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Saturday, July 28, 2012



High Concept Plots ~ What Are They and Why Do I Care?


What is a high concept plot? This is the million-dollar question. Different people have different answers, and after reading a lot about it, I haven’t found the definitive answer. I have come up with some theories about high concept novels, though.
First Theory: high concept stories sell because they're  a little shocking

In his excellent article on high concept, Steve Kaire says: 
In seeking originality, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. We can take traditional subject matter that's been done before and add a hook or twist to it which then qualifies the material as original. Using the kidnapping plot, there have been dozens of films which covered that subject area before. In the film Ransom, Mel Gibson plays a wealthy businessman whose son is kidnapped. That story in itself offers nothing new. The hook of the movie which makes it original is that instead of paying the ransom, Gibson uses the ransom money to pay for a contract hit on the kidnappers. That twist makes the film original and therefore High Concept.
Some plots are familiar and comfortable. There's room for such stories. But if you're trying to break in with agents and editors, I'm guessing something fresh is the way to go. When I’m judging fifty contest entries, I want something to POP off the page. And when agents and editors are reading through their hundreds upon hundreds of queries, they want the same thing. They want to be grabbed by something new and improved.

But they don’t want something so new that they don’t know what to do with it. They seem to want, most often, a fresh twist on an old idea.
Second Theory: high concept stories sell because they're familiar

We want something we loved in the past. We don’t want to commit to a journey into a strange and far-away place without having at least a trusted guide with us. What if we get lost? What if the food makes us sick? We need a security blanket with us, when you push us to try something fresh and exciting.

This is why people sometimes pitch high concepts using pitches that marry two familiar stories or concepts to give them a strange new feel:

  • Godzilla in Disneyland = Jurassic Park
  • Rags to riches story at the race track = Seabiscuit
  • Oliver Twist meets Superman = Harry Potter 
Third Theory: high concept stories sell because of they're universal 

They are universally appealing to your audience, I mean. I’m writing middle grade and young adult books for young readers, so if I’m looking for high concepts, I need to make sure my ideas appeal to young readers. They should plug readers into one or two of the following shared experiences or desires. 

My themes, settings, characters, and plots should be universally: 

·       longed-for
o   acceptance, a happy ending, security, success, a cause greater than ourselves, the hope of a creator who loves us and will take care of us, the desire to be worthy of love, the desire to live with integrity, the desire to save the world
·       feared
o   pain, death, being unloved, being the object of ridicule, being vulnerable
§  which play out in things like: suicide, 9/11, terrorist attack, shark attack, the dark, gym class
·       experienced (by us or by someone close to us)
o   school, parents, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, first kiss, success, failure, embarrassment, divorced parents, learning to drive, moving away from home, blamed for something you didn’t do
·       held with passion (loved or hated—controversy sells)
o   homosexuality, environmentalism, religion, spirituality, suicide, pregnancy, abortion
·       intriguing—what would you do?
o   what would you do if someone left a recording, blaming you for her suicide? (Th1rteen R3asons Why) What would you do if a vampire fell in love with you? (Twilight) What would you do if all the adults in the wold disappeared in one night? (Gone)
·       unexpected—they offer the twist
o   TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY was a twist on suicide, TWILIGHT was a twist on Eve and the forbidden fruit. ARTEMIS FOWL offers the twist on the fairy story with his fairies, and their L.E.P. Recon force, being sophisticated and using advanced technology, and with the child criminal mastermind who really loves his parents. (Let’s face it, Eoin Colfer’s books are full of twists—he has a twisted mind, I guess. I adore his books.)
·       known (a person or event)
o   Armageddon, Jack the Ripper, Atlantis, the president’s daughter, princesses,  
·       cool
o   super powers, bad boys who love good girls, take-charge heroines, looking inside yourself for the power to defeat your enemies

Okay. Those are my theories. What do you think? When you map out your books, do you ask yourself 1) what’s the universal hook? 2) what’s the familiar hook? and 3) what’s the fresh new twist? Do you think I’m right to say that this is the next level we have to take our writing to if we want to sell agents and editors on our stories? 

photo credit: Espen Faugstad via photo pin cc
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 has published short works in a number of places, has won various and sundry contests, and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She's between agents at present, and can be found blogging about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com

7 comments:

Patty Smith Hall said...

Great article, Sally!

Elaine Stock said...

Excellent, excellent information, Sally. Thanks so much for this gem of help.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks Patty and Elaine.

A friend asked on my Facebook page how THE HUNGER GAMES fit into my paradigm here.

I think that high concept books have to have all three hooks--the familiar hook, the fresh hook, and the universal hook.

So The Hunger Games is high concept, by my definition. 1) It is familiar: An older sibling sacrifices to fight the battles for the younger sibling, and a David fights a Goliath. 2) It is fresh: The Roman Colosseum on 21st century reality TV. 3) It is universal: it appeals to our desires for good to win against evil, our desires for the underdog to win, our desires to be super heroes who save the world, and our desires to love and be loved.

Cecelia said...

Actually, I don't really think of "high-concept" when plotting a book. If I did, I doubt I'd get anything written! .

I do think that books like The Hunger Games were popular because you have a game where kids are really killing one another to survive - and it was written in a way that the story sounds believable. I'm not sure if others will agree with this statement, but, when I was reading the Hunger Games, I was drawn into the story because I could actually imagine this happening in the future, and that made it so scary, so scary that I had to keep reading to see how things turned out for these characters.

Not sure about other high-concept stories. I did read the first Harry Potter book, but, although it was somewhat appealing to me, I didn't feel compelled to rush out and read the other titles (unlike the Hunger Games trilogy).

Interesting blog topic. Thanks for sharing.

~Cecelia Dowdy~
http://ceceliadowdy.com/blog/

Bonnie Doran said...

I found two sources of information on the concept of--well--high concept. One is a Writer's Digest Book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman, the other a discussion at the end of the new e-book version of The Fifth Man by Randy Ingermanson and John Olson.

I couldn't find any high concept in the science thriller I just finished writing, but it shocked me to discover I have one in my science fiction WIP. I don't think high concept is something you can stick into your novel after it's done. I think it has to be something that consciously or unconsciously drives the story as you write.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for commenting, Cecelia.

I guess the fact that you thought The Hunger Games could happen, means that the author succeeded in speaking to a universal fear and experience I had not considered. We live in a world where many of can imagine something like the Hunger Games happening. We live in a world with totalitarian governments and full of rich cities where people live in excess, getting rich off the slave labor in the villages.

And the fact that you didn't like Harry Potter, means, I suppose, that it wasn't universally appealing.

I still think Harry Potter was high concept, because it was the story of British boarding school, with the witchcraft and wizardry twist. In keeping with this, Rowling gave all the everyday things a twist. Earwax flavored jelly beans, pictures with people who moved, and instead of football or rugby, we had quidditch played on flying brooms. All of this was 1) familiar and it all had a 2) fresh twist, and the 3) universal longings were for someone to love us as a mother loves a child and for success at school and to be well thought of by our peers.

I don't think all high concept book appeal to all readers and I don't think books need to be high concept to sell or to be loved by readers. I simply believe that if we can tap into these three things we'll have a better chance of selling to more people than if we leave out any of these things.

sally apokedak said...

I agree, Bonnie, that we can't stick this in later. It does drive the novel. And I've found that when I plan this out before I write, I like my novels better, and I am better able to stay on track with them rather than wandering around lost.

I have that version of The Fifth Man. I should have read it before I posted this. :) I'll go read it now.

What about the Zuckerman book? Is it good? Do you recommend it?