Ask Becca: So What is High Concept, Anyway?

by Becca Jordan
published in Writing

I recently got a rejection saying that the agent was looking for a more “high-concept” story. What the heck does that mean, and how can I get a high concept of my very own?

                                -Out of Ideas

Here are some explanations of high concept that I’ve heard:

  • “High concept is an old story with a twist.”
  • “Just like [insert popular story here], but different.”
  • “It’s something I’ve never seen before.”
  • “It resonates with me emotionally.”
  • “Anything that makes me think.”
  • “A cool ‘what if?’”

So, since nobody in the world seems to agree on what a high concept is, let me elucidate some of the illusive theories.

In 1964, a judge in Ohio slapped a fine on a movie theatre manager for showing a French film, Les Amants (The Lovers), which was considered to be obscene/pornographic. Of course, this was 1964, so anything that was shown would probably pale in comparison to our current PG-13 ratings. But that’s beside the point.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a lot of back-and-forth happened, and in what I can only imagine was penned out of frustration and a desire to go home and kick back with a beer, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…But I know it when I see it…

High concept is kind of like that.

It’s hard for some agents and publishers to define high concept because it’s not easy to pin down. High concept (or Big Idea) is sometimes contrasted with commercial, pulp, or character-driven fiction, but they’re not exclusive concepts. They’re somewhat mingled in the center of this Venn diagram.

Let me give you a deceptively complex equation:

Originality + Universal Theme = High Concept

“The same, but different” is a common summary of all of these things. At Writer’s Digest West in 2013, literary agent Paula Munier called it the USP – Unique Selling Proposition. The USP can be pitched in a sentence or two.

Focus on what makes your work unique—“In the modern world, vampires aren’t monsters but are instead discriminated against by humans” (The Southern Vampires Mysteries—a twist on the horrific Dracula trope). The “cool what-if?” can usually help ferret this idea out. What if everyone gets massive plastic surgery to make them beautiful at the age of 16? (The Uglies).

But it isn’t just the uniqueness that lends stories to be high concept. The “universal theme” I mentioned earlier is an idea that’s going to immediately resonate with 99% of the human population. These are ideas that speak to the experience of being human; comment on our society; question what separates us from animals; highlight the perseverance of spirit in the face of adversity; and generally ponder the meaning of life and death.

But here’s the catch: Don’t confuse fiction with preaching. Yelling, “The government is controlling us with entertainment at the expense of our welfare!”, no matter how pretty the words are, is only going to get you weird stares on street corners. However, using this theme combined with a kick@$$ main character and a twist on how we get our reality TV fix (by sending a bunch of kids into an arena to kill each other, obviously) can be great fiction.

Still confused? Skipped most of this blog? Here’s the spark notes of some things that high concept is NOT:

  • Straight-up porn. Not that there isn’t a market and case to be made for erotica, but my money isn’t exactly on Fifty Shades of Grey getting in the canon of classical literature every high schooler should read.
  • Michael Bay films. Okay, this isn’t true of all of his movies, but anything relying heavily on explosions, giant robots, or women-as-eye-candy for plot probably doesn’t have high concept.
  • Fan fiction. Sorry, all ya’ll looking to bank on the next Edward/Jacob shipping.
  • Anything that focuses on a character sitting alone in a room thinking about lofty themes in which nothing ever happens. That’s called philosophy, not fiction.

What high concept MIGHT BE:

  • For the reasons stated in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “material that deals with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance” is not porn. In fact, it’s protected under the First Amendment, and “literary value” might include high concept.
  • Michael Bay films. Rules were meant to be broken, and The Island is certainly the exception. When the main character [SPOILERS] discovers he’s a clone of a wealthy man with a life-threatening illness, it raises the question: What if you could live forever, but you had to harvest another person’s organs to do it?
  • Original, unique ideas that only could have come from your brain. Despite the new Barnes & Noble “Teen Vampire Romance” section, agents really like to see something that’s not just piggybacking on the latest trend, but that’s fresh and something unlike they’ve seen before.
  • That being said, popular fiction isn’t out of the question. I consider The Hunger Games to be high concept because it comments, in Suzanne Collins’ own words, on our society’s obsession with violence and reality TV.
  • Stories where things do happen, but the action always fuels both plot and theme. In Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator is constantly having to wheedle his way out of trouble as he makes enemies and breaks laws in the bizarre countries he lands in. This only adds to the satirical social commentary—without spending a lengthy amount of time philosophizing.
  • Unique characters who have some new way to comment on an old idea. In post-9/11 America, Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is unique because he’s on an unusual quest to learn more about his father by talking to strangers in New York.

That’s all there is to it! If you can get your unique characters and setting to speak to that agent’s soul, you’re in like Flynn.

What’s that? You want to see high concept in action? Nope, I’ve got no more examples for you, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca!

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17954_292577539573_730389573_3174566_5206294_nRebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author in San Diego. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex and has published poetry and fiction in FlapperhouseYemassee MagazineBravura Literary Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for DIYMFA.com. Quibble with her @beccaquibbles.

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