Defining “High-Concept” Ideas
and How to Generate Them
by Sabine Berlin with Angela Eschler
My dad used to tell me there are only seven original stories in the world; he maintained that everything else is just a copy of those stories. My dad was a smart guy, but I’m not sure exactly how accurate that number is. I do know that given the number of Romeo and Juliet knockoffs there are (even Romeo and Juliet is a knockoff if you want to get technical), he was probably pretty close. So what does that mean to us as authors? How are we supposed to come up with the next bestseller idea? I mean, Romeo and Juliet with zombies has already been done. How much further can you stretch the story?
Defining “High Concept”
If you’ve looked at an agent’s webpage, chances are you’ve heard the term high concept. But what does it mean when agents ask for fresh, high-concept ideas? Like everything else in the industry, high concept means different things for different people, but in a nutshell, high concept means that your story has potential to be a bestseller due to the following (these definitions apply to fiction and non):
- It has the “oooh …” factor—meaning your book is innovative/original/unique, with high conflict if fiction or with a fresh approach to problem-solving or your subject matter if nonfiction (people are likely to talk and tweet about it and read it at bookclub); that it is well written with strong voice is a given here, but know that your story concept is even more important than the writing when it comes to sales. Your unique angle is not the setting or the world-building or even your character—it’s a fresh exploration of an idea or concept that hasn’t quite been seen before. Your world can contribute to that concept (putting ideas in new settings allows us to reinterpret their application and complications), but it’s the unique exploration or reinterpretation of the idea/topic that matters.
- It will appeal to a wide market within its genre/category and—even better—beyond (we’ll get into these details soon).
- The story’s heart, or hook, is easy to describe; it has a flashy, quick, one-line pitch that an agent will go gaga over—in other words, you can easily describe the unique takeaway or the fresh angle for the idea without rambling. (Being “brandable” is part of this.)
- A strongly preferred bonus quality is that the idea can be clearly positioned within an established market (for example, romance vs. women’s fiction) with little competition from overly similar ideas already on the shelf.
This doesn’t mean your days of writing forbidden-love romances (or space operas, or Sherlock-style mysteries …) are over, but ideas that we’ve seen over and over again will need a vast remake to be eligible for the high-concept category. If you think you have just the thing, then ask yourself the following:
- Is it too complicated? If you can’t describe your idea in fewer than 30 seconds, it’s probably not going to fly with an agent. If you can’t get to the heart of your story in a two-line pitch, chances are you won’t be able to pull a reader into your book in the first five pages.
- Is there a whole idea? At the 2013 LDStorymakers Conference, Janitors author Tyler Whitesides said that a high-concept idea is one that is fully formed—it’s more than a beginning seed of an idea. While there’s a lot to this process of nailing down a solid premise (which is the basis for your hook, which we’ll explore in another article), one way to be sure your idea is wholly realized is to center it around levels of conflict—particularly internal conflict related to the beliefs or self-definition of the protagonist. Beliefs he/she is forced to change by the events of the plot. Story wizard Larry Brooks says that conflict drives the story. If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story. This means that a story about your trip to Europe isn’t a high-concept idea. A story about the time you went to Europe and lost your luggage with important papers is a bit better, but still not there. But what if you went to Europe, having put your dark, Special Forces past behind you (partly to fulfill the dying wish of your wife), intending to make a fresh start with your daughter, but that special luggage with important papers got lost. Now what if those papers are documents that could cause a war if they fall into the wrong hands—and you were supposed to have handed them over to the people holding your daughter hostage by a certain time. Worse, you’re pretty sure you were being followed right before your luggage got lost … Suddenly you have an idea built around internal and external conflict with high personal stakes and the promise that something will have to change in order for the character to get past these barriers. With that, you’re getting much closer to a compelling premise with high stakes. These can and should be emotional and social stakes—even if you don’t add the bombs and bad guys. As Brooks also says, “A great story isn’t just about something. A great story is about something happening!”
- Is it based on a good “what if?” question rather than just being weird? We like things we can relate to. Make your aliens too bizarre, and readers won’t be able to understand them. High concept doesn’t mean coming up with the weirdest possible idea. Instead, take an idea and ask what if? “Upcycle” an idea—look at it in a way that no one ever has before. Twilight, for instance, is a vampire book, but it’s for people who don’t like vampire books. For nonfiction, you’ll have to think of the unique angle; for example, can you see the difference between “It’s a book about how I saved my marriage” and “It’s a book about how we saved our marriage by practicing a day of silence every week”? Ideas don’t have to be super strange to catch an agent’s or reader’s attention—and they aren’t bound to speculative genres—but they do have to raise some eyebrows (in interest) when you try pitching them. There are a slew of high-concept ideas in contemporary fiction as well—look at The Fault in Our Stars (for our Romeo and Juliet example). Try taking a story that’s already been told and put it in a new genre, much like Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles mixes fairy tales with science fiction. Or merge several genres together, like in the inventive book Snake Agent—a detective novel set in a sci-fi world that shares borders with a mythology-based fantasy world. Bend the ideas but still keep the story questions, characters, stakes, and emotions personal and relatable.
- Will it appeal to the masses? You may have the most unique story in the world, but if it will appeal only to a small audience, it isn’t a high-concept story. You need to find a story that will pull in the greatest number of readers. Many sharp writers, editors, and agents have noticed trends in what appeals to the masses. Larry Brooks calls these “story physics,” and many argue our brains are actually hardwired to focus on certain types of stories. Since whole books are devoted to this topic, going into depth here is something we can only do in our brainstorming or content feedback sessions, but we can give you a few short hints for mass-appealing must-haves: Do you have a dramatic what-will-happen-if question driving the tension in the story (especially the internal character change)? Have you mastered the use of structure and pacing? Do you have a great opening hook? How great are your heroine’s stakes? Hero empathy is another big one, but there’s a more important aspect of that you should consider: Brooks calls it “vicarious experience.” Aim for your book to make readers feel as if they’re in the story along with your protagonist. Readers should be wringing their hands and asking, “What would I do in this situation?” In the Hunger Games we have empathy for Katniss and what she has to go through, but the draw of her story is more than that. We can’t help but ask, “Could I kill innocent people just to survive?” And we can’t help but talk to other people about this intense story question. When your story can transplant readers into it and carry them away, then you’ll appeal to the masses no matter your genre.
How to Find It
We’re planning a follow-up to this article, in which we’ll help you work through the ideas above to find or refine your high-concept idea, but in the meantime, below is our best brief tip on where to start. As noted earlier, a big part of coming up with your high-concept idea is to ask “what if?” But after the what-if, there’s a second important question.
One of the best workshops I ever went to was Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp. The first two days were devoted solely to finding your story. We had to come up with three ideas: one from doing research at a library or bookstore, one from asking a complete stranger random questions, and one from looking at the world around us. All of these are great ways to find an idea. Story seeds are everywhere. The problem is how to make them high-concept story seeds.
Card called the fleshing-out portion of his workshop “1001 Ideas in an Hour.” It all revolved around the most important word you need to create your story: WHY? High-concept ideas are unique. What-if and why questions are all about telling our brain to make new connections. Our brains are wired to come up with the most obvious associations unless challenged by dissent or surprise, so I can almost guarantee that the first idea you come up with will not be unique. That is where why comes in. Question your idea.
This works for each scene as well. If your character needs a weapon to save himself, is a gun really the best answer? Would something else add more tension? Why? Your character is madly in love with the boy down the street but his parents hate her, so they can never be together. Why do the parents hate her? Why is that stopping our intrepid couple? Your character needs to come in contact with a deadly disease. You choose hantavirus. Is that really the best? WHY?
Question your idea. And then question the answer you get from that question. Do that over and over and over again until you have an idea that is so unique and fresh you just have to write it.
Do This Now
- Check out the authors repped by the agents you’re interested in. Also, who’s on those agents’ “favorites” lists? Everyone has a different idea of a high-concept story. Find agents who are interested in your type of story, and then give them your new idea.
- Find readers. Your story needs to appeal to the masses. Get a wide group of people to read it, and find out what everyone likes about it—or doesn’t. I will add one disclaimer here: If the guy just doesn’t love the sappy romance portion no matter what you do, but every single girl and woman you’ve asked does, then you’re probably still hitting the “masses” target. You can’t please everyone, but you should try to please as many as you can.
- Try some brainstorming resources. Listen to some pros practice, or run your ideas by an editor for brainstorming help.
- Think of your favorite books and movies. Can you describe them in one line? Once you feel good about what to focus on, do the same for your story.
Your turn: What is the best high-concept novel you’ve read recently? What made it high concept for you? Can you describe it in one line?
Did you learn something? Please share this article so others can too! And stay tuned for the second installment.
Sabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.
Angela Eschler is the founder of Eschler Editing and has worked in publishing for fourteen years, both in house and as a freelance editor for several publishers, as well as with individual authors (both traditionally published and self-published) and businesses and academic organizations.