You’ve roughed through a vast arena of obstacles that plague writers and have finished your next novel. You are ready to get it through to an editing team so that they can get their red marks in place, make changes, and ultimately tell you whether the story works or doesn’t work. Then you happen to stumble across some market listings for future publishers only to find that many of them are asking for “high-concept.” You ponder the same question that plagues so many others. What the heck does high-concept mean?
This confusion leads to many people to absolute panic. High-concept is the Holy Grail for success with a book but it’s sometimes difficult to define. It might comfort you to know that you’re not alone. The truth is that those who go around spouting off the words “high-concept” are not any clearer on what it means than you are. If you ask an agent or manager, then you’re likely to hear one of these definitions:
- It’s the fun aspects of your story.
- It’s how well you hook the reader.
- It’s your premise.
- It’s the image that your story portrays.
My point is that there’s no real consensus on what a high-concept story truly is. What I am going to try and do here is show you a series of qualities that you can look for in your story to determine whether or not it’s high-concept. Keep in mind that it does not have to pass all seven of these quality tests, but it will need to master one or two of them.
#1: Is it Original?
Some people tend to mix up originality with terms like new and innovative but they are completely different things. While your story will need to be an original idea, it can be built around a familiar concept. Originality is the art of finding new and innovative ways to present something that readers are already familiar with. It doesn’t mean that you have to reinvent the wheel.
#2 Does it Have a High Level of Entertainment Value?
Entertainment value is really just an opinion that will defer with each reader so this is a very difficult question to answer. This is an area where you will need some advice from other readers and/or an editor. Getting feedback from at least five readers is really the only way you can determine a story’s entertainment value.
#3 Is the Story Highly Visual?
When you read a great story, you are shown images that take you to unbelievable places. You can actually see the story unfold. That’s why high-concept books tend to adapt nicely to the big screen. If your book is written in a way that creates cinematic imagery then it is almost guaranteed to be a high-concept story.
#4 What If?
More often than not, a high-concept story will begin with the “what if” factor? Consider stories like ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Star Trek’, and ‘War of the Worlds.’ Each of those offers a “what if” scenario before they completely grab you by the collar and never let go!
#5 Does it Have a Crystal Clear Emotional Focus?
Just like with imagery and plot, the emotional focus is extremely important to a story. But you can’t just evoke any emotion from readers. Your story has to focus on a single emotion and push the reader to the edge. You cannot be wishy-washy here. The emotion must be strong, immediate, and intense.
#6 Does it Contain a Unique Element?
Originality is about finding a fresh approach to telling a story. However, a high-concept story can be unique in a purely platonic sense. For example, some books are formatted in a very memorable way. Others use graphics to depict important scenes. You cannot force this type of uniqueness though. Only use a unique element if it actually pushes the story forward.
#7 Does it Appeal to a Mass Audience?
The best stories ever written tend to grab readers across multiple genres. For example, a book in the romance genre might appeal to science fiction fans. Or a science fiction book might appeal to romance genre fans. High-concept books often become so trendy because they appeal to more than fans of the niche it’s written in. If your book does not appeal to a mass audience, then it’s almost certainly not a high-concept story.
It’s important that you remember this list is not to determine whether your story is good or bad. There are many factors that determine whether or not a story is good. In fact, there are a ton of agents who do not specify a preference for high-concept work. With that said, this list will help you to craft the absolute best story possible.
Here’s to your success!