Putting the “High” in your High Concept Story Idea

(Quick note… check out the new covers for my two ebooks!  Also, watch for two more ebooks coming here soon, one on character development, the other an expansion of my recent series on Getting Your Bad Self Published.  Thanks… now, on to today’s post…)

In our discussions about the conceptual essence of our stories, I keep referencing high concept story ideas, which by implication differentiates them from… well, lower concepts. 

Which, again by implication, perhaps implies a somewhat negative context for concepts that are not high in nature.  Not my intention – lower concepts can be great ideas, too – but I see how one could interpret it that way.

Allow me to clarify.

What’s high, what’s low, and why do we care? 

I’ve been asked this a lot lately.   

Before one judges a story idea as high versus low concept, one must consider the genreof the story.  Because what’s high in one genre is vanilla milk toast whitebread generic in another.

An analogy might help make this point.  Let’s go to golf, and let’s use Tiger Woods again – this has nothing to do with his hormonal shortcomings, either. It has to do with his athleticism, which is analogous to concept in this example.

Golf is a fairly non-athletic game.  It’s more like shooting pool or darts than it is, say, wrestling or rugby.  Within this rather non-athletic game of golf, there is really only one obvious athlete in the bunch – Tiger Woods. 

Look closely at the pictures.  The guy is the real deal in a physical, athletic sense.

So among golfers, Tiger Woods is high concept.  Same game, different level of athleticism.  He stands out, he gets attention, and he outperforms his peers. 

But… if Tiger Woods walked onto a tennis or basketball court, or a baseball or football or rugby field, he wouldn’t stand out.  Not in the least.  He wouldn’t be high concept at all, even if his skills were sufficient (just like other golfers with guts the size of throw pillows bring sufficient skills, if not athleticism, to their sport).

Which is to say, what is high concept in a cozy mystery, a police procedural or a love story isn’t high concept, by comparison, in a thriller or science fiction epic.

And that truth sets you free. 

Because within your genre, you need only define high concept in context to the expectations of your chosen game, rather than what is more obviously considered to be high concept in other genres.

Someone recently pointed out that the concept in the movie 500 Days of Summer, a love story, was really nothing more than boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl rejects boy.  Not high concept at all, if that’s all you took from it.

But look again.  Look deeper.

That story is a romance.  And within the romance genre, including romantic comedies, what constitutes high concept is different than what defines high concept in a spy thriller, or many other genres.

500 Days does, in fact, deliver a high concept story idea.  Because it tells the story in a non-linear fashion, and inserts surreal and comic elements in ways that the average romance or even romantic comedy does not.

That alone makes it high concept.  And is one of the reasons the screenplay is up for awards, including a possible Oscar nod.

The Height of a Concept Is Totally Genre-Dependent

In a thriller, two people falling in love is not high concept, it’s a sub-plot.  In a thriller you have a different standard – raising the Titanic from the ocean floor… pointing out cryptic messages in a DaVinci masterpiece… a young lawyer landing a job at a firm representing the mafia – these are just three of the many high concept story ideas that launched the careers of the biggest names in the thriller genre.

So let’s define high concept once and for all.

High concept is a story idea that delivers more originality — and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that story’s genre.

High concept is not character focused or driven, it suggests a dramatic scenario or device – be it clever, unexpected, unseen, frightening or just plain brilliant – that becomes the landscape upon which characters will reveal themselves.

Story is not character, story is conflict.  And high concept implies that conflict.

A story about your grandmother’s youth in the deep South may indeed be a worthy story idea, but it is not high concept, and for two reasons: there’s nothing inherently original or appealing about it, and it’s all character-driven.

Now, if that concept read like this: a story about a girl trying to become the first African American medical student at a stuffy white college in 1958 Alabama… now that’s a much higher concept.

See how that’s still about a character, yet the concept goes higher to deliver so much more inherent appeal.

Where Concept and Theme Collide

In the police procedural thriller The Closers, by Michael Connelly, we once again see his iconic hero, Harry Bosch, chasing down a killer with his usual heroic courage and social conscience.  But in this story, Connelly adds a thematic can-of-worms high concept element by making his story about a forgotten 1988 cold case, a murder that transpired in pre-Rodney King Los Angeles, when the police were often more guilty, in a discriminatory sense, than the criminals they pursued.

He didn’t have to create that context.  The who-done-it aspect alone would have sufficed.  But this layer added a powerful thematic essence to the story that is rare in a mystery novel, and that alone qualifies this novel as high concept.

If you’re writing a thriller, then you should strive for as high a concept as possible.

If you’re writing science fiction or a mystery or even adult contemporary, then strive to push your concept toward the highest level possible, even when your focus is on character.

And if you’re writing a romance, a cozy or a historical novel – genres which traditionally seem to defy the notion of high concept – understand that your concept will be more compelling if you can add some sizzle to it. 

And that if you can’t, you can still succeed through the execution of character, theme and writing voice at a level that, like a high concept, sets your story apart from the crowd.  That’s possible because high concept is so rare in these genres, you won’t suffer for the lack of one.

Yet you will benefit, and greatly, from the delivery of one.

The Lovely Bones – which, we should add for emphasis, sold 15 million hardcovers, and just this week was released as a major motion picture – has a concept, a very high concept, that is far more than the solving of the murder of a 14-year old.  No, Alice Sebold went to a higher level when she elected to have the story narrated from the great beyond by the 14-year victim herself, allowing the reader a glimpse of something far in excess of just-another- murder mystery, which it easily could have been.

A very high concept, indeed.  That high concept — not the character, not her writing — was what sent it to the moon.

You Always Have the Power to Elevate Your Concept

A cozy can be high concept, as can a romance.  It’s just that the high concept bar isn’t all that high in these genres, comparatively. 

Just add something fresh and new at the conceptual level, something an agent will say they’ve never seen before, something that brands your story as bigger and different than the crowd.

Established genre authors don’t need high concept, their name alone sells their books.

But to stand out among a pile of manuscripts that, like yours, are well written and well populated with compelling characters, you need an idea that glows in the dark.

The wattage of that bulb is yours to decide.  Let genre be your guide, and then elevate your imagination to a higher place.

What are your favorite high concept books or movies of the past few years?

(Note: Storyfix is an affiliate marketer for Amazon.com.)


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Putting the “High” in your High Concept Story Idea

  1. Fantastic post. My favorite high concept book of recent years is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It reads like a historical novel set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, yet is all about dark magic and faerie in England. Fantastic read.

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    I’ve thought about it before, but for some reason the newest story idea I’ve only just started batting around finally had a click on how to make the concept a high one after reading this post. I need to run it by a couple people first, but it feels more “wow that sounds awesome” than the old one, and added some interesting new twists to the plot.

  3. Larry,

    Whoa! I always love your posts, but this time I’m thinking of how this could (does) work in non-fiction… marketing books, e-books, heck even in business concepts… very mind-expanding, this article was. Endless applications.

    As to the question you asked, my fave, recently, was John Irving’s Until I Find You from a couple of years back.

    Not the best-written thing I’ve ever read, and he definitely gets a pass from his editors because of his name, but my goodness that story went way beyond a simple boy-searches-for-father-he-longs-for story. I read it over a year ago and some of it still haunts me. Very high angle on what could have been a mighty stale concept.



  4. Monica

    Hi Larry!
    I’ve finally caught up your posts! When I saw you were doing a series I decided to read every one I missed during Nano (Nov) & December, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say how much they have enlightened and educated me. Especially these posts about the story concept. Really helpful for determining if my story idea is worth the year, as you put it. I was suddenly struck with an idea a few months ago, but I’ve struggled to carry it through to a full story, and so I’ve wondered, like others, if it’s viable. You’ve given me qualifications and questions to ask myself to help determine that, even if, when it comes down to it, I have to trust my gut. If I can figure out if it’s personally or professionally motivated (what an eye opener!), that will take me miles on my way to figuring all this out.

    Larry, I know I bothered you with an email a while back. Thankfully, by persevering and using your Story Structure, I figured out my major problem. But I’m still having trouble seeing how to use Pinch Points in a mystery (where I want to conceal the identity of the villain). And I can’t seem to get clear on the concept of stakes, the way you define them. It’s just not sinking in. Maybe some time in the future you can say a couple of words on these two things?

    Thanks for every post,

  5. Sandra

    I guess my answers to “What are your favorite high concept books or movies of the past few years?” will say a lot about whether or not I’m understanding “high concept”. 🙂

    The Lake House
    Mercury Rising

    Utopia (Lincoln Child)
    Harry Potter series
    (not recent)
    Lord of the Rings

    I don’t read much other than mysteries, the occasional thriller and the occasional biography. Add in there a few non-fictions like “Salt” and “Stiff”. ( Loved both of those!) I’ve tried reading some of the books that movies I liked were taken from and usually don’t enjoy the book as much as the movie. “Independence Day” has been an exception to that.


  6. Martijn Groeneveld

    Hi Larry,

    so, taking the reaction above as an example, in Harry Potter, the low concept might be “Chosen Boy defeats Eternal Tyrant”, wich is a concept used over and over. The high concept might then be “Death may only be conquered by Love”, wich one doesn’t encounter in many fantasy novels. Is this right?

    Now that I come to think of it, the concepts above could be applied to many other stories, like The Lord of the Rings. Same chosen one, same tyrant and it is only the love between Frodo and Sam that enables them to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom, right?

    But HP and LOTR are both very Christian in nature, so that may be the high concept aswell, shrouded with stories that resemble that of Christ in virtually nothing.

    It is confusing.


  7. @Martijn — would like to offer another view on your comment. You propose, “Death may only be conquered by Love,” as high concept, but actually, it’s not a concept at all, that’s a statement of theme. Theme and concept very different, and often confused, which I think is the case here.

    The acid test of a concept is the ability to position it as a “what if?” question. Obviously, “what if death is on conquered by love?” doesn’t work. It’s what the story is about thematically, though, and that’s good. The high concept for Harry Potter is simply, “What if a young prodigy wizard attending a boarding school for prospective witchs and wizards must survive attempts to stop him from learning the identity of his parent’s killer, and in the process stop him unleashing darkness upon the world?”

    The concept focuses on plot, not character and theme. All are necessary, but separate.

    In the Davinci Code, for example, the concept is religion, it’s a murder/chase story. But the theme IS religion. Not be be confused.

    Hope this clarifies.

    @Sandra — I believe you’ve got it. Those are indeed high concept stories!

    By the way, I loved “Stiff, ” too, a great example of a high concept non-fiction book. Creepy good.

    @Monica — pinch points don’t ever need to reveal the ending or the identity of an unknown killer, No, the purpose of the pinch point is to remind the reader of the primary source of dramatic tension. Which in the case of a detective, could mean a reminder of what’s blocking her or him from learning that identity, and/or the need to find out fast because the killer is either continuing to kill or is about to kill, unless they are stopped before it happens. Make your pinch about that, not about the solution.

  8. Sandra

    *patting self on back*
    I’m glad I got it right! 🙂 I needed a victory just now in my struggle to learn how to write to the highest level.

    “Stiff” was wonderful. She managed to take you to the edge of gross and then would say something wry to break the tension. The only chapter I could get through was the cannibalism one. That was just too much for me. LOL

  9. Sandra

    That should read: “The only chapter I *couldn’t* get through . . .”

  10. Well that’s lovely. You’ve just knocked the silt to the bottom of the pond and clarified what’s always been a very muddy, murky concept to me. Most discussions of high concepts I’ve seen talk only about what high concept is NOT–never really clearly defining what it IS in any concrete, graspable form. And I think it IS a very salient point that it differs from genre to genre. Thank you!

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