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.
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...
- Paranormal (TWILIGHT, WAKE)
- Dystopian (UGLIES, HUNGER GAMES, INCARCERON)
- Books that include superpowers, supernatural, magic (HARRY POTTER)
- Fantasy sometimes, but not high fantasy
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.
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.