High Concept

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No, I haven't abandoned my alphabet posts, but as I was considering "H" words, I thought maybe one of those should get its own post. The dreaded, yet coveted "high concept".

It's something you'll hear over and over if you're trying to figure out how to pitch a particular story, but what does it mean?

If you've read this blog for a while, then you know that way back when I was a kidlet I had aspirations of being a screenwriter. Trying to figure out the ins and outs of that particular field was where I got my first taste of this idea called "high concept". And, like most people, I took the phrasing to mean that this was some big, complicated thing, because that's what it sounds like it should be, but the good news is -- it's not.

High concept means you can - clearly and concisely - explain your book/story/movie in one (maybe two) SHORT sentences. (And you thought boiling it down to a query summary was hard, ha!)

When you try and sell a screenplay, you develop a logline - the actual 1 or 2 sentence encapsulation of your entire story. And the "rules" aren't much different from those used to pitch a book.

Strip it down to the core premise - not plot, premise.

An orphaned boy learns magic so he can destroy the evil wizard who murdered his parents.

There are nearly 1,000,000 words in the Harry Potter series, and it takes less than 20 to give the premise.

A teenage girl discovers a family with a centuries old secret - they're vampires.

Twilight takes less than 15. (This would also work for Tuck Everlasting with "immortal" in place of "vampire")

A determined teen replaces her sister in a televised fight to the death.

Hunger Games.

The thing about a concept like The Hunger Games is that you can also get the concept across by putting it into the context of an existing idea.

It's Survivor, if getting voted off the island meant a spear through the heart.

There really isn't a sure fire way to do it "right", but basically, you want something like:

A [adjective] [noun - NOT the character's name. The name holds no meaning][strong verb, present tense, not state of being].

Preferably all of this will lead to a sense of the stakes for the story.

For Harry, avenging his parents is at stake.
For Twilight, discovering the secret is dangerous.
For Hunger Games, it's life or death.

Forget the plot, forget the subplots, forget the relationships and all the window dressing. High concept is only about the linchpin that holds the story together. It's that one, central something that would cause catastrophic failure if you removed it as an element of the story.

Hopefully, this will make it a little easier for you to determine.

20 Chiming In:

Anonymous said...

This is perhaps the best summary of "high concept" I've seen - thanks for this!

Matthew MacNish said...

I agree. This is the best breakdown on this topic yet. I used to hate thinking about this, until now. Now I have one.

Cynthia Lee said...

Well done.

Anonymous said...

Very well done. This takes a bit of thought.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Josin. You explained this in terms that I can understand! Appreciate all you do.


Stephsco said...

I will hug you now. Can I hug you? :)
This was so incredibly helpful, you have no idea!

Candace said...

It seems like "high concept" has been thrown around a lot on the writerly blog circuit.Unfortunately, it's so often misused or misunderstood that a lot of people end up more confused after reading the "definition" than they were before.
This was a great explanation, but I'm concerned that some people will try and label their work as high concept, even if it isn't. Not all books are high concept, and that's OK. Plenty of good books aren't.

Josin L. McQuein said...

That's very true - not all books (movies, or whatever) are high concept, and you shouldn't try and force your work into that mold if it doesn't fit.

The one sentence structure is a starting place, and something you can have conveniently memorized should you get the opportunity to attend a conference or somehow find yourself locked in an elevator, bathroom or basement (it could happen...) with an agent or editor.

They're so used to hearing the two minute, directionless ramble, that 20-30 precision words will stand out.

Candace said...

Josin, I think it's a great idea to have a one-liner ready to go at all times, just in case.
I really struggle when it comes to writing a single line that doesn't sound clunky. It might look good on paper, but out loud, I always find myself elaborating, which I shouldn't have to do.

Anonymous said...

this is very interesting...I thought high concept also has to have a marketable, universal quality (something that could happen to the average joe or jane, but with a twist that will knock you flat)

Kimberly said...

I remember way back when, when I thought exactly what you said, that it was some complicated thing. A little digging on the Internet helped me figure it out. But this is a way better description of it.

I keep a document now that has a short pitch, medium pitch, and a longer pitch for every one of my stories.

linda said...

Great post, super helpful. I definitely struggle with identifying high concept premises for the stories I want to tell.

Jen said...

What a great post, Josin! Thanks for breaking it down!

Bethany said...


Thank you so much for breaking this down. This is basically what people have said, but you said it in such a way that it was explained step by step. Not everyone needs a step-by-step explanation, but for those who do, this will help them a lot :-)

Nancy Thompson said...

Wow! How did you do that? I've been working on a logline for weeks, but they were always too long & clunky. Your formula worked like a charm! Now I have one in 18 words that captures the very essence of the story. Thank you!!

Bethany said...

I'm going to let the readers of my blog know about this post...it's a really good explanation :-)

Here's the link to the post: http://writebybethany.blogspot.com/2011/06/it-wont-let-go-of-me.html

Angie said...

So this is a great post, but I have to admit that I'm a little confused. Are you saying that if you CAN'T boil your story down to one sentence then it isn't high concept? I was under the impression that every story can be summarized in a sentence or two, isn't that what writing your pitch sentence is all about?

Michael Seese said...

I feel the same way about songs. I'm not saying that a high falutin' topic makes for a poor song. But take some great ones (IMHO, they're great) and notice that you can reduce them to one sentence:

"I Want To Hold Your Hand" (Beatles, of course): I really like you, and I want to hold your hand.
"Words" (Missing Persons): What are words for, if no one listens?
"More Than A Feeling" (Boston): Those old songs take me back.

My $0.03

Deirdra A. Eden said...

You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Brilliant Writer Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.

Unknown said...

Hands down THE best explanation of high-concept I've ever seen. And I've scoured the internet for a lot.

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