Tuesday, July 27, 2010

13 Conference Round-Up: Elana Roth on High Concept

In this special installment of Conference Round-Up, we'll head back to the event the Maryland/Deleware/West Virginia Chapter of SCBWI held recently. The Leaps of Imagination: Fact, Fiction, & Fantasy conference was filled with useful information. Many big names were in attendance, such as agent Stephen Fraser, Michelle Poploff (Executive Editor at Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers), agent Elana Roth, Louise May (Vice President/Editorial Director of Lee & Low), and Debra Hess senior Editor at Highlights for Children). Several other industry professionals, as well as authors and illustrators were on hand for the 2-day event. Read on, as Marissa shares tips and information coming out of this conference.

A few weeks ago, we presented part one in our series of tips coming out of this SCBWI event. This week, we'll share tips on the elusive topic of high concept, courtesy of literary agent Elana Roth.

Elana's presentation sought to demistify the term "high concept," which seems to be everywhere these days. Not only was her talk structured and clear, it provided many examples that helped clarify how a book may find itself with this label.

When you think high concept, think about a book that would be akin to a big Hollywood blockbuster movie. It has wide appeal and can be pitched easily within one sentence (though Elana reminded us gently that all books should be pitched as such). The premise of the story tends to be bigger than the characters themselves. While the characters make us care about a book, they might be exchanged for other characters easily because the premise is what's stronger.

So what are the core elements of high concept books?
  • There's a key twist or hook.
  • Stakes are typically very high.
  • There's universality, or wide appeal.
  • It's rule breaking, in that it hasn't been seen before.
One book that Elana has worked with that fit this mold is CANDOR by Pam Bachorz. The story centers on a town brainwashed by the mayor, whose son rebels by helping new kids escape before the messages are effective. This "What if...?" format for a story's premise often leads to high concept stories.

Another example is our friend Kiera Cass' upcoming novel THE SELECTION. This book, pitched as HUNGER GAMES meets "The Bachelor", clearly has wide appeal based on the premise.

Genres That Tend Toward High Concept Include...
The important thing to remember is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all way to identify high concept books. The premise and content are what garner the label. Books that tend to be more character-driven (WHEN YOU REACH ME or THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER) are not typically considered high concept stories.

Does high concept mean lower quality in terms of writing? Sometimes, yes. There's the great debate over the TWILIGHT series, of course. But the bottom line is the bottom line. And while Stephanie Meyer seems to take a lot of hits, we can admit she did some things right. Furthermore, does it really doesn't matter that much based on her success?

As writers, why do we care about high concept? It's simple. In tighter economic times, high concept books generally do well. If there's belief your book can sell, starting with an editor until it reaches the hands of the reader, then it's less risky. Does your book have to be high concept to sell, or even become a bestseller? Elana firmly said no. It just makes it easier.

Be mindful of what high concept means, who is requesting submissions under the term, and why it may benefit you to write something that commands this label. There's no doubt Elana Roth made a strong case for this elusive category.

Happy writing!


Other resources on this topic:
Miss Snark on high concept.
Fiction Matters tells us what the heck high concept means.
*Fiction Groupie* defines high concept.


  1. Just wondering if anyone knows...is it all right to call your own work "high concept" in a query? Or is that not a good idea?

  2. Thanks for sharing this info. I've been looking forward to this next installment.

  3. Really interesting - I know you cleared up a few of my misconceptions on high concept - thanks!

  4. awesome awesome post!! thanks for all the info :D

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  6. Thanks for posting this. I never was certain what high concept meant.

  7. Thanks for this. I always struggled with the definition of high concept. I won't now. :)

  8. Thanks everyone! Glad Elana's message could help. I think it's helpful to have a deeper understanding of the term since it's so prevalent these days. She did a fantastic job of defining it clearly for attendees.


  9. Great explanation, Marissa! Thanks for taking such awesome notes and sharing them with us. : )

  10. Thanks for the great explanation. I always struggle with the concept.

  11. Very interesting. I didn't know a lot about high concept. Thanks

  12. Oh thanks for this! Man, I had NO clue that's what high concept meant. You totally taught me something today, thank you!!!


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