High Concept and Me

Discussion in 'Writing' started by E_Moon, Jan 14, 2010.

  1. E_Moon

    E_Moon Registered User

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    If you hang out around agents and editors these days, you're likely to hear the term "high concept." As in "We're only looking for high concept works--" (heard at the Novelists, Inc conference last fall), and "You have the best chance of acceptance with 'high concept'. Every writer should be striving for 'high concept.'"

    Despite sitting through two lectures by the guy at Ninc I was still shaky on the whole "high concept" concept. What the heck IS high concept? I started hunting around in online writing blogs to see if I could understand it, and discovered that one person's high concept is another person's cliche. Cliche? How did that happen? That sounded like "one person's steak is another person's prune juice."

    But I finally found a blog entry last week that made some sort of sense, though I still have a large blind spot in the middle of my understanding. High concept is a) a story that has immediate appeal to a lot of people and b) can be briefly and easily summarized so everyone involved in the buying, production, marketing, and publicity department "gets it".

    I was thinking of that again today when my editor asked me to come up with one paragraph summarizing what the new book is "about"--just the highest high points. Panic. The darn thing is over 170,000 words. How can I possibly distill it into a paragraph? If I could do that it would be flash fiction, not a monster novel. Panic led me to summarize each chapter (all 38 of them) and then try to pick out the "highest high points." Was it this? Was it that? Did the highest points all belong to one character? (no.)

    I don't have a high concept mind. But (according to the blogsite that helped me get a tiny grasp of it) some people write high concept fiction without being aware of it, and other people can't, even if they struggle to make their stuff high concept. Hmmm. I went back and read the blog entry again. If "high concept is about making it easier for readers to pick up what you're putting down" then...that's what I try to do anyway. So...maybe there was a high concept way of summarizing this thing. What was the "touch of recognition?"

    Like very rusty gears slowly engaging, with grinding and squealing and flakes of rust and old grunge falling off, my brain tried to locate something that might fit...and then work those concepts (if not "high" at least having a "touch of recognition" for genre readers) into coherent sentences. King, yes. Um. Treachery? Yes, probably. King + treachery = conflict...good. What about, um, rumors? Um...OK. That really cool bit with the swords? Um...no. Not high enough concept; would need longer explanation.

    I don't think like this. I think more like "Hmm...I wonder why Character A is so eager to please...hmmm...maybe when he was young, he was...yeah, that will work...and then his uncle...OK, that fits...and then...of course...he's going to see Character B as completely admirable and have a case of hero worship when everyone else knows that B is a selfish, arrogant twit..." and "If it takes four days for a courier to get from This Fort to That Fort, then Character K at This Fort won't know what happened at That Fort for at least four days, which means Those Guys have more than twice four days to rebuild the defenses..." Not only is this a long book, it's a long second book in a multi-book story arc, and what it's "about" is what the whole story arc is "about" which is a fairly complicated set of things...maybe. Or it may be simple but I won't know until it's all done.

    This is why I find proposals hard. I can't say what it is until it's done...I'm like a sculptor who can feel where to chip away the marble but can't describe what it is he "sees" in the stone until everyone else can, too. If you said "The high concept of this book is 'The rich kid everybody loathes gets his comeuppance, but then becomes a decent person" (which is pretty much the story of The Magnificent Ambersons) and told me to write the story, it would end up something else entirely.

    The take home lesson (if there is one) is that if you're good at "high concept" thinking, and can write it as well, you're going to find publication a lot easier. If you have to pick between understanding "high concept" (without being able to write it) and writing something with the appeal of high concept without understanding how you did it...choose writing it.
     
  2. Window Bar

    Window Bar We Read for Light

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    This phrase, as a trade phrase, is absolutely new to me. But as a story buff, I've always heard the term depth. Ironic: It sounds as if high concept and depth should be at the opposite ends of the plumb bob ... but that wouldn't seem to be the case.

    We want literature that is:

    1) Challenging. Simple pat-on-the-back literature that reinforces our prejudices could hardly be considered "deep" or "high concept."

    2) True. We have to believe the conflicts, the struggles, the characters. This is especially important in fantasy, where "fact" and "truth" have already diverged.

    3) Inspirational. No, we don't need Charlton Heston and holy beams of ethereal light. But as readers we do need to have grown a bit from the life episodes we just have lived, however vicariously, within the story.

    And for me, personally, there needs to be at least a whiff of Tragedy. Mature readers possess a self-incubated knowledge that each beginning, each step, and each ending involves loss ... even when something good is achieved. Why? Because other paths have been closed forever.

    So I remain uncertain as to the thrust of the phrase high concept as used by your agents and editors. But could it be the same as depth?
    __________________
     
  3. JunkMonkey

    JunkMonkey Registered User

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    High Concept is a phrase I first heard of in connection with the movies. Sum up the whole premise of the film in a single simple, novel, easy to understand, easy to sell phrase. The first sentence of your pitch. The killer idea that will keep the chicken brained executive who could greenlight your project, or kill it dead, interested for more than 30 seconds.

    As Wikipedia puts it:

     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2010
  4. E_Moon

    E_Moon Registered User

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    It's not really my agents and editors, WindowBar. It's what I started seeing in the writer listservs I'm on, and in some editor-to-audience comments over a year ago, and then more urgently through 2009...and then in the Ninc conference in September/October. It came out of the movie business, but it seemed to me that in the writing business it was used a little more loosely.

    I don't know why it's called "high" concept, except maybe as in "high dollar" because it seems to me it's more "easy-to-grab" or "obvious" concept...something that lets viewers/readers know immediately what it's about. So I wouldn't say "deep" (because deep doesn't reveal all of itself at once), but something could be "high concept" and "deep" for those who want deep and can recognize it. (For example, there are people who don't recognize the 'deep' in LOTR...any book with 'deep' can also be read at a shallow level. And a writer I enjoy for his light fantasy, John Moore, is enjoyable for me partly because there's another layer under the light, frothy, surface if you recognize it.)

    The not-quite-high-concept works may have almost obvious concepts with more "deep" stuff in them...and enough easy-to-grab stuff on the surface to lure in readers.

    JunkMonkey's mention of "Snakes on a Plane" proves that a high concept can be either attractive or repellent...there was no way in the universe I'd go see "Snakes on a Plane." (I have snakes in the yard. I've had snakes in the barn. There are (last time I counted) seventeen species of snakes on the place, including some venomous. I've had snakes in the house proper, and we often have a very determined rat snake in the attic. Enough with the snakes, already.)
     
  5. Chuffalump

    Chuffalump A chuffing heffalump

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    I can't help thinking that this is extremely bad.

    I keep visualising some 80's advertising executive, in red braces, claiming that any novel that can't be summarised in less than 50 words isn't worth spending valuable time on.

    Imagine, with horror, handing your magnum opus over to some moron who isn't capable of understanding or appreciating the depths and isn't even prepared to have someone else actually read it. All because the precis doesn't start with "IT WAS A TIME OF WARRRRR...."

    Hmmm... I'm not a writer...should I be posting here?
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2010
  6. E_Moon

    E_Moon Registered User

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    Golly--you just gave me my "logline" for the series..."War and Peace with magic." (No, I'm not taking that seriously. Just because they'd make fine doorstops...)
     
  7. Hereford Eye

    Hereford Eye Just Another Philistine

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    Curiosity strikes again. Please tell us what The Deed of Paksenarrion is all about.

    Or, to make it more fair, someone tell us what Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide stories add up to.
    Or, Dan Simmon's Hyperion tales.
    Or Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2010
  8. kmtolan

    kmtolan KMTolan

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    I hate trade buzz words, but one does have to try and find a common ground to discuss abstract ideas.

    I would think that the easiest way to present your novel in a single paragraph would be to construct the "blurb" that goes on the back cover. I have to do that anyway with my publisher from the start, and I'm sure I'm not alone. These blurbs are usually the second thing after the cover art/title that a reader glances at, and would fit the bill for any "High Concept" as they have to grab the reader and draw them in to that important sweep of the first page or so.

    What this really boils down to, in my opinion, is an effort by agents and such to cut costs. This allows them to rapidly run through query letters, reading only the first paragraph and making their judgment calls on that alone. I don't agree that this has the best interests of the authors in mind, but with a dwindling number of NY publishers and staff, I can see where they are coming from.

    Kerry
     
  9. DailyRich

    DailyRich Damn fool idealist

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    42.

    Come on, give us a hard one. :)
     
  10. DailyRich

    DailyRich Damn fool idealist

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    The whole "distill the story down to a sentence or two" thing reminds me of a game we used to play where you'd provide an overly literal synopsis of a movie and have people try to guess what film you meant. For instance, The Wizard of Oz becomes "Young girl hallucinates after a blow to the head," and King Kong is "Foreign royalty visits New York and falls hard for a young actress." It's good for a laugh, but it does show that often a synopsis entirely misses the nuance of a story.
     
  11. E_Moon

    E_Moon Registered User

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    You know I can't talk about my own work here, except maybe some technical bits on writing. And I'm not familiar with all the Simmons or Donaldson's works in sufficient detail to try it.

    If you want to know what I think the Deed is about, you'll have to ask me (or read what I've said before) on my own webspace, where it's not breaking any rules. (Of course, providing the links to the best place to ask may also be breaking rules, but at some point the protection of the innocent always breaks down. There's a list on the bottom of the front page of my website, which you can find via Google; I trust you can pick out the likeliest.)
     
  12. E_Moon

    E_Moon Registered User

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    I've had to do this, but with the result that my editors roll their eyes and agree I'm no good at blurb writing. They keep trying to teach me. I keep being a failure. Now two to five years after the book comes out, I usually 'get it' enough that I could then write a new blurb...but not until then.
     
  13. Sterling13

    Sterling13 Registered User

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    Ha, brilliant! :)

    (I need to go back and re-read those books, its been a while)
     
  14. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    This sounds exactly what Hollywood is becoming, an impersonal machine that pumps out 'high concept' movies with little or no depth.

    Sure, I'll condense the plot down to a summary to pitch an editor, but I'll be damned if I change my style to reflect this growing trend. As Window Bar said, high concept and depth seem to be on opposite sides of a spectrum. Thank goodness, my editor (and most of the readers I know) prefer the latter.
     
  15. DailyRich

    DailyRich Damn fool idealist

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    IS becoming? Remember in the wake of Die Hard how every action movie was "Die Hard on a _______"? Hollywood's been doing this for a long time.
     
  16. Hereford Eye

    Hereford Eye Just Another Philistine

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    A thousand pardons, ma'am! Been on this site a long time and should know better. Chalk it up to a senior moment as it never occurred to me to consider the rules. Well, I hardly ever consider the rules but I did not intend to make things embarassing for you.
    Now, if I was writing that summarization I'd probably go with "a soldier's story, one where the soldier discovers something worth dying for."
    Yes, I know there is a hell of a lot more to it than that but, me being me, I tend to interpret things in terms of myn own experience. The point for me is that the very best stuff you can read treat with issues, real issues. If you're gonna do a book on soldiers, then tell me something about what it means to be soldier. Forever War wasn't good because it served as a critique for Vietnam; it is good because it treats with what it means to be a soldier lost in time. Not real? Consider U.S. soldiers on their third and fourth tour.
    Chronicles of Thomas Covenent was good because it made me think about a life where every move I make must be considered in terms of potential lethality. Life is like that, anway, but living through leprosy intensifies the reality. Covenant is believeable because he's so damned scared of an accident, a moment of indiscretion killing him. I had no contact with leprosy save through Michener's Hawaii and Wallace's Ben Hur; Donaldson gave me something to think about.
    So, you say 'high concept' to me and I react with 'what the hell is the story trying to tell me?"
    And, yeah, I know: that's not what you were getting at. Don't you just hate these posters who insist on dealing with the question in their own frame of reference?
     
  17. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    They're just borrowing buzz words from the film industry again, which they periodically do, especially during bad economic times when the corporate parents of publishers scream about their lack of profitability, booksellers get snarly and worry about closing, editors complain to agents that they need to have books their bosses will regard as potential bestsellers and have otherwise cut their acquisitions budget, and agents, already struggling, get very nervous. And then writers, who are always looking for the magic key, are very receptive to the idea that it's just getting the right formula down and you're in, and they spread the buzz words around. (Before this, the buzz word was "platform." Writers needed to have a good platform to have the best chance of a sale, which meant a highly visible Web presence, lots of media contacts, movie interest, etc. Earlier than platform was "franchise," which was essentially the same idea as platform.)

    These things always remind me of Michael Korda's story about the time when Simon & Schuster was bought up and the new owner brought in consultants to survey their business and give advice. (Korda is himself a major bestselling author of both fiction and non-fiction plus an editor who has shepherded numerous bestsellers.) These consultants with straight faces said that the publishing house should only acquire bestselling titles. They had no clue as to how you actually do this, but they figured there was some way of determining it and the editorial and marketing staffs were just stubbornly forgetting about it. And then they took their money and went home, presumably, because business consulting makes a lot more money than book publishing ever will.

    What they are asking for with "high concept" are novels that sound movie-like and can be pitched like a movie pitch and which therefore sound good on the Web and supposedly have the potential of getting optioned by film or t.v. Books and series that are turned into film or t.v., even if not big hits, immediately get a boost in sales and are thus about as close to a guarantee as you can get. Marketing people in particular -- and people from marketing and sales tend to end up in the top executive positions in a publishing house/corporation -- like this idea obviously.

    But you can't actually predict which ones are going to get dramatic rights deals, and publishing has often lost money trying to gamble on it. More to the point, the Hollywood people mainly want the books that are already major bestsellers, so having a cinematic first novel doesn't mean a movie deal. For most of a publisher's list, it simply isn't a consideration anyway. Even with improved special effects, 95% of alternate world fantasy series are not going to be adapted. But there is still a very large audience for it, and second tier bestsellers who aren't probably getting a film deal can still make a lot of money for the house.

    Most bestsellers develop that status over time. Writer experiences like Terry Goodkind and Patrick Rothfuss had are rare. The majority of bestsellers get there by building up an audience over time for at least one series. And even fast burn bestsellers have to top their performance and grow their audience. So for all the platform and high concept talk, publishers are well aware that most of their list will hopefully bring a solid return, but is not going to "light up the night like a flame."

    But when economic times are bad and publishers slash their lists and sales decline and editors are told they can only buy those books that are really, really special and they believe will be giant hits right out of the gate, then the bestseller uber allis comes out and is also a really handy excuse for editors and agents dealing with angry agents and writers.

    I don't think it's necessarily the worst thing in the world because authors -- even experienced and established ones -- hate to synopsize their work unless pushed (or unless they've worked in Hollywood,) and so it's good practice for them. But the point of the thing is the same things we've been talking about in the query letter threads -- what's interesting about the story, why did you want to write it, what are the emotional aspects of the story, what are major plot events that support and effect those emotional aspects, etc.

    Remember when someone started that thread where you had to describe your novel in one sentence? Well, that's high concept. It's not impossible to do. But whether an agent or editor will see your effort as cinematic or best-seller appealing is subjective, as always, and will vary.

    Additionally, "high concept" is "something that sounds interesting to me that will appeal widely but is different from other things I've been pitched lately," i.e. something that is right for that agent or editor -- subjective, various and anybody's guess. So again, it's better for a writer to focus on what he or she wants as the concept and then figure out where that may fit in the market, category or general, rather than chase vagaries and wishes.
     
  18. MrBF1V3

    MrBF1V3 aka. Stephen B5 Jones

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    Um...

    ...soft bed
    ...caffeine high
    ...stick
    ...the lone prairie

    You should never give me ammunition like this, I could go for days.

    So, if I understand, high concept means the story is summerizeable. Which would mean the story is about something. My first thought is that is pretty much everything, but no, I've read stories which were full of sound and fury, but in the end, meaningless. (Perhaps written a few too.)

    Still, adverting your story as 'high concept' is another kind of spin. If you present in their language they like you better. This isn't good or bad, it's getting along in the world.

    B5
     
  19. MuchAdoAboutSFF

    MuchAdoAboutSFF Alien In Disguise

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    I wouldn't dare to give advice to you Great Gods of Writing, but maybe you could use a simple trickery: think about any kind of hook sentence, that gets someone to read. Like the first sentence of a novel or (already mentioned) blurb. Just think of something interesting, maybe a new viewpoint to the story. I think it's not cheating, as long as it is relevant to the story.

    It's probably not necessary to try to compress your gazillion word masterpiece to three words.

    Adding humor or drama to that sentence is additional spice, but you know that better than me.
     
  20. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    In my understanding, High Concept is essentially when a work has a single overriding theme. That is, there is a concept that constantly runs along above and within the plot. That concept is easy to pick out at every point in the story, and the whole story's construction revolves around that point: Aliens attack; An asteroid is about to end the world; A virus threatens to spread; A volacano is about the burst under Los Angeles; An evil menacing Eye living in a volcano sets about to destroy the world; Something Awful Must Be Set Right. Which is to say, the story is singular in its exploration of that simple, succinct concept, and informs every thing that everyone in your story does.

    In other words, stories that don't meander, follow stream of consciousness, involve diasporic twists and turns, sub-plot after sub-plots, or contain nuanced, philosophical moral grey-areas. Black and white. This is happening Right Now and it must be dealt with before we can move on.

    Simple, to the point, getting the job done without all the noise.

    High as in "overriding," not as in "lofty."

    This is a fairly good description: http://www.scriptforsale.com/james.shtml