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Pinchofmagic

Discussion - High Concept

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"Some like it hot" (1959)

 

I'm trying to construct a comedic plot for my Urban Fantasy at the moment, and I realised I have a hard time even constructing a clear premise for it. At the core, I don't know what my novel is about yet. I have some ideas about a crumbling city block and the people working hard to keep it from collapsing. But at its core... I dunno.

That turned me onto the High Concept-road. 

 

Hard to define sometimes, but a High Concept-story can be summarized in a short (1-3 sentences) way, illuminating the premise, and what makes this story unique. It creates a curiosity to hear more. It can also be a What If-question. Maybe mostly used for movies in the past, but I understand the trend has moved firmly into the literature-sphere as well. 

 

Comedies in particular seem to have High Concepts. The premise is funny in itself, like: "Two male musicians dresses up as women to hide from mobsters in an all-female orchestra" (Some like it hot). Or "A dim-witted man of leisure hires scheming, intellectual valet" (Jeeves and Wooster). Or "Gaudy lounge singer hides from mobsters in a nunnery" (Sister Act). Or "A slacker Rocker-wannabe cons his way into serious teaching position at prep school" (School of Rock). It kinda breaths funny in one sentence.

 

Looking at the examples above, a few of my favourite comedies, they involve the main character/s very strongly and they keep it simple with clear identifiers (singer, slacker...). The fish out of water-story, or polar opposites, are very prominent as a major conflict. I also think they have obvious potential for humour. So, I guess those are the key things to bring into my premise. Still, it's gonna be hard keeping it quite as pithy.  

 

Have you ever tried to turn your story premise into a High Concept, and did it help with plotting it? Do you dislike the High Concept in literature? Are books too complicated to be distilled into 1-3 sentences?

Any toughts on High Concept are welcome. :)

 

For anyone who wanna know more about High Concept-premises, Writer's Digest have two good articles explaining it:

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/writing-fiction-online-editor/what-is-and-isnt-high-concept-fiction-and-how-do-you-pitch-it

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/write-better-the-7-qualities-of-high-concept-stories

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I've heard it described as an "elevator pitch" or "logline".

IMO, high-concept is more useful after you've written the thing, but while writing it can serve as a compass. I was about to say that I don't use "high concept" for plotting, but then I realised that somewhere in the notes there is usually 1 or 2 lines that distils the story, so guess I lied. I find the good ideas (that I'm likely to finish!) are the ones that are the most simple, and that have a strong core idea that everything grows from naturally, like the petals of a flower.  So, I usually use it towards the end as a 'test' for my idea to see if it holds together.

But its main function is avoiding those moments when someone asks: "so what's your novel about?", and you stare at them.

Or worse, you go: "Well, you see, it's about a person... and they have to get a thing... and then this other thing happens and uhhhhhhh"

One sign of a good story is when the person telling it knows what it's about. It's easy to lose people in your Amulets of Agrim'moth, doomed prophecies and perfectly clockwork magic systems, if the readers don't know who any of these people are or why they should care.

Edited by roadmagician
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14 hours ago, roadmagician said:

But its main function is avoiding those moments when someone asks: "so what's your novel about?", and you stare at them.

Or worse, you go: "Well, you see, it's about a person... and they have to get a thing... and then this other thing happens and uhhhhhhh"

Lol! O, I've sounded like lunatic trying describe a story, which still haunts me to this day. The ghosts of pitches past... 

Yeah, I do see a real advantage of having the story idea spelled out early on, especially when it comes to the main character and the main external conflict. For me, the initial idea rarely changes, but I can get swept away in the plot, so a logline could keep me on track and remind me of what's important. I think your explanation that other people don't really care about amulets or magic systems is spot on. Really spot on. People care about characters and their problem, preferably a relatable and interesting problem. So leaving magic stuff out of the summary as much as possible, I find that to be really good advice. :)

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On 2/5/2019 at 4:10 PM, roadmagician said:

But its main function is avoiding those moments when someone asks: "so what's your novel about?"...

 "It's about 100 thousand words."  ;)

Okay, seriously, I can see why it's handy to have a nice little one or two sentence description worked up.  But I almost never end up in an elevator with anyone, so I don't bother to memorize mine.  

I couldn't write to one if I wanted to: my brain just doesn't work like that.  The characters walk into my head dragging their stories behind them, and so there it is.  I have to figure out how to describe it after it has already happened.

Furthermore, as a reader, I don't find that the ability to distill the story down to a "high concept" makes it any better.  Frequently, I find myself thinking that "high concept" stories feel gimicky.  I'm not reading for a cool concept; I'm reading for good characters, solid plots,  a sense of place, and some fun.  If you give two different writers exact same concept to work from, I could easily hate the one resulting story and love the other.  

... and as a result, I'll try reading almost anything that doesn't sound too dark or icky or stupid.  Fortunately I'm not one of those people who can't bring themselves to put a book down once they've started it.  :)

 

 

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Attention, an elevator pitch/logline/one-sentence-summary and high concept are not the same thing. You can do a pitch for any story, high concept is rather a category of stories - high concept means there is something original and unique about the story that hasn't been done before and that will make readers pick up the book just for the concept.

14 hours ago, LShelby said:

Frequently, I find myself thinking that "high concept" stories feel gimicky.  I'm not reading for a cool concept; I'm reading for good characters, solid plots,  a sense of place, and some fun.

That's because high concept stories will often sell even though they're poorly written. Ideally, a story has a cool concept and compelling characters and an intriguing setting. The sad truth is that publishing is all about money, and if a story will sell for the concept, publishers will turn a blind eye on poor writing style, flat characters and boring settings.

 

I have a one-sentence-summary for every single one of my projects, because of the way how I develop my stories (I use a modified version of the snowflake method). It helps me to direct my brainstorming and plotting in the right direction.
Only one of my projects might be high concept though - I'd have to do a market research to be sure about that, and as it's currently on the backburner, I didn't bother to check if there are stories with a similar concept out there yet.

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10 hours ago, Manu said:

Attention, an elevator pitch/logline/one-sentence-summary and high concept are not the same thing. You can do a pitch for any story, high concept is rather a category of stories - high concept means there is something original and unique about the story that hasn't been done before and that will make readers pick up the book just for the concept.

Wandering slightly off-topic, but I'm wondering how possible this is in this age, where there are exponentially more stories (and potential variations). What classifies as "hasn't been done before"? Is it purely the originality of the idea - what is considered original? why? - or is it the way the idea is executed? Is it those "genre starters"? (much how Star Wars was sort of a pivotal movie for many people, or how Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian inspired a lot of fantasy) Is it actually possible to identify what will be influential/popular/amazing before it gets popular? On the other hand, I'm sure there are examples of things that did poorly at first (in sales or box office etc) that were "found" later on.

Does a concept go out of fashion for a while and then loop back around to become 'high concept' again? The word "gimmicky" was used - does this imply the quality of writing is 'bad' or 'simple', does it still have worth if it's "just a gimmick"? I mean, you could argue that Star Wars (the first movie etc) is a fairly simple story with a classic hero-ish sort of plot, but also enduring in popular culture. Does 'high concept' rule out, say, 'litfic'?

Most importantly: Do publishers have a mysterious prediction machine that spits out little bits of paper with high-concept ideas on them that will probably sell, or do they just play dice with the universe?

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On ‎2‎/‎9‎/‎2019 at 6:49 AM, LShelby said:

"It's about 100 thousand words."  ;)

Okay, seriously, I can see why it's handy to have a nice little one or two sentence description worked up.  But I almost never end up in an elevator with anyone, so I don't bother to memorize mine.  

Just wait, one of these days a series of wacky accidents will occur and then before you know it you're trapped in a lift with Allen & Unwin's equivalent of Miranda Priestly. Think quick! Not that that's ever happened to me...

On ‎2‎/‎9‎/‎2019 at 6:49 AM, LShelby said:

I couldn't write to one if I wanted to: my brain just doesn't work like that.  The characters walk into my head dragging their stories behind them, and so there it is.  I have to figure out how to describe it after it has already happened. 

Furthermore, as a reader, I don't find that the ability to distill the story down to a "high concept" makes it any better.  Frequently, I find myself thinking that "high concept" stories feel gimicky.  I'm not reading for a cool concept; I'm reading for good characters, solid plots,  a sense of place, and some fun.  If you give two different writers exact same concept to work from, I could easily hate the one resulting story and love the other

For what it's worth, my brain works like that too. It's why I couldn't do the snowflake method. So do many writers - characters are crucial! - though I imagine there was the first spark of an idea or character or something that caught your interest. 🙂

On the one hand, I agree that a story needs more than just a cool concept. "OK, so you have ice monsters and a lost princess, but why should I care, who are these people?" I've read a few books and watched a few movies that sounded cool from the blurbs or summaries but ended up disappointing. On the other hand, I don't think that being "high concept" necessarily makes a story gimmicky. Rather, what do they do with that concept and do they add all of the things you just mentioned - plot, setting, character, a sense of fun. Some people work differently and start with that one-line idea first.

Giving a high concept pitch to two completely different writers sounds like a fun game actually. Let's lock them in an elevator and see what they come up with! fight fight fight

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11 hours ago, Manu said:

I have a one-sentence-summary for every single one of my projects, because of the way how I develop my stories (I use a modified version of the snowflake method). It helps me to direct my brainstorming and plotting in the right direction.

I think this is kinda what I'm aiming for, with a bit of high concept thinking. Pulling out what's special about my story, and what's at the core of it, in order to aim my own writing focus and the direction of the story, just the way you do it. I think you're right that High Concept in publishing tends to be this Wow-factor of a pitch, a thing that sells the book, so I kinda need to write one that sells the story to myself, lol! 

On 2/8/2019 at 9:19 PM, LShelby said:

Furthermore, as a reader, I don't find that the ability to distill the story down to a "high concept" makes it any better.  Frequently, I find myself thinking that "high concept" stories feel gimicky.  I'm not reading for a cool concept; I'm reading for good characters, solid plots,  a sense of place, and some fun.  If you give two different writers exact same concept to work from, I could easily hate the one resulting story and love the other.  

Oh, totally. I don't think they necessarily make a story better, just easier to sell. It definitely needs all the things you listed. High Concept can get a bit annoying, especially when it gets all business-like, and some stories just reek of cool idea-syndrome. I like how the other commentors used a very short summary as a way of boiling down their story to the bare essentials to build the plot in a more focused way though, so I'll try that and see if it works. :)  

 

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I can only vaguely grok the need to "focus a plot" but I'm totally believing that having some kind of statement of intent would make it easier.

Oh, hey... I like that.  (Am I allowed to admit that?)  A "statement of intent" could be plot based for people who need to focus their plot, but for authors who need different kinds of focus, it could end up being more about the moral or the mood or whatever, and still be a useful tool.

In the third book of my epic high fantasy, my statement of intent was "I want this to be as romantic as possible for a story in which the romantic interest hardly makes an appearance."  I didn't need to worry about focusing the plot, I already knew what all the major plot points were.  But the devil's in the details, they say.  That statement helped me figure out a lot of important not-plot stuff.

But it's not very "high concept".  :)

A plot summary would have been on the order of "Leaving [romantic interest] behind, Prince Asond and his guards head into the wilderness in search of [plot coupon B], and must deal with the many dangerous creatures inhabiting the area, harsh terrain, and the onset of another fierce northern winter." 

As for what's unique about it:  "In order to prevent the girl he has reluctantly come to care for from accompanying him on yet another dangerous journey, Prince Asond has agreed to take a powerful wizard in her place.  Unfortunately, the wizard travels with a juvenile pixie who despises the snarky prince, and has an endless stream of magical pranks to play on him.  Finding a lost city deep within enemy-inhabited territory is hard enough.  Doing it with his hair turned three different noxious shades of green, his bootlaces knotted together, and his bedroll full of bugs and thorns seems too high a price to pay."

 

20 hours ago, roadmagician said:

Some people work differently and start with that one-line idea first.

I can believe that, and I can also believe that if that's the natural way for them to work that they do a good job with it.

It just irks me a lot when certain agents go around saying that authors should just start there all the time, so I tend to rant a bit.  ::rueful::

 

20 hours ago, roadmagician said:

Giving a high concept pitch to two completely different writers sounds like a fun game actually. Let's lock them in an elevator and see what they come up with! fight fight fight

::giggle::

 

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On 2/9/2019 at 10:03 PM, roadmagician said:

Wandering slightly off-topic, but I'm wondering how possible this is in this age, where there are exponentially more stories (and potential variations). What classifies as "hasn't been done before"? Is it purely the originality of the idea - what is considered original? why? - or is it the way the idea is executed? Is it those "genre starters"? (much how Star Wars was sort of a pivotal movie for many people, or how Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian inspired a lot of fantasy) Is it actually possible to identify what will be influential/popular/amazing before it gets popular? On the other hand, I'm sure there are examples of things that did poorly at first (in sales or box office etc) that were "found" later on.

I agree that being original is getting harder the more concepts have already been explored by others! Genre starters are definitely candidates for high concept novels, others are those that combine old ideas in a new way, like i.e. The Hunger Games did - dystopy was there before, teenagers fighting for their lives against monsters was there before, but teenagers fighting against each other for survial was new (well, actually Battle Royale did it before, but it didn't become as popular - can't say why as I haven't read it yet, but timing does play an important role, and having a strong female main character and adding romance might have helped the marketing of Suzanne Collins' work).
It's actually very hard to predict what will become popular - Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected multiple times because it's so hard to predict if something is going to be popular.

On 2/9/2019 at 10:03 PM, roadmagician said:

Does a concept go out of fashion for a while and then loop back around to become 'high concept' again? The word "gimmicky" was used - does this imply the quality of writing is 'bad' or 'simple', does it still have worth if it's "just a gimmick"? I mean, you could argue that Star Wars (the first movie etc) is a fairly simple story with a classic hero-ish sort of plot, but also enduring in popular culture. Does 'high concept' rule out, say, 'litfic'?

From my understanding of 'high concept': No, because something doesn't become original only because it has been out of fashion for a while. It can become popular again, like dystopy did in recent years after being pretty much out of fashion for decades, but popularity and high concept are not the same thing.
'high concept' definitely does not rule out good writing, but publishers are willing to turn a blind eye on mediocre writing style if they believe the concept will sell, so authors can get away with stuff that would have earned them a rejection if the idea had not been as original. Star Wars was actually the first movie to consciously use the Hero's Journey for story structure - Joseph Campbell had researched myths and ancient stories from all over the world, and found out that certain patterns are found across a vast variety of cultures, supposedly because our brains are hardwired to prefer certain types of stories, because those resonate strongly with people. I'm not that into SciFi, so I might be wrong, but I dare claim that the idea of Star Wars was probably not new, but Lucas was smart enough to take Campbell's research and apply it to his own writing to create a story that strongly resonated with the audience.

On 2/9/2019 at 10:03 PM, roadmagician said:

Most importantly: Do publishers have a mysterious prediction machine that spits out little bits of paper with high-concept ideas on them that will probably sell, or do they just play dice with the universe? 

Nope, that's what literature agents and editors of publishing houses do - they have to decide whether there will be a target audience for a manuscript they get. That's why Harry Potter was rejected by so many publishers, and that's why there are barely any YA novels without romance out there - publishing something that hasn't been done before does have a nonnegligible risk of failing, and a lot of the work agents and editors do is risk assessment.

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2 hours ago, LShelby said:

It just irks me a lot when certain agents go around saying that authors should just start there all the time, so I tend to rant a bit.  ::rueful::

That is a werid agent - they should know that different things work for different authors, that is their job as agent...
I'd agree with them if they had been talking about the synopsis, because a one-sentence-summary is indeed a good way to start your synopsis and it will help sell a book, but I strongly disagree when it comes to writing a novel.

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On 2/10/2019 at 10:19 PM, Manu said:

It's actually very hard to predict what will become popular - Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected multiple times because it's so hard to predict if something is going to be popular.

Oh, yes! I actually read something about that. It had to do with the massive amount of magic school fantasy books that had apparently flooded the market, so everyone in the business were fed up with it at that time: "No more magic schools!" But I mean, her audience for the first few books were pretty young, they didn't know about these other books probably, and so they loved it. I also think it was partly her use of comedy in the characters and the worldbuilding that really helped her books to stand out, because they're not really all that original when it comes to plot or tropes, but they have a very fun feel about them. Another was that she brought in such a heavy backstory with adult characters, to capture the adult audience... Okay, I'm going off topic as an old potterhead here. But yeah, her books didn't have a unique idea or "concept" at all (rather the opposite when you look at the reaction from the publishing houses) and the popularity seems to be resting on the execution and its ability to grab people. So it is totally hard to predict popularity, and it seems books definitely don't need high concepts to succeed.  

 

On 2/9/2019 at 10:03 PM, roadmagician said:

On the other hand, I'm sure there are examples of things that did poorly at first (in sales or box office etc) that were "found" later on.

I think Firefly would be one of those things, as a show that really tanked hard on TV, and now it's like a modern classic. It had a high concept too. "Cowboys in space." Maybe it shows that originality is not always sellable, and that it sometimes can appear as if the creators tried just a bit too hard at the originality for people to bite. What eventually won people over was probably the characters and the comedic script, and not the concept itself, but that's just my own theory. :)

 

On 2/10/2019 at 8:06 PM, LShelby said:

I can only vaguely grok the need to "focus a plot" but I'm totally believing that having some kind of statement of intent would make it easier.

With the focus I guess it's like a thick thread running through the story. I write freestanding adventure books, not really huge in any way, and I don't have multiple POV-characters, so having a red thread spelled out is maybe easier for that kind of books: "Odd-job worker in an all-witch neighbourhood steals a magic codex to exact revenge for dead brother". It's something that includes the most important things for my main character. In one sentence it hints to external and internal goals, and backstory along with the present situation, and it also explains the setting. I tend to start really simple with my stories, and then they just grow, like from earth worm to a five-headed dragon, and I'm also easily distacted by stuff, so if I have something to remind me of where I should focus my character's actions and toughts, then I'm less likely to get too much off track when drafting - well, that's the theory anyway, lol! 

I really like your statement of intent though, and I think you're absolutely right that different writers need different ways to focus their project. Also, writing down what could possibly be a difficult thing with the book could be really helpful to focus a lot of attention on that particular problem in order to solve it. So having a few things spelled out short and clear about the story like you did (I really liked the sound of your story! A lot of fun!) can help some writers while drafting, I think. But like one of the articles says, a lot of books can't be summarized in such a concise way, so it seems its usefulness in drafting just depends on the writer's personal work preferences. :)

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On 2/12/2019 at 8:42 AM, Pinchofmagic said:

I'm also easily distacted by stuff,

I tend to write from the pov of extremely driven characters who don't leave much room for distractions.  

If I have a worry for the current WIP, it's that it's too darn serious all the time.  :(

...I wonder if I could come up with a statement of intent that would help me fix that.

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3 hours ago, LShelby said:

I tend to write from the pov of extremely driven characters who don't leave much room for distractions.  

If I have a worry for the current WIP, it's that it's too darn serious all the time.  😞

...I wonder if I could come up with a statement of intent that would help me fix that.

Interesting, because I also have seriousness as a default in my writing, or at least I did for a long time. Unfortunately it's not what I enjoy to read, so I had to really lighten up in my writing. It took some work before humour came easier and in a way that felt natural to me, and I still struggle with it sometimes. It would actually be an interesting topic in the general writing forum to hear if people write what they love to read, if the mood they envision for their stories comes easy to them or if it's a struggle. And I totally envy your extremely driven characters and lack of distractions. I love to write characters with a lot of stuff to do, but I need a really strong plot first, which unfortunately I have to write my way into, leaving room for some wrong turns. That's frustrating and time-consuming sometimes. :) 

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