Monday, March 22, 2010


The other day, I was reading the New York Times review of Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry.” I like the book and I haven’t finished it yet – it’s one of the several books I’m reading now – and the review is a good one.

I was quite intrigued by the reviewer describing the book as a “high-concept tour de force, with the flashiness that the term implies.”

I didn’t think of this right away, but then I asked myself what “high-concept” meant. I had no idea.

Of course, I turned to Google and immediately found plenty on the topic.

An article by James Bonnet, a long time writer for television and film, starts with the sentence “In Hollywood and New York, the concept is king.” And later, he writes: “a high concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all.”

This is how most of the articles that I’ve found define high-concept: an idea that is immediately accessible and appealing to many people, something that is relatable, familiar, and universal yet has a unique, interesting twist. In addition, a high-concept novel usually has a catchy title that tells the reader exactly what the novel is.

James Bonnet lists four elements that might help one build this high-concept story:
- the fascinating subject – a subject that is in itself intriguing;
- the great title – a title that also reveals the genre of the story thus whetting the reader’s appetite for the feelings associated with that genre;
- the inciting action – the onset or the cause of the problem;
- the hook - a unique aspect of the problem that suggests intriguing possibilities.

All this got me thinking…

How about you? Do you keep such elements in mind when writing your stories? Do you plan them accordingly? Does your novel have the characteristics of high-concept?


Fireblossom said...

I never would have described anything I write as "high concept" but most of what i write fits your four characteristics. I especially try to come up with titles that will make someone want to read my little tales.

I loved "The Time Travelr's Wife" and am leery to read her next one, because when I really fall in love with a book, I am afraid the next one can't possibly take me that high again. Sometimes that's true, sometimes not. But it does keep me from reading a second book by beloved authors for months and months, sometimes.

Rick said...

Absolutely I do, Vesper, but I'm so glad you brought this up because I have to keep reminding myself to keep these things in mind all the time. Kind of hard to go on cruise control when writing, I guess.

The other element I consider important to high concept is choosing one that the reader will innately identify as important. This relates more to non-fiction of course, but perhaps to historical fiction as well. In genre fiction, I think the feelings associated with the story should dominate.

Marilyn Brant said...

I loved seeing the term "high-concept" broken down like this--thanks, Vesper! In thinking about your questions, I can't help but feel that while *I* might consider a topic "facinating," that doesn't ensure that a huge demographic will agree with me ;). I *do* try to choose topics that will appeal to women kind of like me, though, and I do ask myself often what type of story would my friends and I LOVE to discuss... But there might only be about 5 of us in North America who are equally enthralled--LOL.

Rick said...

By the way, Vesper- I want to thank you for putting up such an intelligent posting. It was a pleasure to think about and the photo is so perfect!

the walking man said...

No I never knew what a high concept was until I read about it here vesper. My next work though will be entitled "Geriatric Marijuana"...that should fit all the requirements for high concept eh?

Vesper said...

You have great titles, Shay, that’s true, but what you write is also perfectly fitted. I love your writings!
I bought “The Time Traveler’s Wife” but haven’t read it yet. I’ve started with the second one… :-)

Rick, these things seem almost obvious, but it’s not easy to recognize them, I would say. I wonder if they have to come naturally to someone or if they are carefully staged. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I thought the image was quite suitable… :-)

Marilyn, I think you’re absolutely right. What might seem “high concept” to us, might not be that at all… What fascinates us, might be of little interest to other people. It’s not easy to find a sort of balance between the very personal and the general so that our book truly appeals to many people. But the topics you chose do appeal to me. :-)

We’re both new to that, Mark… :-)

laughingwolf said...

horror is "high concept" by itself...

SzélsőFa said...

I didn't know the concept of 'high concept' even existed, but broken down to fragments like these, it all sounds reasonable.
do I write along those guidelines?
hm, let me just see...
do I write at all?

btw, i have the time traveller's wife as a film, but have not yet seen it.
i don't know if the book is available here at all...haven't checked it yet.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I've written two high concept novels, one quiet, sleeper. Both of the high concepts have gotten the most attention. As reluctant as I am to pimp myself out, I make it a factor in my novel's conception. The sleeper can come later after I'm established.

Nevine said...

This is an interesting topic, Vesper. You know, when I write, I try not to think too much about what I'm writing at first. I find that when I put too much thought into it, my writing becomes choppy, and I can't get my ideas out as I would like. I think it's when I'm in the editing process that I go through a checklist of sorts to see if everything works well together. I certainly think about the subject of my work - without an interesting and grabbing topic, there's not really much of a story to build. And the title is very important too - we are trained to not judge a book by its cover, but we still fall into that trap, so a title that grabs is definitely important. And of course the action and the hook, though I'm guilty of being a bit lazy with the hook part.

I think I'll copy and paste this list to my checklist and see if I can work on the "hook" part a bit more. Thank you for sharing this, Vesper. All writing advice is invaluable.


BernardL said...

That's a pretty fair list. I may not enlist them all but I try to lay brick with two or three of them. :)

Aniket said...

Echo to Nevine. I too mostly zero in on title after I've written the first draft of a story.

And totally acknowledge the importance of the hook part. I love 'Castle' mainly for the hook :)

Good list. Should pin it up on my desk. :D

P.S.: I had borrowed your pic, then one where you had asked if anyone wanted to have their take on it. Hope that's al right with you.

Akasha Savage. said...

I do try to keep these sort of elements in my head when I'm writing...just hope the end result proves it!

Cynthia said...

Great break down of the term
high concept and the elements
involved. When I think about
the elements, the books that
really made an impact on me
have all of these elements.

Fall on your Knees -exquisitely

Mama Zen said...

Interesting. I'm not sure that I would have defined "high-concept" the same way. But, then, I've never really thought about it.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Just stopping by to wish you a very happy birthday, lovely Vesper! Hope you have wonderful day and a year filled with all and only the very best of everything! xxx

Bernita said...

This is the best explanation of "high concept" I've seen - I can almost grasp it.
Yes, I do strive to develop these elements and I agree that title is important, perhaps the most important factor.

Geraldine said...

This got me thinking intriguing, "concept", yes!

Hugs, G

Caryn Caldwell said...

I've heard HFS is a good one. Though I read The Time-Traveler's Wife, I haven't read her follow-up. As for high concept, I think some people spend so long working on their premise that they don't bother to create the writing that will carry it. A great premise, while crucial, will only get you so far. Can you tell I've been disappointed one too many times? ;-)

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I hadn't thought of it that way before, but I very much like it!

Those are key ingredients to success; I'd wager. Very good to know.

Thank you!!


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

SzélsőFa said...

did the aliens take you away for good ?
be back please - as soon as you feel fit, that is.
writing comes first.
good luck!

SzélsőFa said...

i don't know what's going on here with this comment.
when i look at the # of comments it says it's 31.
when i enter the comments it says 23 and shows (let me count:) 23.
where're the 9 comments?

Dayana Stockdale said...

I recently read a blog post and now I feel bad because I can't remember whose it was but the main gist was that while it would be totally awesome to write a high concept book, we can't rely on it. that too often writers get excited about the premise and forget to do the characters justice. it was an interesting post. AHA! Now I remember. tehee. It was by Kiersten White of course.