High-Concept FictionMar 18, 2021
Are you interested in writing high concept fiction? Do you have a high concept premise or high concept story ideas you can’t get out of your head? Maybe you do and you don’t even realise it – there might be some uncertainty as to what high concept stories actually are!
So what is high-concept fiction? As a writer, you may have heard agents and editors use the phrase to describe what they’re looking for, or see the term in headlines of six-figure book deals in the trade press. Over the course of the twenty-first century, the publishing industry and Hollywood alike have celebrated and idolised high-concept ideas.
In this article, writing coach Katie Khan explores the reason behind high concept writing and high concept films soaring in popularity. Her first book is the hugely successful Hold Back The Stars which was optioned for film by the producers of Stranger Things.
Over to Katie!
A high concept pitch should be simple
A great test for high concept ideas is checking its simplicity. The magic of a high concept premise is usually in its brevity: it can be summed up in one sentence, a clearly communicable premise.
This makes it very commercial because a strong hook, ‘elevator pitch’ or one-line premise is a great tool when it comes time for your agent to pitch your novel to a publisher. It’s also invaluable for your publisher’s sales team when pitching your novel to retailers. And for PR people and reviewers describing your novel to readers – as well as for readers recommending it to other readers.
Have you seen the film about a shark terrorising a small town? Or the love story in which we meet a couple on the same day each year? What about the book and film in which a billionaire brings dinosaurs back from extinction to create an amusement park?
You can recognise those stories even without saying the title. That's the very definition of high concept.
High concepts are all about premise. If you’re working on a high concept book, your story is decidedly plot-driven.
At a recent event with The Novelry, Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins, explained:
High-concept fiction is often a concept that hasn’t been done before, and might be quite unbelievable – something that wouldn’t necessarily happen in everyday life. There are lots of novels about husband-and-wife disputes, for example, which you can imagine quite easily; high-concept fiction is something you can’t imagine happening to you, but you can envision it happening just out of reach. Something memorable that makes you sit up and listen.
—Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins
While low concept stories might happen in real life, high concept books are often based on more extraordinary ideas.
The title of a high concept story
Sometimes a book or film is so high-concept, the title alone communicates the premise – a miniature high-concept description right on the label. Readers and viewers understand your unique idea from the outset. Sliding Doors. The Girl on the Train. Snakes on a Plane. Sharknado. Jurassic Park. Star Wars. The Midnight Library. And, if you didn’t guess the great example of a high concept book I was referencing before, One Day.
Sometimes a book or film is so high-concept, the title alone communicates the premise – a miniature high-concept description right on the label.
Let’s consider Naomi Alderman’s The Power: what if women developed the power to electrocute men? John Marrs’s The One: what if your DNA could match you with your one true love? The Last by Hanna Jameson: what if you were among the last survivors of the apocalypse, then discovered a murderer in your midst?
The premise is the title, and the title is the premise. And hopefully, it has mass appeal for a wide audience.
If your idea comes to you with the words ‘What if…?’ then you’re onto something that may well be considered high concept.
I have notebooks filled with the first inklings of high concept premises; fractal elements of a situation or world. Many of those initial thoughts start life in my brain as questions in the format: In a world where [x] happens, what if [y] were possible?
Do high concept books have to be SFF?
High concept fiction doesn’t have to be speculative fiction in the realms of fantasy or science fiction, though it often is. This is because those genres encourage the creation of new worlds. But there are examples of high concept books that sit within almost any genre, in any time period.
The challenge of being a high concept writer is what my literary agent Juliet Mushens calls the ‘and then what’. Sometimes I’ll say to Juliet, ‘I have a great idea for a novel! What if dogs could talk?’ (I’ve never given her this exact example, but I doubt she’d be entirely surprised if I did.) Juliet often pushes back by saying, ‘and then what?’ It’s astounding how often I only have the first half of the ideas.
The leading character makes up the vital second half of a high concept. They’re the ‘and then what’ of high concept fiction.
In a world where dogs can talk… a cat learns to communicate via semaphore. A spaniel uncovers an unspoken threat to the canine world. A specific human learns their dog doesn’t love them as much as they thought. (Welp!)
Here’s a handy formula: In a world where [premise], [person] [does an antithetical thing].
The novel lives and dies by the characters you cast in it.
Unlike many authors, a character has never walked into my head fully formed. I’m more likely to have a flash of inspiration about a world full of possibilities and then consider, ‘Who would be the most interesting character to put in this place?’
I can’t stress how important this is. Who you choose to marry to the premise is the execution of the book. The novel lives and dies by the characters you cast in it.
I’ve got this wrong before. I wrote a novel I’ve not yet shown to my publisher because, in the few drafts I did, I wrote about the wrong people. They weren’t very interesting. Worse, I could never marry the premise to the character – the plot always felt like a stretch. It became a cool idea that drifted away in the telling, one that I couldn’t quite write.
If you’re stuck, try asking yourself: in this time, in this place, who would have the most to lose? Who is most at odds with this world?
Think of John McClane in Die Hard: ‘You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ The movie – and the entire franchise – would be different if we’d followed anyone else at the party. A barefoot, uninvited, tough-talking cop in a vest with a strong moral compass, going through a divorce with the only person he knows in the building, is the very best character to follow through a corporate heist during an office Christmas party. The wrong guy, in the wrong place, at the wrong time – except for storytelling purposes, he’s the right guy.
Try asking yourself: in this time, in this place, who would have the most to lose? Who is most at odds with this world?
The other question at the root of a successful high concept novel is something like this: What scenario generates the most tension between the characters? This is your ‘and then what.’
Consider social groups you already know. Imagine if the apocalypse broke out while you were on a corporate retreat with your colleagues. Oh, the fun you could have, including office politics and workplace in-speak as the group battles to survive – plus you’d get to kill off the people who never washed up their mugs.
If you opt for characters with no naturally occurring conflict between them, you will have to engineer it – and I speak from experience when I say it might never work. You’re peddling too hard below the surface, and the reader can sense it. The premise will always be better than the book you write, and no author wants that.
Romantic couples are a tried-and-tested high concept winner – because there’s either a spark of chemistry between the characters, or a wealth of emotional baggage and relationship history to mine. Good conflict with the added bonus of an in-built question: will they or won’t they?
Let’s consider some more examples. Take Beach Read: two authors struggling to write their novels swap genres and write each other’s books, while also falling in love. Or In Five Years: a woman is asked in a job interview where she sees herself in five years, then flashes forwards in time to see her life completely transformed with a different romantic partner and sets out to find out why.
If you opt for characters with no naturally occurring conflict between them, you will have to engineer it. You’re peddling too hard below the surface. The premise will always be better than the book you write, and no author wants that.
My own novel, Hold Back the Stars, is considered high concept: a couple falls through space with only 90 minutes of air remaining, intercut with their love story on a utopian Earth. By putting my two main characters in a romantic relationship, their efforts to save themselves in space are informed by the love story the reader sees unfurling on Earth. One timeline informs the other. Their relationship becomes the ‘and then what’ of the ‘two people are falling through space’ premise. Will they live? Will they sacrifice themselves for each other? And why are they in space together in the first place?
High concept fiction is often pitched to editors and film producers as an ‘X meets Y’ formula, which describes it in terms of two other well-known concepts in art – be it a novel or a movie. When I described my debut novel as ‘Gravity meets One Day’, it sold as such.
But be careful what you choose: the combination needs to be illuminating. It can’t be a straight match – the two stories must collide. ‘The Girl on the Train meets Gone Girl’ doesn’t do much, because they’re similar novels in the same genre. How does your collision form something new?
The final thing I’d note about high-concept fiction is its idiosyncrasy. I didn’t Google any of the one-line premises or loglines I’ve included here; I wrote them from memory. A decent high-concept story can usually be described in a similar way by anyone who’s familiar with it, because it is singular in its vision. It’s rare that the plot of a famous 1980s high-concept movie (‘a robot is sent back in time to kill the leader of the Resistance before he is born’) would be described as ‘a love story about a man sending his father back in time to impregnate his mother, while they’re hunted by a robot’. Both of those are descriptions of The Terminator, of course. But you’d have to be very contrary to pitch the second!
Writing Coach at The Novelry
Katie Khan is the author of two speculative fiction novels. Her debut novel Hold Back the Stars was translated into 22 languages and is being adapted for film by the producers of Stranger Things. Katie tutors writers tackling speculative, science fiction and fantasy as well as YA fiction at The Novelry.