The words “high concept” are tossed about on the Internet seas with increasing frequency, but even some seasoned writers scratch their heads. High concept sounds exciting—and really desirable—until some novel writers are asked to define it.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss exactly what High Concept means to novelists and why we should employ one for our stories:
Most writing gurus talk about story question or premise, story idea and concept interchangeably. Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, defines concept as being different from idea, premise or theme. He gives the example of a non-story idea as a trip to Florida. To make this idea a concept, Brooks argues that you would add to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise would be to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road. In Brooks’ words: A concept is an idea that has been evolved to the point where a story becomes possible. A concept becomes a platform, a stage, upon which a story may unfold.” So we can think of concept as the fancy version of our basic story idea. Robert McKee (Story) says, “A Premise is rarely a closed statement.” Usually you can state your concept as a question. What would happen if. . .? And for you “pantsters” who are organic in your writing approach, Donald Maass says, “A strong premise can emerge after many drafts.” You don’t have to know your concept at the outset—but it’s easier if you do.
What’s HIGH Concept?
High concept takes this definition a step further. It asks a story question or states an idea in a way readers haven’t seen before. It feels fresh, new, original. Thus, if your concept can be stated with little or no embellishment, it’s more likely to be compelling or high concept. Examples include: What if a fourteen-year-old murder victim narrates the story of her killing and ensuing investigation from heaven? (a proposition); a story set in the Deep South in the sixties, focusing on racial tension and norms. (a cultural arena); or even The world will end in three days (a situation). According to Brooks, “High concepts need to be inherently interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, intriguing, disturbing engaging, even terrifying before adding character or plot.” A High Concept must be as far from normal as it can be, although a great high concept may be rooted in reality.
How Do I Get a Compelling Concept?
First, think of your concept as the compelling contextual heart of the premise and story built from it. I think fairy tales are a good way to begin to understand concept. Three pigs each have different ways of maintaining safety. A poor woman aspires to attend the royal ball. A lot of times the basic concept of well-known stories sounds very un-original. And it’s true. Your challenge, is elevating a clichéd or so-so concept is to find a twist that makes readers say, “Wow! I’ve never seen that before!” If you are struggling with creating a fresh and compelling concept for your story, I recommend you study The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, Story Fix or Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and the venerable book Story by Robert McKee.