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  1. #1
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    High Concept and Me

    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. #2
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by E_Moon View Post
    Every writer should be striving for 'high concept.'"
    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?
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  3. #3
    Registered User JunkMonkey's Avatar
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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:

    An extreme example of a high concept film is Snakes on a Plane which put its entire premise in the movie title itself.
    Last edited by JunkMonkey; January 14th, 2010 at 04:52 AM.

  4. #4
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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. #5
    A chuffing heffalump Chuffalump's Avatar
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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 by Chuffalump; January 14th, 2010 at 06:43 AM.

  6. #6
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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. #7
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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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 by Hereford Eye; January 14th, 2010 at 08:25 AM.

  8. #8
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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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. #9
    Damn fool idealist DailyRich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hereford Eye View Post
    Or, to make it more fair, someone tell us what Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide stories add up to.
    42.

    Come on, give us a hard one.

  10. #10
    Damn fool idealist DailyRich's Avatar
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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. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hereford Eye View Post
    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.
    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. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    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.

    Kerry
    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. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by DailyRich View Post
    42.

    Come on, give us a hard one.
    Ha, brilliant!

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

  14. #14
    Shadow's Lure (June 2011)
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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. #15
    Damn fool idealist DailyRich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Sprunk View Post
    This sounds exactly what Hollywood is becoming, an impersonal machine that pumps out 'high concept' movies with little or no depth.
    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.

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