“High Concept” Stories

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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.

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23 comments to “High Concept” Stories

  • This is a great post. I love seeing how things we make are marketed. Keeping in mind I’m really bad at this . . .

    I’ve got three. My log line for the first book was ‘Buffy meets Columbo’

    For my upcoming release, I went with a very simple, ‘Wicked Witches Really Do Come From the West’ which is kind of lame, but ‘Rachel pits her magic against her own people for the first time to clear her name’ lacks sparkle.

    For the piece I’m working on now, (so it will be tweaked as I go) ‘Rachel puts her big girl panties on and takes care of business.’

  • Kim,
    these are great log lines, thanks. I’m not (against all my instincts) going to ask too much about the big girl panties. That way madness lies :) Your “Buffy meets Columbo” is a great, succinct example of how you can evoke a high concept story by drawing on a reader’s knowledge of other stories/shows.

  • I’ve written several shorts (that should be coming to a magazine near you soon) and am now involved in a novel with the same characters. The tag line is “Xena by way of Mad Max.”

  • Love this AJ! I have taught seminars in the past on creating log (plot or character blurb) lines. You gave the reasoning behind it beautifully, and the examples were spot on. Hmmm. How about:

    1. The last Cherokee skinwalker is hired by the Vampire Council of New Orleans to hunt down and kill one of their own.

    2. In a post-apocalyptic world, a unlicensed mage, hiding among humans, puts her life on the line to save her ex-husband from the awakening Dark.

    I’ve liked playing around with them too, like:

    3. A young girls is kidnapped in the Smokey Mountains and her mother left for dead. The mother must free herself, make her way down the mountain, alone, and join the search and rescue team to save her. (Unwieldy)

    4. A mother is left for dead and her daughter kidnapped by a survivalist. Mac must find a way to get help and track down her daughter. (better)

    I’ve had agents give a marketing version of a log line to sell a book. From my AKA’s older own:

    5. If Kay Scarpetta tried to keep her patients alive instead of slicing and dicing afterwards, you’d have Rhea Lynch, small-town ER MD.

  • Stuart: a good combo of two iconic figures/environments. Cool.

    Faith: Your Skinwalker example really proves my point. Anyone reading this can see why the book sold (before even considering your lovely prose :)) I like your other examples too because they show how coming up with a good log line is sometimes about spin, turning the story around till you find the best way to show it off like a figurine in a display cabinet. If the book is still in process, of course, the next step is to make your new found angle on the story integral to the book itself, which might mean some re-prioritizing, cuts etc.

  • Deb Smythe

    “Xena by way of Mad Max.”
    Wow. Can’t wait to read that one!

  • Mine was “Captain Blood’s magical sister”.

    *smile* I still use it, at cons and such, when I have about three seconds to hook a potential reader.

  • I’m still learning the craft of screenwriting, but one thing to keep in mind too is that there’s a difference between a logline and a tagline. A couple of Kim’s put me in mind of a tagline, which is why the distinction popped into my head.

    A logline is as AJ said, a short-short description that encapsulates the essence or essential plot of the story. It’s like when you read the TV guide and it gives you a blurb on what the show’s about. It’s general design is for a producer to read it and decide then if they want to bother with reading the synopsis.

    A tagline is a catchy phrase of a few words that catches the audience’s attention.

    The logline for Jaws was “Giant shark terrorizes Cape Cod resort town.” It’s tagline was “Don’t Go in the Water.”

    And with that, here’s my current projects. The loglines could perhaps be better, but here goes:

    My WIP that’s got the first draft finished:
    Two soldiers on opposite sides of a galactic civil war, drawn together by love and a power they don’t understand, must stop a megalomaniacal usurper from plunging the known galaxy into chaos.

    My Urban Fantasy that my wife keeps needling me to finish:
    A man come back from the dead with strange abilities must discover why he’s returned while investigating a series of mysterious deaths in New York City.

    A new Fantasy/Sci-Fi title I started:
    A fiery object from the heavens brings with it a scourge that will plunge the realm of Thollen into a war that will threaten to destroy the entire world.

    This one’s a planned series I’m working on:
    A drive malfunction on an experimental craft sends the crew of the Exodus to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. With their drive still damaged they must try to survive and make alliances in their attempts to get back home before the Earth is engulfed by the evil force sweeping across the galaxy toward Earth.

  • Dawn

    Wow! This is a great post. Thank you for this. It helps to put your project in perspective. For my WIP –

    Avery’s acceptance or denial of his birth right will be the determining factor of his family’s fate from an unavoidable evil.

  • Excellent point, Daniel. I misuse the terms myself all the time. I liked several of your log lines. The last one I just couldn’t let be. Forgive me, I couldn’t help myself. The inner-editor side of me wanted to tighten it up. So here’s my quick shot at it:

    An experimental craft malfunctions sending its crew to the farthest reaches of space. They must survive and make alliances to get back home before the Earth is engulfed by an evil force destroying the galaxy.

    Do with it what you will. :)

  • No prob. It looked a bit long and ponderous and…”off” even to me. :)

  • Misty: that is great one–a real teaser.

    Daniel: some good options here. I especially like the one about (un?)dead detective. Intriguing.

    Dawn: glad you found it helpful. Thanks. Your log line is very suggestive. Perhaps it could use some more specificity so the reader can “see” more?

  • Dawn

    Thank you for the suggestion. I thought about it and played with it. I’m sure it will need tweaked, but maybe something more like…

    After the death of his father, Avery doesn’t realize his decision to deny his birthright as a magical herald will be the catalyst of destruction for his currently chosen path of life and the unbearable fate that lies ahead for his family and the heralds who are left to fight against the evil that took his father.

  • Dawn,
    What about this?: Avery refuses to be a magical herald like his father, but that decision might just bring his father’s terrible fate upon him.

    That may have a bit more punch but I think we’ve moved from high concept log line to sales pitch, which is different. Being able to encapsulate your story in a tight sentence or two will certainly help you frame a query letter, but that’s not quite the same issue as dealing with a high concept story which is intrinsically pitchable in this way. Some of the log lines mentioned above (including yours, and to a certain extent, mine) are great evocations of the story but don’t really suggest the kind of high concept story where the premise has “legs” to drive the whole narrative. That’s not a problem, but my original point wasn’t so much about summarizing or pitching a story so much as about coming up with a story with a very simple premise which clearly drives the story. Compare the JAWS premise with some of the others we’ve mentioned and you’ll see why the concept is higher and thus more instantly dramatic. In the case of yours for instance, Dawn, there’s a lot that needs explaining (what is a “magical herald”?) that lowers the concept level (though not necessarily the quality of the story or its execution). All stories can be framed in a sentence or two, but the lower the concept of the story, the more they lose in the translation. Make sense?

  • Dawn

    Yes it does more so now. I can be slow on the uptake sometimes.
    “All stories can be framed in a sentence or two, but the lower the concept of the story, the more they lose in the translation.” This is the sentence that summed it all up for me – thank you. And thanks for your example with my WIP.

    You have me thinking now about other projects that have been stewing around in my thoughts and whether or not they are high concept. I never thought to look at them like this.

  • Dawn
    OK, good. Sorry I wasn’t clear before. But remember that high concept doesn’t make for a better story necessarily, just one that makes for a more immediate/compelling hook. I DO think that–if well executed–they make for a more likely sale, but I’m sure others would argue that point. Writing them is tough. Most of my stories are not that high concept and I continually work to raise the level, but if the big, dynamic idea isn’t there, it isn’t there. There’s lot you can do to make a book better but I think that raising the basic concept level is very hard without massive rewrites. So this is something I think about only at teh outset of a project. Once I’m in it, the story is what it is, whether the concept is high or low.

  • Emily

    This post is great! Here’s one of mine that my co-author and I are working on. (Hopefully she’ll think it works for the plot, too… heehee):

    A human-faerie changeling who grew up in the human world, Deor takes a job in Faerie to find out who killed her human mother and why, and in the process discovers that she might be the king’s lost heir.

  • Emily, this sounds positively Shakespearean: Hamlet meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream :)

  • How about this one which hubby and I just came up with for our WIP –

    Nancy Drew finds herself in a manga novelization of Tom Corbett Space Cadet

  • Nicely specific, Angela, as a pitch evoking tone. Is it ACTUALLY Nancy Drew (he said, legal bells ringing) or someone like her?

  • Late to the party here, but this is a great post AJ. My new series: “Prototypical private eye uses magic to solve murders in pre-Revolutionary Boston.” Or, as my editor puts it, “Harry Dresden meets Samuel Adams.”

  • David, that’s a great high concept log line. I wonder who the movie will star…

    Funnily enough I met Samuel Adams myself last night. I had the Boston Ale.

  • That’s a good one David.
    Instead of Nancy Drew, how about “teenage female with a nose for trouble” finds herself in a manga novelization of Tom Corbett Space Cadet?