur agents to contact you based on a one sentence blurb.
v Trigger publishers to open their wallets.
v Rush readers into stores as soon as your book is released.
v Impress the media.
v Stimulate industry buzz.
v Jump-start foreign sales.
v Earn you a bigger advance.
v Inspire Hollywood to come knocking.
This method is designed to provide you with the tools you’ll need to mold your story idea into an intriguing one sentence pitch that can magically unlock closed doors. If you put in the time and follow the precepts outlined in my workbook, you’ll be stunned by both the increase in your creativity and the response you’ll see from the publishing industry.
A word of caution. High concept is not a substitute for honing your craft. Rather, it’s simply the most effective way to capture an editor or agent’s interest.
Readers respond to high concepts because we yearn for stories that entertain, teach and provide us with thrills and emotional catharsis. The very best high concepts feature sympathetic characters that we can root for.
Our most beloved protagonists are ordinary Joes or Janes who are moved to accomplish extraordinary things. Or else he is an extraordinary human being whom can give us a taste of who we could really become. Or she is the underdog, with the odds so stacked against her, who makes us feel compassion, admiration and suspense
Contrary to popular notions, high concepts are not limited to over-the-top suspense or thrillers. High concept is at the heart of every genre—romance, mysteries, horror, comedies, westerns, chick-lit, lad-lit, sci-fi, time travel & women’s fiction.
High concept is not just a marketing gimmick. It is the very foundation of great commercial fiction. It’s true that publishers love high concept stories, but that’s because catchy ideas and rip-roaring characters are easier to pitch and sell.
Although many credit Tinseltown with inventing high concept, the idea originated long before movies ever existed. You can see high concept at work in Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. In operas and ballads. You’ll find it in Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities and Huckleberry Finn. High concept is here to stay for one very good reason.
What is High Concept?
Today, the literary marketplace is more competitive than ever. Learning to craft an effective high concept idea will increase your chances for long-term career survival. When you hear of brand new authors getting six figure deals it’s usually because they had a dynamic high concept. A novice writer with a high concept stands a better chance of selling her book than a mid-list author without a high concept. High concept writing is an essential skill for the modern writer to develop.
The purpose of a high concept is to succinctly deliver your ideas to an editor or agent, but what is it exactly? There are five central components to the high concept.
1) It’s different.
2) It’s universal.
3) It has instant emotional appeal.
4) You can immediately visualize the entire story. (This means inherent conflict)
5) It can be stated in one sentence.
Now, let’s look at what a high concept is not.
A high concept is not “Jaws” meets “The African Queen”.
Comparing one movie to another is a framing technique. While you can use it to prep an editor to let them know what’s coming next—your high concept pitch—it’s not a high concept.
A high concept is not like the blurb on the back of a book.
Yes, a blurb and a high concept are both marketing tools. But a blurb is longer and directed toward convincing readers to buy. The high concept is geared toward convincing publishers.
A high concept is not simply a TV-guide style summary.
A summary doesn’t deliver the vivid picture needed to capture an editor’s imagination. It doesn’t “show” the emotional story.
A high concept is not merely a series of hooks.
One common mistake fiction writers make is thinking that if they just throw in enough hooks and twists they’ll have a high concept. Wrong. Since the high concept craze was popularized by Hollywood, let’s examine a few examples of high concept movies to clarify.
A cocky cop must find a way to save people stranded on a city bus that will explode if is slows below 55 mph.—Speed
1) It’s different—exploding bus
2) It’s universal—almost everyone has taken a bus at one time
3) Emotional appeal—life or death stakes
4) You can see the entire story—if bus slows down, it goes boom
When a young wife discovers the husband she’s convicted of murdering isn’t dead, she escapes custody to track him down and kill him.—Double Jeopardy
1) It’s different—double jeopardy
2) Universal—betrayal by a spouse
4) See entire story—hunts down husband who framed her, can’t be prosecuted for the same crime twice
A young and broke Will Shakespeare falls in love, inspiring him to write “Romeo and Juliet”, but ultimately he forsakes his beloved for his muse.—Shakespeare in Love
1) It’s different—the playwright behind the play
2) Universal—falling in love
3) Emotional—lost love
4) Sees entire story—Shakespeare falling in love, but choosing his work over his woman.
Teenage girl discovers she’s the princess of small European country and must endure “princess lessons” from her grandmother.—The Princess Diaries
1) It’s different—ordinary girl is really a princess
2) Universal—every girl dreams of being a princess
3) Emotional—transformation story
4) See entire story—young girl goes from being ordinary teen to the princess of a country.
Videotape kills anyone who watches it within a week.—The Ring
1) It’s different—a killer videotape
2) Universal—Pandora’s box
3) Emotional—fear of technology, allure of the forbidden
4) See entire story—people are going to feel compelled to watch the video and they’ll die.
Embattled husband-and-wife assassins wind up hunting each other.—Mr. and Mrs. Smith
1) It’s different—married assassins
2) Universal—marriage in conflict
3) Emotional—love versus duty
4) See entire story—A married couple hired to kill each other
A serial killer with a moral code.--Dexter
1)It's different--serial killers don't have moral codes
2)Universal--serial killers scare everyone
3)Emotional--instant conflict between his need to kill and his code
4)See entire story--he's only going to kill bad people
Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. While high concept is easy enough to understand, it’s not so simple to pull off. If it were easy everyone would be doing it. You shouldn’t labor under the illusion that this is a quick fix. A 25 word pitch is as difficult to write as a 400 page novel. But don’t get discouraged. You can learn everything you need to know to craft those all-powerful high concepts.
Please keep in mind that this is a creative endeavor and there are no “rules”. Whatever works for you, works, and if some element doesn’t resonant with you, don’t feel enslaved. Just pitch it out. On the flipside, don’t give up on an element too soon simply because you meet with some initial resistance. It’s quite common when learning a new approach to hit the wall creatively. Often all that’s required is a little noodle time to scale the hump.
If you want to know exactly how to create these pitches, I've self-published a book on how to do just that. I've given many workshops on the topic, incuding standing room only speaking engagements at the Romance Writers of America national conference. Follow the link below if you're interested in purchasing your own copy on Kindle.