Thursday, May 19, 2005

What's all this talk about High Concept?

(Please welcome guest blogger Diana Peterfreund)

"High concept" is a somewhat confusing term. Snooty film critics give it a derogative connotation – “a high concept with no soul” – but Hollywood producers won’t hear a pitch without it (“in movies, the high concept is king”). I think part of the reason we writers have such a difficult time grappling with the phrase is that there are two distinct ways to use it: high concept the noun and high concept the adjective.

The noun version is what editors and agents clamor for in pitch sessions: “Give us the high concept!” What they really want is the “main concept” or “high concept pitch,” the short, ten-words-or-less encapsulation of your novel. It’s the sentence you use to tell your friend what kind of movie you went to see last night, or what kind of book you prefer. Think strong, genre buzzwords. It does not have to take the form of “X meets Y.” If your book truly is X meets Y (and X and Y are both movies/books/etc. so iconic that there is no chance that the agents or editors will mistake you), then by all means, craft your pitch that way. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard practice pitchers, convinced that the “X meets Y” equation is the only way to get someone interested in their work, say, “My book is Millennium Hall meets The Swimming Pool” or some such nonsense. If you’ve never heard of either of those, you haven’t a clue what the author is talking about.

But it’s not all about boiling your story down to the essence. Though you may be able to present a wonderfully phrased “high concept pitch” of your story, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your story will be “high concept.” The truth is that the reasons the editors and agents are asking for the “high concept” rather than the “main concept” is that they are hoping with every cell in their body that the story you pitch to them will be a high concept story. See that? How it was an adjective?

A high concept story has the following qualities: easily understood from a few words, and promising tremendous public appeal. When you describe a high-concept story, you can see the whole story – its premise, promise and execution – in a few words. A high concept story also “has legs” – in other words, it doesn’t need a name to sell it. It doesn’t need to be written by Stephen King or have Reese Witherspoon attached to star (though neither of those hurt, and you’ll notice that these two most often produce incredibly high-concept products).

Though there have always been stories like this, the term “high concept” came into common use in the 70s in connection with the new, up-and-coming filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg makes incredibly high concept movies. “A giant shark prowls the waters of a peaceful seaside tourist village.” I’m scared already! You can see the whole movie.

I bet you can guess the identity of these high-concept stories:

* Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.
* Clueless goes to Harvard Law.
* An angel helps a suicidal man by showing him what life in his small town would be like if he were never born.
* An unstoppable robot travels back in time from a war-torn future to kill the mother of mankind’s last hope.
* What if Peter Pan grew up?

Now, not all these movies were successful (though personally, I was kind of into Hook), but as soon as you heard the short description, you got a picture of the film – the tone, the genre, the conflicts, the characters.

“High concept” comes under attack from film critics who say that it creates plot-driven, rather than character-driven, stories. But I think something like Legally Blonde is both high concept and character-driven. It’s Elle’s California-girl character that makes the story interesting and funny. (“Low concept stories” are almost always character-driven – movies like Stepmom, On Golden Pond, and Now, Voyager – great stories, but all about the tiny nuances of a character rather than an overarching premise.) And, just because you have a high concept story doesn’t mean there isn’t room for fascinating, nuanced character development. It’s a Wonderful Life has brilliantly-developed, complex characters. The Terminator is one of my favorite love stories.

A few examples of high concepts that the Knight Agency represents:

* A spoiled rich girl is forced to work as a maid to pay her hotel bill after her family cuts her off. (Room Service, by Beverly Brandt, currently available from St. Martins Press – and optioned as a movie starring Jessica Simpson!)
* “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Alien Nation” (from a recent review of Awaken Me Darkly, by Gena Showalter, currently available from Downtown Press)
* A snarky, Ivy League co-ed joins one of the most notorious secret societies in the world. (the (Secret) Society Girl series, by Diana Peterfreund, Bantam Dell, summer ‘06).

High concept stories are in demand in today’s market. You can definitely sell books without it, but it might be that extra little something that defines the “breakout book.”

Is your book high-concept? Ask yourself:
1) Is it very accessible – i.e., the consumer knows instantly whether or not this is something they want to see?
2) Is it extremely commercial – i.e., a lot of people are interested in this topic? (Think about trends (kick-ass women, paranormal), or perennial favorites (lifestyles of the rich and famous.))

And then ask yourself if you have pulled it off. In Hollywood, concept is king because producers hire a team of screenwriters and script doctors and test audiences to make sure that the story has been executed in a way that does justice to that high concept. In publishing, there’s only the writer. You’re not selling an idea for someone else to develop – you’re selling the whole package, and even the highest concept in the world has to be more than a concept before it can be a book.

24 Comments:

Blogger cin said...

Thanks so much Diana! You're so fast! I'm glad you broke it down the way you did, it makes more sense. I was worried that pitching your idea in an "X meets Y" fashion was perhaps cliché- I remember a movie where a producer sat through like thousands of movie pitches like that, I can't remember which one- maybe it was Get Shorty?? Anyway, it was funny the combos they were coming up with. I'm glad to know it is perfectly acceptable and welcome to do so.
Thanks again!

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 5:21:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

cas,
I'm really not a fan of the "X-meets-Y" pitch, because it's done poorly so often (like the example I gave). Part of the problem is that both X and Y need to be iconic and familiar -- high concepts themselves. If the movies or books you use don't have a clear and obvious concept of their own, then it's not going to evoke any kind of reaction in your audience. And you're right, it is overused. So unless whatever it is you're pitching is OBVIOUSLY X-meets-Y (and I mean obvious like 10 Things I Hate About You is "Taming of the Shrew meets 20th century high school", no room for doubt at all) then I think you should skip it, or you'll do yourself more harm than good.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 5:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Gena Showalter said...

Excellent stuff here!! Thank you so much for posting.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 6:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kristen Painter said...

You hear so much about "high concept" - some seem to think it's the Holy Grail of getting published while others don't seem to pay it much attention.

Personally, I think it's a great way to "sell" because it brands your story.

Great post!

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 7:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

Another hazzard of the "X meets Y" pitch that you need to be aware of is that if the person you're pitching to hated one of your examples, they may tune out before you get any farther into the pitch. It's always a danger when you're using short cuts like that. What might be more useful is if you think how you'd describe X and Y - just a quick sentence each - and then combine those to create your own personalized pitch. Sometimes it's easier to describe someone else's work than it is to get to the heart of your own.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 8:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Good point, Nephele! Of course, if you hated X and the book is very X, aren't you likely to dislike it anyway? Or maybe not. I had a close call with that myself, because I hated one of the books I mentioned in my pitch, and later I found out that my editor hated it too -- but it was popular and sold well.

You know, Kristen, I never heard so much about high concept until I found out that's what my book was!

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 9:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kristen Painter said...

Well, "high concept" seemed to be a big buzz word at last year's RWA Conference. Everyone talked about it like it was the most important thing to know about pitching.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 10:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Kristen, Cas, and others--
Keep in mind, I haven't said I'm only hot to find high concept, just that a partial submission from a first time author would *have* to be very high concept for me to be able to shop it out to editors. :) There is still room in the market for great books that are well-written and not necessarily high concept. But to shop a new writer on partial, it really would have to be so.

On the X MEETS Y pitch (is that boy meets girl? Sorry, couldn't resist), I find that it can be helpful in pitching editors to throw out similar genre works or books with a similar sensibliity, like: THINK X, THINK Y, THINK Z (but this is more in informal pitching that I find this works...a more loosely structured style of pitching.)

Deidre

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 10:41:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Rachel said...

Thanks for such a wonderful explanation. I pitched a manuscript to an editor at the RT conference a couple of weeks ago and she said it sounded like a "high concept" novel to her. I had no idea what she was talking about, and could only smile and nod, hoping that high concept was good. But now I understand. Thanks again.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 11:13:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>A spoiled rich girl is forced to work as a maid to pay her hotel bill after her family cuts her off. (Room Service, by Beverly Brandt, currently available from St. Martins Press – and optioned as a movie starring Jessica Simpson!)<<

Yeah but how "high concept" is it when you're merely copying something that's already been done before. This book you mention above was a movie in the 80's called "Maid to Order" with Ally Sheedy in the lead role. So at what point has it gone from "high concept" to ripping off something someone else did by twisting it up a little bit?

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 10:18:00 AM EDT  
Blogger cin said...

Nephele- Thanks for your advice on personalizing the pitch- I like that.

I worry, too, about comparing my work to another author's. Am I setting myself up to fail- one of those I-know-Kennedy-and-you're-no-Kennedy kind of moments? I think one has to use these pitch ideas sensibly or they might lose some credibility.

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 10:21:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Allow me to quote Jeffrey Katzenberg:

"[A high concept] provides an original twist to an already-successful idea."

I don't think Maid to Order (which by the way, was a paranormal story about an anti-fairy godmother giving Ally's family amnesia and Ally ends up working in the house of one of her father's friends) has any kind of monopoly on riches-to-rags stories. Remember Arthur? What about The Simple Life? Or even on rich girls being turned into maids. What about A Little Princess? These themes are popular, which is part of what makes the idea high-concept. They are popular for decades, for centuries.

Of course, if the concept is too familiar and too close together, there could be a backlash, c.f. Incredibles/Sky High. Like Deidre said, you want them to think about how much they liked X or Y or whatever, without thinking you are rehashing X or Y.

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 10:45:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

It's true that in reality, if you boil a story idea down to its basic structure, there are only a handful of plots that make up the foundations of every story ever told. You know this, even if it's just subconsciously. Think of some commonly used phrases in regards to storytelling: boy meets girl, coming of age, hero's quest, rags to riches (or small-town boy/girl makes good), search for the meaning of life, creation, redemption. Stories, at their roots, are made up of archetypal characters and the traditional paths they take. What makes your story unique or different, is the window dressing - the details and twists and combinations you layer into your work to make it something fresh. That's true of any project, high concept or not.

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 12:39:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

What also makes a story unique is the writer's voice. Each of us is comprised of our own, individual lives and experiences. We bring our pasts and essential parts of ourselves into every story we write--whether we realize it or not. So two or three or eight dozen writers can take the same, high-concept "Maid to Order" type of story, and it won't or it shouldn't turn out the same--it'll be a reflection of the writer.

And Maid to Order itself is a twist on Cinderella. For that matter, so is Pretty Woman. Aren't Shakespeare's plays mostly taken from ancient stories by some guy named Plutarch? (or something like that). I think, when you read enough of a writer's "library," you realize that writers often return to the same themes again and again--no matter how they dress up their stories with new plots and new characters. A friend of mine, her stories are, by and large, about healing. My stories are, by and large, about being true to yourself, often involving a character thinking she wants one thing out of life when in fact she/he wants another. They're about self-discovery, a theme that's very important to me and has been all my life, for reasons I'm not even sure I'm consciously aware of.

Cindy

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 3:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Cas, one comment on comparing your work to another's. I think that general authorship comparisons (so long as they're not of the, "I'm the next Nora Roberts!" variety) can be very helpful to me as I look at query letters.

For instance, if someone pitches me and says something like:

The same readers who enjoy the work of Pat Conroy and Anne River Siddons will likely respond to __________. That's placing your work in the vein of something. Very helpful when I'm examining a cold query and trying to decide whether something is my cup of tea or not. Because--and maybe it was Diana who made this point? If the agent/editor hated three other books that you are wanting to compare yours to, chances already ARE that the editor/agent WILL hate yours anyway. So you might as well try to help them imagine, as closely as possible, what your work is going to be like by making those general authorship comparisons.

Cindy, thanks for adding your comments which I agree with entirely. In a given "query fest" (in other words, me reading a whole big set of them at one time) ideas even in that batch of queries will overlap repeatedly. We're back to the archetypes again and also back to themes. I represent a major bestselling author who has told ME as a writer:
"You will find yourself returning to the same stories repeatedly, always looking for a new way to tell them." Her point is that as writers we are fascinated by certain themes and ideas. Personally as a writer, I tend toward healing themes like your friend. That's one of my favorite things. I believe these kind of "life essence" themes in our work emmanate from who we really ARE as people. It's part of our fabric and so it naturally appears repeatedly in the books.
Deidre

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 3:14:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Vicki Hinze calls that "author theme" and has a great article about it.

Friday, May 20, 2005 at 4:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Audrey (aka Amethyst) said...

Thanks for posting this, Deidre. Now I have a clearer idea of what "high concept" means. My stories tend to have healing themes as well :-). I wanted to thank you for being so generous with the recent Q&A on Charlotte Dillon's RWC list. I'm the overseas member from Sicily who asked you about the possibilities of getting published in the US while living in Europe. Your post encouraged me to keep trying.

Audrey Higgans

Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 2:05:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Edie said...

I'm learning as much from the comments as the blog--and it was a great blog! Now I have to think what theme I use again and again.

Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 10:42:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Diana, great topic. It does help to have a "high concept", but a well done tag-line/logline that clearly shows the story can work. My "hook" in the query that got me an agent and sale, was "Ex-FBI agent turned crime fiction writer wakes up one morning to find someone is using her books as blueprints for murder." (Yeah, I know, more than 10 words -- brevity is not my strong suit! LOL)

Seriously, congrats on your sale. I'm so happy for you!

Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 12:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger D. said...

Oh yes. Great entry. And as a screenwriter, I can't begin to tell how many (uncredited) screenwriters are incredibly frustrated over their own inability to come up with high concepts. It's like the daily mantra: please, Powers, gimme a high concept idea today. Please. Pretty please
:-)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 5:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Maggie Stiefvater said...

Wonderful article, Diana, and I'm delirious to know that the (to me) nonsensical X-meets-Y phrasing is not built into the high concept idea.

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