Last week, Jeff Lyons shared his insights with us into how to make every story idea the best it can be. Whether our story idea is for a meaningful story or an entertaining situation, he offered tips on how to strengthen our concept.
This week he’s back with another detailed post. Yay!
Today he’s delving into the tricky description of high concept. Many agents and editors say they prefer high-concept stories, but what does that mean?
Jeff shares seven qualities that will help us identify high-concept ideas. As he explains, high-concept stories don’t need to have every one of those qualities, but the more they have, the more high-concept they tend to be. In addition, he offers several insights into how a better understanding of high concept can help us improve—and pitch!—our story.
Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*
High Concept—It Actually Means Something!
by Jeff Lyons
As writers, we have all come up against the agent, publisher, studio hack, or fellow writer who, when asked to give feedback on our story retorts, “Yeah, good idea, but … it needs to pop more. There’s no high concept.”
Sigh. And what the heck does that mean? What are you supposed to do with that?
People throw this phrase around like the definition is common knowledge. But when asked to explain their sorry selves, these same people only deliver clichés, like:
- It’s your story’s hook
- It’s what’s fun about your story
- It’s your story’s heart
- It’s your story as a movie one-sheet
- It’s the essence of your premise
- And so on …
All of these have some truth to them. All of these speak to the idea of a high concept, but none of them really explain the darn thing. “High concept” has become a term d’art that everyone uses and that no one really understands.
Why Are High-Concept Ideas So Valued?
After much hair pulling, moaning, and sleepless nights analyzing this idea, I have stumbled upon an elegant construct that I think will both define the term accurately, but also give writers a tool for testing their ideas to quickly see if there is a high-concept component present.
High concept applies to any idea: motorcycle design, toothpaste, cooking, comic books, novels, movies, the list is endless. High concept is about essence; that visceral thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go.
From a writing perspective, a story idea that is high concept captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, gets them asking “what if,” and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word. High concept drives the commercial book business, as well as the film and television industries.
The 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea™:
A high-concept idea has the following seven qualities:
- High level of entertainment value
- High degree of originality
- High level of uniqueness (different than originality)
- Highly visual
- Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
- Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
- Sparks a “what if” question
(Excerpted from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success. Focal Press, 2015)
Let’s look at each of these to get a better idea of what they mean:
Quality #1: High-level of Entertainment Value
This can be elusive. Defining “entertainment value” is like trying to define pornography; it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Simply put, you know if something is entertaining, or not, if it holds your attention and sparks your imagination. If you are distracted easily from the idea or interested purely on an intellectual basis, then it is safe to say that the idea may be interesting, engaging, and curious, but not entertaining.
Quality #2: High Degree of Originality
What does it mean to be original? Some common words associated with originality are: fresh, new, innovative, novel (no, not a book).
Think of originality as approach-centric. The idea may be centered in a familiar context, but the approach (original take) offered to get to that familiar context has never been used before, for example:
Frankenstein (1994, TriStar Pictures):
Familiar idea: Evil monster terrorizes the humans.
Original take: The monster and humans switch moral ground and the humans terrorize the monster.
Toute une Vie (And Now My Love, 1974, AVCO Embassy Pictures):
Familiar idea: Boy meets girl.
Original take: We see all the generations that led to the boy and girl being born, their love affairs, lives, and all the things they experience that make them who they become as adults; the lovers don’t meet until the end of the movie, rather than the beginning.
So, originality is more about finding new ways to present the familiar, rather than inventing something new from scratch.
Quality #3: High Level of Uniqueness
Whereas originality is about approach and fresh perspective, uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind, first time, and incomparable. Being original can also involve uniqueness, but being unique transcends even originality.
Finnegans Wake (novel, James Joyce):
Conventional Context: Episodic, slice-of-life vignettes of HCP, ALP and other characters.
Unique take: One-of-a-kind writing style never before used in modern fiction.
Sallie Gardner at the Gallop (1880, Eadweard Muybridge):
Conventional Context: No precedent!
Unique take: Believed to be the first motion picture exhibition anywhere.
Quality #4: Highly Visual
High-concept ideas have a visual quality about them that is palpable. When you read or hear about a high-concept idea, your mind starts conjuring images and you literally see the idea unfold in your mind.
This is why high-concept books make such good films when adapted. Books with cinematic imagery are almost always high-concept stories.
Quality #5: Possesses a Clear Emotional Focus
Like imagery, high-concept ideas spark emotion, but not just any emotion—a root emotion. There are seven root emotions: anger, fear, hurt, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, shame, and helplessness.
There is no wishy-washy emotional engagement of the reader. The involvement is strong, immediate, and intense.
Quality #6: Possesses Mass Audience Appeal
The idea appeals to an audience beyond friends and family. The target market is broad, diverse, and large.
Some ideas are very niche, appealing to a specific demographic, but this is usually a large demographic. High-concept ideas are popular ideas, mass ideas, and often trendy ideas.
Quality #7: Usually Born from a “What If” Question
What if dinosaurs were cloned (Jurassic Park)? What if women stopped giving birth (Children of Men)? What if Martians invaded the Earth (War of the Worlds)?
High-concept ideas are often posed first with a “what if” scenario and then the hook becomes clear. The hook is that part of the high concept that grabs the reader. It is often the one piece of the idea that is the original concept or the unique element.
In the three examples just given, each of them has a clear hook that leads to a high-concept premise line (the “premise line” will be the subject of a later post).
What’s Required for a Story to Be High Concept?
When a story has one or more of these qualities, then it can say it is high concept. The more the merrier.
High concept is not a single trait or quality, it is a continuum of qualities that every story has; some more, some less.
In that sense, every story is high concept to some degree, the question is: where is it on the continuum? The fewer the qualities, the “weaker” the high concept, the more of them, the “stronger” the high concept.
When the idea of high concept is put in the context of these seven qualities, it becomes easier to see that commercial film/TV ideas, or literary ideas, often have a clear line of demarcation from “noncommercial” content. That line is the high concept.
How Does Knowing the “Degree” of High Concept Help Us?
“So, what?” you ask. “It is what it is—right? Why does it matter that I know the degree of high concept of my story?” Fair question.
Knowing where your story falls on the continuum can help you target the right audience for your book, reinforce your confidence in the story itself about potential commercial strengths, and help pinpoint areas in the writing you may want to shore up or rewrite to strengthen the high concept even more.
For novelists, however, knowing the degree of high concept can be invaluable in helping to respond to vague submission requirements from publishers or agents.
It can’t hurt you if in your query letter you tell them you’re responding to their request for a high-concept piece, and then proceed to define each of the qualities present in the story. Because the reality is that even though editors, publishers, and even agents might request high-concept stories, they are all hard-pressed to define the term themselves—thus the vague guidelines in submission requirements.
How impressed do you think they will be if you help them out and tell them what high concept means for your story in your query? I think, very.
All of these reasons are useful in their own right for mastering the idea of the high concept, but there is another major reason why knowing the meaning of high concept is critical for writers: the log line.
The Log Line: What Does It Have to Do with High Concept?
Novelists are more and more hearing this term from agents and editors, but it is still more of a movie/TV term than a publishing phrase. Even so, log lines are helpful to include in query letters as they are a great tool for grabbing the interest of the person reading your query.
Once again, however, there is mass confusion among writers as to the meaning and function of the log line, not just with novelists, but also with screenwriters. So, along with high concept, it helps to know this term d’art as well.
When you get an idea for a story, two things happen:
- an image drops into your head, and
- an emotion, related to that image, fills you.
Every time you get excited about a new story, if you stop and witness what happens inside yourself, you will see both these things happen; they always happen.
The log line is an attempt to grab that exact moment of the dropping and represent that image-emotion in a short, powerful sentence. After all, that image-emotion sparked your imagination as a writer enough to get you to commit to developing the story, so if you can express that image-emotion in a sentence, then it will excite someone else’s imagination as well.
Grabbing someone else’s imagination is the first step to making a sale, or getting a meeting—no small thing.
In essence, the log line is your story’s high concept stated in a short sentence. Here are some examples:
- A monster shark terrorizes a small coastal town [Jaws, Peter Benchley]
- A cop battles uber-thieves when they take over an office building. [Nothing Lasts Forever, Roderick Thorp (film: Die Hard)]
- A young boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. [Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling]
- A man saves a pregnant woman in a world where women no longer give birth. [Children of Men, P.D. James]
None of these tell you about a hero or heroine, none of them give you any idea about the journey to be traveled, there is no clue about what happens at the end, but they do grab you and get you wondering “what if.”
With each of these you can see the image-emotion configuration, and it grabs you. That’s the job of the log line—and the high concept.
In conclusion, know that high concept means something, and knowing its meaning can help you write, position, and sell your stories regardless if you are writing screenplays, short stories, novels, or making a new toothpaste. High concept is part of story-development craft, and if you master it, then you will have one more powerful tool in your storytelling toolbox.
Jeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.
He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.
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Thank you, Jeff! As you said, we always hear the phrase “high concept story,” but no one seems to be able to define it. So it’s great to have a more tangible explanation for what that phrase means.
Not every story is high concept, but as Jeff points out, if we understand the qualities that go into a high-concept idea, we can develop those aspects within our story. Personally, I found that some of those qualities resonated more with me, possibly because they echo a quality I already strive for in my stories.
For example, I appreciated Jeff’s description for #2: Originality. I write romance, which is always a familiar idea: a couple meets and falls in love. Yet what makes many romances special and stand out comes down to its original approach for that concept.
The further along we can nudge our story on that high-concept continuum, the easier time we—and our readers—will have telling others about our story. As Jeff said, if we can grab the imagination of others with our story idea or log line, we’ve made the first step to making a sale. *smile*
Have you heard the phrase high concept before, and did you have a clear understanding of what the phrase means? Does Jeff’s list of qualities make sense and help you understand what goes into a high-concept story? Which quality resonates most strongly with you? Do any of your story ideas have a strong high concept, or are you still not sure? Do you have any questions for Jeff?Pin It