29 April 2009

High Concept: What, Why and How?

When I first heard the term 'high concept', my first thought was 'literary'. I assumed, because of the word 'high', that high concept novels were those outstanding literary-style (although they may be genre fic too) books that go on to win prizes, that talk about the deep and meaningful of life, that everyone loves and adores because they matter - the books that become 'literary classics'.

In a way, I was right.

But in another, bigger way, I was wrong. Because the sister assumption to my definition assumption was that there was no way I could write high concept fiction. Not yet. Not without learning a whole lot more about life and people and literature.

Beep. Wrong!

I, as I am right now, and you, as you are right now, can write high concept fiction. Because it isn't actually as complicated as it sounds.

But first, why do we want to write high concept fiction? Never mind what it is - why do we have to care? Well, morals and creative impulses and desire to matter and all that aside, here's one very good reason why you want to write high concept fiction:

Because it's what agents are looking for.

Seriously. It's true. Everyone wants something high concept, because high concept sells.

So, what is high concept fiction? Basically, it boils down to this:

"Story ideas, treatments and screenplays can all have High Concept premises. But only High Concept projects can be sold from a pitch because they are pitch driven. Non-High Concept projects can’t be sold from a pitch because they are execution driven. They have to be read to be appreciated and their appeal isn’t obvious by merely running a logline past someone."


It's instantly obvious, reading this, that high concept is what agents want, and what can make your story stand out to the agents who read your queries. The gang over at Murderati put it this way, in what is perhaps the single best explanation of it that I've ever read, the one that made all these nebulous ideas I had about it click into place:

"If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is - AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it - that’s high concept. ... Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” - you’ve got a high-concept premise."

Isn't that exactly the reaction we all want from agents, editors, publishers and readers?

So, how do we learn which ideas are the ones that will illicit this reaction? How do we learn what a high concept idea looks like? One word.

Practice.

If you read through the rest of that article on Murderati, you'll see that the author learned high concept in a script-writing course where students had to come up with a pitch a week, which they presented to the class. For every pitch that was made, the pitcher added a dollar to the prize jar, and the pitch the class voted as the winner received the prize.

With that kind of motivation you learn pretty quickly what works and what doesn't.

So, as of today, I'm giving us all an opportunity to practice coming up with high concept pitches. If you look over in the sidebar, you'll see there's a poll. Those are this week's sentences: three pitches for three brand new ideas I invented off the top of my head this week, just for this purpose.

Each week there will be a new three sentences, and every forth week I'll post the three previous winners to come up with a 'grand winner' for each almost-month.

How does this help you learn? Well, you can learn simply by observing which sentences win - but I'm also giving you the chance to participate. At any time, you can email me at blot.of.ink(@)gmail(.)com with a pitch - or several - and I'll put it in the queue of sentences to appear :) Please include the word 'pitch' in your subject heading - and remember, a pitch is one or two sentences only!

As an interesting addendum, while I was creating these sentences I learned something very important: like creating The Sentence (a very similar concept to the logline, only a bit stricter in its parameters), it's not just the idea, it's how you phrase it. Take the first sentence for example. The original version was:

A newly orphaned girl sets out to determine whether she belongs to the tribe of the ocean or the age-old forest, but discovers the answer is much larger than either.

which I think we can all agree is a lot more boring. Why? Because the focus is on a passive conflict, not an active one. The key verbs are determine and discovers. However, in the new version:

At her father's funeral the people of the sea and the creatures of the forest both arrive to claim the newly orphaned girl for their own - and neither side is willing to let her get away.

the focus switches from her decision (totally internal, potentially very boring, and at the very least cliched) to the fight between the clans for her (external, potentially exciting, a lot less cliched; after all, not every girl is fought over by the ocean and the forest ;)).

Here's to high concept pitching, and to learning how to grab agents' attention! :)

PS - Love this quote from an excellent related article:

"Forgive me as I shrink a few inches, apply some lipstick, don a print dress and look at you from over my glasses as I mix a bowl of cookie dough. Yes, I have become your mother, in order to say this: 'It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.'
Meaning: It's just as easy to be passionate about a story with some known elements as it is to be passionate about a story with no known elements.
"

What do you think? Should we be choosey about which ideas we fall in love with? Or is it art for arts' sake?

4 comments:

Windsong said...

So...we want all our friends and colleagues to want to kill us, huh? :P

Awesome post, Inky. My brain is hurting from its sheer awesomeness. Thank you for translating the writers speak for the rest of us. Very good definition and great examples!

Merc said...

Awesome post, Inky! :D *absorbs*

Also, great definitions of high concept. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what this was, but that second quote definitely put it in nice perspective!

I definitely think you should pick and be choosy about which ideas you love--you're the one who has to live with said idea working on it ;) so I've always thought it a bit pointless to work on one that you don't love and are doing for 'art's sake' (who the hell CARES about art--do it because you love it).

I'm re-inspired to work on log lines in general now, thank you! :D

Lady Glamis said...

This was an awesome post, Inky! Really great food for thought! And I am excited to participate.

But am I completely blind? I don't see a poll anywhere... :(

Windsong said...

*breathes a sigh of relief*

I couldn't find it either. :D

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