April 27 – May 3: “Can you discuss the term ‘high-concept’ and provide examples?”

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The term high-concept is often suggested to beginner writers as something to aim for in their work. This week we’re joined by ITW members Humphrey Hawksley, Cara Putman, Tim Waggoner, Richard Z. Santos, Katharine Schellman and Melissa Kosci as they discuss the term ‘high-concept’ and provide examples. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!

 

Melissa Kosci is a fourth-degree black belt in and certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. In her day job as a commercial property manager, she secretly notes personal quirks and funny situations, ready to tweak them into colorful additions for her books. She and Corey, her husband of twenty years, live in Florida, where they do their best not to melt in the sun.

 

Katharine Schellman lives and writes in the mountains of Virginia in the company of her husband, preschooler, and the many houseplants she keeps accidentally murdering. She was named one of BookPage’s 16 Women to Watch in 2020. The Body in the Garden is her debut novel.

 

Richard Z. Santos received an MFA from Texas State University. He is a board member of The National Book Critics Circle, and his fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in multiple publications, including The San Antonio Express-News, Kirkus Reviews, The Rumpus, The Morning News and The Texas Observer. Previously, he was a political campaign operative. A high school English teacher in Austin, Texas, this is his first novel.

 

Tim Waggoner has published nearly fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, the Horror Writers Association’s Mentor of the Year Award, and he’s been a multiple finalist for both the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

 

Cara Putman is the author of more than thirty legal thrillers, historical romances, and romantic suspense novels. She has won or been a finalist for honors including the ACFW Book of the Year and the Christian Retailing’s BEST Award. Cara graduated high school at sixteen, college at twenty, completed her law degree at twenty-seven, and received her MBA. She is a practicing attorney and teaches undergraduate and graduate law courses at a Big Ten business school.

 

Humphrey Hawksley is an author and foreign correspondent. His work with the BBC has taken him to crises all over the world, and he lectures widely at venues such as Center of Strategic and International Studies in D.C. and the RAND Corporation in California. MAN ON EDGE is the second in the much-praised Rake Ozenna series which was launched in 2018 with MAN ON ICE, set on the US-Russian border.

 

4 Comments
  1. I find “high-concept” is an interesting way of categorizing fiction that writers absolutely shouldn’t worry about when they are first drafting a book.

    High-concept usually means a unique premise that can be pitched in 1-2 sentences, often with a “what if” introduction. I think this confuses a lot of people who aren’t familiar with marketing terms because “high-concept” gets mistaken for “high brow” or literary fiction. It’s generally the opposite, though: high-concept means it has a punchy or succinct premise that will appeal to a lot of people. Literary fiction is usually the opposite!

    A great example is Jurrasic Park: what if there was a theme park with cloned dinosaurs? Life of Pi is another: what if a shipwrecked boy was stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger? Or The Da Vinci Code: what if Jesus had a wife and baby and the proof was concealed in famous art? It can include other things, like being cross-genre, twisting an old trope, or having the potential to be a series. But the heart of it is that catchy, intriguing what-if premise.

    The problem with terms like high-concept, I think, is that writers take that as a goal to aim for when really it’s just marketing. It’s a type of story that will appeal to a type of reader, and a type of publisher might be interested in it. But the first thing writers need to worry about is whether they are actually interested in writing that story.

    Trying to write a story just because it fits a certain marketable genre or category is always going to backfire. You are going to spend SO MUCH time with any book you write, so you have to be writing it because you are genuinely invested in those characters and that story.

    That’s not to say writers shouldn’t think about marketing. Once you have written the book you truly want to write, then it’s time to think about marketing. At that point, as you edit, you can think about what type of story you’ve written, or whether you can tweak certain elements to make it more appealing, interesting, or marketable.

    Publishing is a business, after all. So writers do need to understand marketing and how their work will be categorized. But I think it would be a mistake to set out to write a high-concept book. The writing has to come first.

    Plus, I’m not sure it’s really possible to brainstorm or force high-concept ideas. You either have that summer blockbuster idea or you don’t. And it’s okay if you don’t! Not every book is, needs to be, or should be high-concept. Readers love them anyway. The thing you writers should be aiming for it writing their book as well as they possibly can.

  2. When I think high-concept, I consider if I can do an elevator speech off the top of my head, preferably one line.

    I think the idea of high-concept often works better with certain genres–thriller and science fiction are a couple that come to mind. Romance and women’s, however, are often more subtle regarding plot.

    Some examples of high-concept novels might be:
    The da Vinci Code: the kings of France were descended from the bloodline of Jesus.
    Harry Potter: a boy finds out he’s a wizard and also the target of the most evil wizard in history.
    Twilight: a teen girl falls in love with a teen boy only to find out he’s actually a 100-year-old vampire.

    Those elevator speeches captivate the audience easily.

    Some examples that probably would not be considered high concept are Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Anne of Green Gables. It would be difficult to capture the essence of those stories in just a sentence. You could try. For example, Anne of Green Gables is about a spirited girl who is adopted by a spinster and her brother. But does that really capture it? Does that really make you want to read the book? Eh, probably not. Because the beauty in that book isn’t about the plot; the book is more character-driven. You really need to meet Anne to be captured.

    Is high-concept better? Well, it’s a lot easier to write a blurb and get an audience excited about a book, but I wouldn’t say it’s better. Some of the most beautiful stories in history are not high-concept. I wouldn’t tell new writers to aim for high-concept; I’d tell them to focus on whatever story burrows into their head and won’t get out. If it’s high-concept, great; if not, that’s okay. Just be ready to spend a lot of time on the blurb.

    1. That’s a really good point — I think when people give advice to new writers to try to write high concept books, it’s with the idea that those books are more successful. But not necessarily! I think they tend to make a big splash (like The Da Vinci Code) but don’t necessarily have the same staying power. Jurassic Park maybe being the exception. 😉

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