Friday, November 25, 2011

Musings on "High-Concept" Ideas

This is old news, but I came across a lengthy article detailing the Full Fathom Five/James Frey "High-Concept Media Factory" and I couldn't help devoting a post to something that James Frey (and others such as Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, etc.) wants when it comes to media: high-concept ideas.

High-concept. It's a term I've come to consider and contemplate often, especially since I'm an unagented writer who hopes to be published sometime in the next decade. If you're like me (someone who stalks scours author and agent blogs), you've likely come across the word "high-concept" quite a bit. What does it mean? Why is it such a "must-have" to garner hype for books, movies, and television shows?

A quick look on Wikipedia told me the easy definition to "high-concept": it is "used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise." But is that all it is? Really? Aren't most writers told when they're querying their manuscripts to agents that their novels should be able to be described in a few sentences at most? Yet likely only about 20-30% of those manuscripts would be considered "high-concept." What's missing here in this equation?

Then I came across this article called "High Concept Defined Once and For All," which outlines "five requirements" for a story to be considered "high-concept." Numbers one and two on the list are these: (1) "your premise should be original and unique," and (2) "your story must have mass audience appeal."

When it comes to books, one that immediately comes to mind is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. (Some may argue on the "originality" requirement, given that Koushun Takami's Battle Royale tackled the idea of "kids in a battle-to-the-death scenario" years before Suzanne Collins even had the inspiration for The Hunger Games...but I think execution must be taken into account as for the "originality" of a premise.) Not only did the novel intrigue many readers with its take on the dystopian genre and the notion of oppression, but it also gave an "Everyman" character in Katniss Everdeen, a flawed girl who can be either brave or despicable in her choices and actions. The novel also led to a revival in dystopian novels, particularly those in the young adult genre, with writers and publishers trying to capture some of that allure and success in another dystopian premise.

Actually, something I think many successful high-concept ideas have in common is this: they somehow appeal to the curiosity in all of us and make us face some aspect of ourselves, our society, or our fears within the "safe landscape" of fiction. For instance, the movie The Sixth Sense showcased the reality of what seeing ghosts would do to a person's psyche and how such an ability could be both a gift and a curse. "High-concept" does not mean that great ideas, themes, and meanings can't be handled and displayed alongside the initial attention-grabbing premises. (Yes, there are some exceptions to this idea of mine. After all, do you think movies like Transformers really hold any room for deep contemplation other than "It's time for another summer blockbuster romp with action and EXPLOSIONS!"?)

As enticing as writing high-concept stories sounds, however, "notoriety" will never equal "quality." Yes, many writers have the fantasies that entail large advances, huge sales, and movie deals, but "high-concept" doesn't promise anything. You could have a high-concept manuscript, but success isn't determined by ideas alone. The execution and meaning have to be there as well. That's why I will always tell myself to write good stories with meaningful words, intriguing plots, and unforgettable characters before I start to grab at the "most high-concept ideas" that may garner me publishing status faster. I don't want to write that story that you'll read in a day and forget within a week: I want to write the one that haunts you, makes you lose sleep at night, and stays in the back of your mind long after you finish reading. My greatest endeavor as a writer will be to write something that I unconditionally love and that an audience will come to love because that's what really matters at the end of the day: stories that creep into people's hearts and never leave.


  1. It's a funny thing. Yesterday I was reading a review of a book I liked a lot, and couldn't believe that the reviewer gave it such a low rating because of world-building flaws.

    I came to the conclusion that I'm just not a world-building type of gal. To me, genuine character connections and relationships are more important. To me, high concept is when a novel explores characters' strengths and weaknesses, their inner beauty and intelligence and conflicts. It needs to connect, no matter how weird the premise is, and that's worth more than all the existentialist mumbo-jumbo in the world (I should know. Last night I chatted with my old crush and discussed the impossibility of free will. I handed his arse back to him.)

  2. I know what you're saying because characters move me more than anything in a story. As a writer, I know that means I may not be able to win people over with my worlds or plots, but that's okay since I know that my characters may be able to win readers over just as they won me over when I decided to write about them. (I also think "lack of connection for the readers" is what keeps many high-concept novels from being memorable and unforgettable.)

    (Also, good for you. That must have been quite a discussion.)