I’ve been thinking about the definition of high-concept lately—mostly because the other day, one of my betas, who knows quite a bit about all this fiction stuff, asked, “All the agents say they want high concept, but I don’t know if my book is high concept.”
No one does, grasshopper; no one does.
But like obscenity and good writing, agents know it when they see it.
I am going to make a bold, unconfirmed assertion:
Your story is high-concept, because high-concept is all about how you present the idea.
I know. Scandalous. Please, let me explain.
At a writer’s conference I attended, the great YA writer Lara Zeises explained that high-concept means that your book has a big idea, something that is easily summed up in one enticing line. For instance, I’m going to throw out a couple of one-sentence enticing lines that describe current, popular high-concept books:
- Girl falls in love with teenage vampire.
- Boy listens to tapes on which a girl he liked explains why she committed suicide.
- Girl gets to decide whether she will live or die after her parents and brother die in a car accident.
- To save her sister, girl volunteers to go on a reality show where teenagers fight to the death.
All that stuff is important to the books, but it wouldn’t mean a damn thing if there wasn’t a central high-concept plot that made those details significant.
In perhaps the greatest description of a query EVER, the great Miss Snark once said, “Give me six sentences of less than ten words that tell me WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM and why I should give a rat's ass.”
I love succinct explanations. It really does warm my little writer heart. And that's most of what people mean by high-concept--that the conflict of your story is clear.
In an interview posted at Word Hustler, YA agent Katie Grimm said, “A one-liner type hook, even if your book isn’t high-concept, helps me determine just exactly what your book is all about.”
The definition of high-concept is that one sentence could theoretically sell the story. That’s how exciting your central plot is. I assert that you can make your one-liner as exciting as a high-concept book even if you're not sure that your book is high concept. Leave out what you must. Keep only those details that are essential to getting people to read further. But still be honest about what your story is about. Tricking your way through an agent’s inbox will only piss them off. Writers have enough worries; they don’t need to be pissing off agents.
If your story can’t be broken down into an enticing line, I offer the same advice I offer for pretty much every problem in life: try harder. Give it a few weeks. Ask your betas for an outsider’s perspective. Your one-liner is basically the view of your story as seen from far away. Focus on the big picture, not the details.
Extra credit: Can you name the books I described in those one-liners above?