Sunday 26 September 2010


What is high-concept?
Essentially, a book with an extra-strong hook. A high-concept novel is one which is easy to sell because the idea has wow factor and is easy to explain very quickly. The wow factor often comes from a sense of, “Why didn’t I think of that? That’s going to sell in shedloads. Damn it.” 

Sometimes, in a high-concept book, the premise will sound unbelievable, which is part of the sit-up-and-notice factor. Snakes on a Plane is a film with a high-concept idea – you almost feel you must go and see it just to discover how such a wacky idea could be a film. You may still wonder once you’ve seen it, but at least they’ve got your money by then. (Hooking sometimes hurts the fish.)
In a high-concept book the stakes are often high, at least for that main character(s) if not for the whole world. Your main character needing to lose weight in time to fit into a holiday bikini is not high stakes. The end of the world being nigh, or a man needing to save his son’s life, are very high stakes, for the world and for the man and his son respectively.

Below are some books which would be classed as high-concept. In each case, the essence is easy to explain briefly, they have a sit-up-and-notice factor and high stakes, and they were very successful in terms of both critical acclaim and sales. (Though critical acclaim is not necessary for high-concept.)

Life of Pi by Yann Martel – boy ship-wrecked on powerless boat with dying zebra, hyena and tiger called Richard Parker.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – an autistic savant with a fear of yellow finds a dead dog and sets out to solve its killing.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – a man will do anything to avoid having to kill his young son, as they flee across America in the horrifying aftermath of global warming. Civilisation has died but they must keep hope alive.

Note, however, that your book does not have to be high-concept for it to be published, so don’t go hunting high-concept at the expense of good writing. In fact, if every book were high-concept, reading would become a nightmare of over-excitement. But if you do happen to come up with such an idea, it is more likely to fit the “what publishers want” category. And I am insanely jealous of you and may have to consider killing you.

Oh, by the way, do NOT say in your covering letter or query, "My novel is fabulously high-concept." This is for them to judge and you to grin smugly about in a place where they can't see you.


Nicole said...

hmmm.. sometimes I like high concept but i think I prefer 'journey'books more *grin*

Thomas Taylor said...

Thank you for picking examples that prove that high concepts and good writing CAN go together. A lot of people consider 'high concept' to be derogatory.

Dan Holloway said...

High Concept always makes me think of 80s Hollywood (Back to the Future, anything Simpson/Bruckheimer) and, of course, of that marvellous marvellous pitch scene in Robert Altman's The Player. The ultimate high concept is often illustrated with reference to a film from that era "Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As Twins"

I often wonder about high concept - to me it seems very risky (this WAS the cas in film - is it also so in writing). Because it's all about the idea, and ideas are not copyrightable, isn't there a real danger of must-have concepts being passed on to ghostwriters?

I'm not 100% sure of your examples - for me high concept tends to be about juxtaposing the not usually juxtaposed in a fascinating way - or taking something utterly unusual but "oh, yeah of course" ish. For me the ultimate high concept high art would be something like Fight Club (ever feel there's a malevolent, magnetic stranger just below the surface of your subconscious. Well there is, only he's real, and he's out to destroy EVERYTHING you believe in).

My all-time favourite high concepts are the brilliant play/fim Insignificance - "imagine if Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein had spent a night in the same hotel." and a film that's high high art as well, Being John Malkovich, which doesn't really even need a pitch the concept's so high (what if everyone coukld be John Malkovich for 15 minutes?)

Oh, and Snakes on a Plane is a cracking (and much-maligned) b-movie romp in the finest "boarded up under siege" tradition of Night of the Living Dead

sheilamcperry said...

Thanks Nicola - I've realised I had the wrong idea all along about what 'high concept' meant! I think I was confusing it with great literature - which of course it sometimes is, but presumably something high concept could be badly written too!

Fran Hill said...

How about 'Worms on a Plane'? Do you think anyone will notice that I've pinched the idea for my high-concept novel?

Justine Picardie said...

Very much like your blog. Good advice for writers (and I speak as one who has been doing it for quite some time).

Leila R said...

I reckon your bikini example could be *made* high concept. Plus size model has been kidnapped by an insane magazine editor with a fat phobia, and forced to slim into bikini in two weeks in order to be on the cover of the spring edition, or else the editor will surgically remove the weight from her body. Narrative would focus on her desperate attempts to lose weight by any means possible while also trying to maintain the energy to escape. It would be a sort of body-horror novel.

Leila R said...

I think high-concept also crosses with speculative fiction - for example, lots of the classic sci-fi authors have great 'what-if' scenarios: 'What if a robot developed consciousness?' 'What if you could download your memories?' and this makes them very suitable for film.

catdownunder said...

Snakes on a plane? The very idea sends nasty shivers down my furry spine!
Yes, I am sure that high concepts and good writing can go together - but I think the good writing is more important than most people recognise. Having an idea is not enough.
Oh, paws back on the keyboard - 99% perspiration may do it.

Alleged Author said...

You mean I cannot tell agents my ms is high-concept and that they will miss a fabulous opportunity if they don't rep it? As in life or death? Darn it. LOL!!!

Private said...

This is really interesting! I haven't thought about this before!

What about mysteries and crime fiction? What would an example of high stakes be there?

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - yes, indeed.

Dan - I'm not sure that i know what you mean about it being risky because ideas aren't copyrightable. If you're presenting a book, you've written it already, so anything a ghost-writer could produce is months/year away. And it would still be different. I think we have to stop worrying about theft of ideas - if you're sending it to a reputable agent or publisher they will not send your idea to a ghost-writer. No way.

Snakes on a Plane is what you say - but it's also high-concept.

Examples of h-c are always open to difference of opinion.

Sheila - oh yes, it definitely can be badly-written! It's about the idea, not the writing, and the writing might be fab or dire.

Justine - lovely to see you here. Thank you. (And see you tomorrow!)

Leila - hmm, stretching credulity there!

Alleged Author - as you say, "LOL"!

Alexandra - I can't think of any but there must be some. Sorry, brain dead and in a hurry. I'm sure others will answer...

Jo Treggiari said...

Now I feel I simply must see Snakes on a Plane because Nicola has mentioned it. I successfully avoided all the hype only to be hooked by an author I admire and respect.

Eric W. Trant said...

As I was reading I kept thinking of The Road.

Someone said that while you were reading this book, you were afraid to put it down, else the boy and his father might die!

That's high-stake, high-concept, if you make the reader feel that way.

This is a great pondering post... makes me look at my own work and wonder how much of a hook I set, and if it's big enough to catch anything.

- Eric