A Higher Concept

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

Every agent these days seems to be looking for high concept stories, even for literary fiction. But what does that mean exactly? Ask three different people, you’ll get three different answers.

According to Alexis Nikki at Absolute Write, a high concept story

is universal;
– has a fresh twist;
– involves an empathetic hero who is dealing with a BIG problem; and
– can be summed up in a 25-word logline.
A blog post from the Waxman Agency defines high concept this way:
It’s an idea that is immediately accessible and appealing to a large group of people, that taps into the hive-mind if you will, but with the added spark of feeling new (even if it’s as old as the hills). 
Agent Paige Wheeler from CMA has a slightly different spin:
I define high concept as a premise that can be boiled down into one sentence and sets it apart from other stories by its unique hook or angle. 
People say all the time to write the story that only you can tell, the story that you just can’t let go of. But will it ever get read if it isn’t high concept? 
So tell me, are you writing high concept? And if you’re not, is it something you can learn to write? Is it something you want to learn? 

Progress on WIP: 12,210 words 

31 thoughts on “A Higher Concept

  1. I had to laugh Sherrie. I can't even get a regular concept, never mind a high concept.

    All kidding aside, I do have an idea for a high concept novel — the problem is it would take so darn long to write It wouldn't be so high anymore.

  2. I kind of always thought that high concept meant very commercial…VERY sellable. I think Nathan Bransford said something like this.

    But sometimes you don't know what is “sellable” until is sells…..

    (So I just write what I want to write.)


  3. I agree with Paige's definition best (or maybe they're all saying the same thing and I just think she said it the clearest). I don't think I usually write high concept, although I do have an idea or two that fits the bill.

  4. Um, I think I'm working on a high-concept novel and that's part of the problem–other people have been in a similar vein. And while you might have unique twists, agents/publishers will say they've seen that concept before. It's tricky territory.

  5. I don't know that that term “high concept” necessarily means lowest-common-denominator, simply that the core of your story is “hooky” and easy to describe. Some literary books are high concept, like The Lovely Bones.

  6. I'm not entirely sure if what I write would be high concept. (So I guess that means 'probably not' eh?)

    I'd like to learn it, as I think of it as another tool in my toolbox, especially since I tend to like ideas that skew a little more to the side, so if I could take that, then kick it into high concept as “defined,” I'd try it. For the experience if nothing else. I look at it as even failed projects teach you something, since we never stop learning.


  7. Great post! And one, as writers, worth thinking about. A high concept story, even with a literary bent, is more apt to get looked at and more apt to sell. Or it seems it anyway. I think the mind can be trained to develop high concept ideas – and usually it means not taking the first idea but building it up into something bigger. But, as always, we have to be in love with the story and idea, first and forement, whether it high concept or not!

  8. Oh, I LOVE this post! I think I *think* some of what I write is high concept. Well, it could just be wishful thinking! But most of my novel ideas have come to me at first in a single, cool (in MY opinion anyway, lol) concept that I've expanded on.

  9. Anne Gallagher's comments always make me smile.

    I think Nathan's remark about how you don't know if it's sellable until it sells is so true. What's high concept today is “overdone” tomorrow. And only the people reading the slush know what's being “overdone” this week.

    But it is true that high concept, when you happen to be the first, can start a career. A good example is “the Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime.” A mystery narrated by an autistic kid–that's high concept. I'm not sure he would have had a career outside of the UK without that. (Also because it was an adult book that could be marketed as YA in the US.)

  10. I figure, I should just write what I'm going to write and THEN figure out if it's high concept. Mostly, I suck at this “boiling things down” summarizing business, so I couldn't tell you if the story can be summarized in a line. 😛

  11. So helpful to hear it put in different ways! Thanks, Sherrie. :o)

    I've had my books called high-concept and wasn't ever exactly sure if that was true. These definitions help!

  12. Is it sad/weird that I still don't really get what “high concept” means? I tried to write a story that I thought would be popular once, and it turned out horribly. Then the story that I loved that I thought no one would get was loved by my writing class. So I'm sticking with the story I want to tell. If it's not high concept…I'll be comforted by the fact that I don't really know what that means :).

  13. High concept is what you want if you're doing a screenplay. It's tough to do, but if you can do it…Wow!

    I have to re-follow you because Blogger forced me to start a new blog. I lost my followers. So I have to re-connect with those I want to keep! I hope you're re-follow me too.

    And hope you're having a great week!

  14. Apparently my first novel was not high concept as several agents wrote back saying they enjoyed my writing style but didn't think there would be a big enough audience for it based on the plot.
    Thnx for the post tho – enlightening.

  15. Hmm….I think someone else would have to tell me if mine was high-concept, but I guess I can tell from other loglines. Great idea-comes up more frequent in scripts I think

  16. There are low-concept words and high-concept words. A low-concept word is 'love story'. It applies to too many things. 'Romeo and Juliet' is higher. The more specific the words are, the higher the concept.

    My next novel is about a werewolf attack on a haunted lunar colony. I can boil it down to a sentence, it's boiling it down to a paragraph that defeats me.

  17. I've been told (by an editor) that my MG SF novel was “high concept.” I didn't really know what that meant until I read Nathan's definition. And I'm still not sure how exactly it applies, but I think I have a better idea.

    I think, to some extent, high concept means boiling your story down to it's essence and seeing if the essence has some immediate appeal – it's not easy to do, but going through that process is helpful for any novel, whether it ends up with the tag “high concept” or not.

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