Friday, September 18, 2009

How to Make your Story High Concept

If you’ve put any research into what kind of book you should be writing, you’ve come across the term high-concept. You probably don’t know what the hell it means exactly, but you’re trying to make your book high-concept anyway.

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.
Get it? One sentence excites me enough to want to read more and tells me what the whole book is about. OK, not the whole book. Think of all the major stuff I left out of these descriptions: jealous werewolves, muttations that prey on our worst fears, maps of hometowns, rock-star boyfriends, daddy issues, cello playing, secret societies in Italy, Gale and Peeta, commentary on the lack of empathy in high school, a futuristic North America that would freak out George Orwell.

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?


  1. Ooh, this was such a good post. I must write myself a logline.

    And I got TWILIGHT and the HUNGER GAMES. (Is #3 THE KINDRILY?) It could be.

  2. Ding Ding Ding!

    Frankie Diane Mallis wins my undying love!

    What's that, Frankie? You already have that? Oh, sorry, but that's all I got.

  3. No, Nat. In The Kindrily, she doesn't have a choice. Her happy ass is gonna live. And she better like it! lol.
    Ooh that's my new log line. ;)

  4. Rats. I knew all 4 books too, but Frankie beat me to it (oooh, she's good). That'll teach me to read BOOKNAPPED first thing every day.

    I love this post, Marie. Scandalous? I don't think so either. As a bookseller, I'm constantly trying to come up with an exciting one-sentence description to handsell a book to a potential customer. Most customers are in a hurry. They don't have time to listen to a long detailed summary when they ask me "What's this book about?" so I attempt to distill the book down to its essence in as few words as possible. And, really, I can do this with ANY good MG or YA novel.

    My favorite line in this post: "But like obscenity and good writing, agents know it when they see it." Ha!

    Also enjoyed the reference to Grasshopper (sniff, David Carradine, sniff), although I suspect you are all too young to remember the show.

  5. I love your definition of high concept. You make it sound so easy and simple, I'm like, "Hey, I can even do this." Thank you.