In my last post I used the phrase “high concept” and David floated a similar idea in a recent comment too, so I thought it might be worth unpacking that term, because while it’s mainly used for movies, it can be useful in conceptualizing novels. Simply put, “high concept” story is one in which the hook—that which grabs the reader/audience’s attention—is so strong that it drives the engine of the entire story: it’s a premise with legs. The core action of the story can thus be summed up very succinctly (and supplies the “log line” used to encapsulate films when they show up in your local TV listings): Giant shark terrorizes Cape Cod resort town (Jaws), for instance. Screenwriters live by these things, reductive though they obviously are, and prominent producers like Steven Spielberg have suggested that if the core of a movie can’t be summed up in 26 words or less, it probably shouldn’t be made. To clarify further, most sitcoms are low concept because they depend on character interaction. High concept shows are those like Buffy (reluctant high school cheerleader has to slay vampires) or the new program, Flash Forward, in which the entire season is driven by the global black out in which everyone glimpses their part in the same future moment. One of my favorite recent high concept show’s was the BBC’s Life on Mars: a cop injured in a car accident wakes up in 1973—he’s in a coma and has to solve cases there to get back home. This is what I mean by a premise with legs. Everything which follows—all the various story arcs, character journeys, the core intrigue of what is going on, what will happen next and what it all means—comes out of that initial hook.
There are, of course, dangers with deriving guides for long fiction from the briefer and more visual forms of film and TV, but a snappy log line can go a long way to piquing the curiosity of an agent or publisher. In fact, I would go so far as to say that—for better or worse—you have a better chance of selling a high concept story which has only mediocre execution than you do a beautifully written story with a lower concept premise. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, or that a high concept necessarily makes for good art, but I do think that higher concept stories are more marketable. Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch (in which Sam Vimes is sent back in time to secure the future by teaching his younger self how to be a policeman) is a higher concept story than his The Fifth Elephant (which is a convoluted mystery with multiple plot strands), and though I much prefer the latter, I can see how the former would be an easier sell, particularly had it been Pratchett’s first book.
And let’s not make the mistake of assuming that a high concept story can’t have good execution. Just because the premise of a story is particularly arresting doesn’t mean it can’t have nuanced characters, careful plotting and emotional depth. Those things will carry the day once your manuscript is in your reader’s hands. But the premise will keep them turning the pages, giving your smaller scale stuff chance to work.
The truth is that editors and agents have to have an eye for how a book will sell, and high concept stories make for good marketing, even if the form that marketing takes is nothing more than the jacket copy, or the cocktail party word of mouth. When someone is excited about a book and they try to convey that to someone else, a high concept book is easier to describe in ways that might transmit that reader’s enthusiasm.
Consider the way these stories immediately raise the collective eyebrow and prompt interest: a beleaguered orphan boy discovers he is a wizard and has to go to a special school for his kind (and no, I don’t think Voldemort is part of the premise of the first Harry Potter book, and doesn’t become integral to the books till the [to my mind inferior] book 5. What initially dominates the story is the school itself). An insignificant person has to save his world by destroying a ring of power deep behind enemy lines (LOTR). A “Symbologist” races to unravel clues hidden in Leonardo’s art concerning the life of Jesus while chased by murderous religious fanatics. A soldier meets witches who prophesy he will one day be king, prompting a murderous pact with his wife. A prince discovers that his father was murdered by his uncle, the king, who has married his mother (Hamlet or, if you prefer, The Lion King). In each case, you’ll notice, the log line suggests the story’s core conflict.
One of the problems faced by writers of genre fiction is that we are often led to assume that genre replaces the desirability for a strong premise, that identifying our books as “fantasies” or “mysteries” is all we need to make people want to read them. If you have a strong track record as a writer, this indeed may be all you need, but for most of us a high concept story will stir a lot more interest. We have all read work by fledgling writers—including our own—where there’s nothing wrong with the prose, the characters are likable and engaging, and there are good scenes of action or suspense, but the whole fails to jell somehow. It’s coherent, but doesn’t excite as a unit. When you try to encapsulate the tale, you find yourself explaining a lot or lapsing into lengthy plot summary. When that is the case, you probably have a low concept story, and while that might not in any way damage the book’s chances of success (artistic or commercial) it might also mean that the book is going to struggle to distinguish itself and that its finer points won’t be enough to make it work.
I have written entire novels only to discover that while the plot worked, the hook was weak, the concept low in ways that made the story a tough sell. Sometimes you can go back and rework the story to raise the concept level of the premise, but by the time you’ve actually written the book it’s often too late. As a “pantser” (someone who writes by the seat of his pants rather than planning most or all of the story out before I write it) this is a particularly difficult truth, because it means that it’s very difficult to just dive into a book when you don’t know what it’s going to be in the hope of meandering your way to an exciting premise. If your book is to be high concept, you probably need to know what that concept is right out of the gate, even if the story evolves some thereafter. The premise isn’t just the given conditions of the story as experienced by the reader. It’s also the groundwork from which the writer begins, and it’s very hard to create this in media res without massive rewriting.
So before you start a new project—or before you get too deep into a current one—think about ways you might be able to shape a story whose heart can be encapsulated in a snappy log line. A high concept premise might help you keep the story focused and may even help you sell it. Perhaps people might share log lines of current projects so that we can see which seem particularly compelling. I’ll get the ball rolling with the log line for my last, Act of Will: a cynical actor joins a band of principled adventurers to investigate a mysterious army of rampaging horsemen. Not incredibly high concept, I’ll concede, but it gives you a sense of the conflicts (character and plot) and suggests how the core story will develop. Got something better? Let’s hear it.