(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.)