Archive | March, 2008

What is High Concept?

Several of my loyal blog readers have asked what a “high concept” novel is.

Some of you guessed that it’s one where the stakes are high, and that’s basically it. The higher the stakes, the higher the concept.

For example, in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, an assassin is offered half a million dollars in 1962 to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. Those are pretty high stakes. Killing somebody is always high stakes. When that “somebody” is a head of state, it raises the stakes.

In my novel TRANSGRESSION, a physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul. I would consider this a higher concept novel than THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, because a success here would have massive implications for the last two thousand years of Western civilization.

In the movie TERMINATOR, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a robot sent back in time to kill the mother of the one man who prevented the robots from taking over the stakes. This is very high stakes, since the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance here (not just the direction of western civilization).

In the movie ARMAGEDDON, an asteroid is heading toward the earth that will destroy all above-ground life, not just humans, but animals and vegetation and will remake the surface of the earth. This is extremely high stakes — the whole planet stands to lose.

In the movie STAR WARS, our Jedi heroes must defend the galaxy from the evil Emperor and his minion Darth Vader. This is pretty darn high stakes — a whole galaxy. This Emperor can and does destroy planets at the press of a button.

The five examples I’ve given are all high concept, but they are progressively higher concept because progressively more is at stake in each one.

Please note that a great novel does not have to be high concept. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in fact, anything by Jane Austen) is pretty low concept. But Janey is still a great novelist, because her stories are intensely personal.

Also note that a really shlocky novel can be very high concept. There are any number of badly written spy novels written during the Cold War that had quite high concepts and pretty terrible execution.

Fantasy novels tend to be high-concept. THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the Narnia series, and the Harry Potter series all involve horrific global battles between good and evil. These are great fiction (in spite of certain well-known “flaws” in craft) because they are both high in concept and at the same time intensely personal.

You should not stress too much on whether your novel is high-concept. If you like that kind of fiction, then you’re likely to write it. If you don’t like it, then you’re not likely to write it, at least not very well. High-concept novels are supposedly more likely to be big money-makers, but a novel still needs to have quality. And yes, there are some exceptions. Some very bad novels make obscene amounts of money, but that’s a triumph of marketing over craft. Authors of such novels have to endure the contempt of their peers, so life is not all guns and roses for them.

Livinus, I Need Your Permission

In my last blog post, I critiqued a 53 word one-sentence summary by Livinus and got it down to about 16 words. Livinus edited it slightly today.

Livinus can you email me or post a comment here? I’d like permission to show this example in my e-zine tomorrow, since I think it’ll be educational. Let me know if that’s OK.

Best regards,

More Critiques of One Sentence Summaries

Last week I challenged you all to post a one-sentence summary of your novel. This is the first step in my Snowflake Method, but even non-Snowflakers need to figure this out at some point. The reason — your one-sentence summary is critical to marketing your book.

Many dozens of you posted one-sentence summaries of your works in progress. I’m working through them now to critique as many as I can. So let’s pick up where we left off:

Hope wrote:

A young girl strives to earn her own calf as her family migrates westward during the winter of 1806.

Randy sez: This is a good solid one-sentence summary. It is not a high-concept summary, but the book is not a high-concept book.

First point: It’s a book for kids, but I’m not quite sure what age group. Being more specific would cue us in more clearly on what age the book is targeted to. Let’s assume the target market is 8 to 10 year olds. (Could be older or younger, so this is my guess.) You always want your POV character to be at the top end of the range of your readers, because all kids want to be older. So let’s specify that she’s 10.

Second point: This is a historical novel, so let’s set the stage early in the sentence. This lets us backload the sentence with emotive content at the tail of the sentence.

Final point: “Migrates westward” is pretty vague. In those days, “West” might have been Ohio or Tennessee. It’d be nice to be specific. I have no idea where “westward” is, so I’m going to make a stab and call it Ohio.

Here’s my first cut at a new sentence. I’ve supplied it with more specific words, but Hope will have to insert the real data:

“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl scrambles to earn money to buy her own calf as her family moves to the Ohio river valley.”

This is a little long, and I’m not sure whether we even need the bit about the family move. Which is more central to the plot? We might shorten this to:

“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl scrambles to earn money to buy her own calf.”

Alternatively, if the focus is the move itself:

“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl makes the dangerous move with her family to the Ohio river valley.”

Livinus posted this longish one-sentence summary:

“African most endearing young researcher steals a secret manuscript, dating the time of the Algerian revolution against French occupation, to track down the leader of a weird anti-western civilisation movement and win the $120m reward the US is offering, little knowing who was behind the offer of his research grant and why.”

Sorry folks, I know that this is too long, but I want Randy to tighten it up so we can all learn from it

Randy sez: Yes, this is way long. There are some nice points to it, but I count 53 words and 5 distinct plot ideas. That is about 40 words and 4 plot ideas too many.

What’s good here? Lots. For starters, we have a fairly unique character (at least to US readers), a “young African researcher.” I’d be interested to know what kind of researcher. Livinus knows, but I don’t, so I’m going to supply a possible specific example out of many. I’m going to make him a political scientist, for no good reason, just because.

So now we’ve got a character: “A young African political scientist”.

Good, what’s next? Well, we’ve got way too many plot threads here, so let’s trim. What’s the most important thing going on here? This researcher is pursuing Somebody Bad. Let’s trim up the description of that Somebody. There are a lot of choices, but I’m going to use “shadowy anti-Western militant”. That has some good hypey words in it, familiar to everybody who reads this genre, which is “spooky conspiracy suspense novel”.

OK, so we’ve got a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. Now let’s add a verb and a motive.

The verb is easy: “tracks”. The other possible alternative is “pursues”. Both of them are good, strong verbs. Both are overused, but in this genre, we aren’t LOOKING for new verbs. We’re looking for explosions, car chases, and secrets. Livinus will deliver those, we hope.

The motive is also easy: “$120 million”. Yeah, that gets most people’s attention. There was a study once that showed that the average person would be willing to kill a stranger for less than $10 million. So $120 Big Boys will motivate our researcher Good Guy.

Let’s put all this together and see what we’ve got so far:

“A young African political scientist tracks a shadowy anti-Western militant for a $120 million reward.”

We’ve now got 16 words, 2 characters, 1 plot, and we’re almost there. I’d say to make “African” more specific. This is up to Livinus, who actually knows the story. What kind of African do we have here? Nigerian? Ghanaian? Zimbabwean? South African? Being specific says that you have done your research. It tells people that you know something about one particular culture within Africa. It says that you know something about political science (or whatever the specialty of your researcher). When you use vague words, it sounds like you’re just pulling stuff out of your ear. For that matter, it might be nice to get a little more specific about that Bad Guy. Islamic Bad Guys have been overdone left, so what do we have left? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet Livinus knows. Let’s see a 2 or 3 word description of a Bad Guy who hasn’t been done. That would get any editor’s attention.

Take a look at my favorite example, from my novel Transgression:

“A physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”

11 words, 2 characters, 1 plot. Notice how specific those nouns are? I used “physicist”, not “scientist.” I named a specific target, rather than saying something vague and general like “destroy the foundations of early Christianity”.

Notice one other thing. I said nothing about the protagonist. You know there has to be one, but you have no idea who he might be. In fact, he is a she. That in itself might be interesting, but it is not crucial. This is a high-concept novel, and with that kind of a storyline, less is more. Designers know that you achieve elegance when there is nothing more that can be REMOVED.

So if you’re doing a high-concept one-sentence summary, keep asking yourself: “What else can I remove from this sentence?”

We’ll pick up tomorrow with a critique of the next few one-sentence summaries. See ya then!

Critiquing Your One Sentence Summaries

Yesterday, I challenged all of my blog readers to come up with a one-sentence summary for your novel. All I can say is, “Wow!” As of right now, 53 of you have posted a comment with a one-sentence summary. Several of these are stellar. Many of them are very good. A few need work, but all in all, I’m very impressed.

What I’d like to do is work through the entire list and critique each one. Please understand that there is no objective way to judge these things. So I’m going to critique them the only way I know how–using my own inner compass of what sings and what croaks. My compass is not infallible. But it’s mine, and it’s all I’ve got to go on.

By the way, let me interject something here. People often email me asking how they can “pay me back” for the effort I put into this blog. Well, if you’re going to twist my arm and insist on doing something nice for me, here’s one thing that I’d never say no to: Put a link to this web site on your own web site or blog. If you have a blogroll, it takes only a minute to add this blog. Incoming links would tickle my tummy. Links are the gift that keeps on giving.

Getting back to the tangent, let’s go straight down the list and see what we see.

Chris wrote:

A university student interns at a pharmaceutical company that is performing dangerous experiments on people.

Randy sez: I like that. It’s a fairly high-concept story. Here are a couple of ideas to make it stronger:

1) Can you tell more about this university student? Does he or she have some significant personal problem that IN ITSELF will make things more difficult? (For example, in John Olson’s book ADRENALINE, a university student with muscular dystrophy was racing the clock to develop a drug that would save his sister, who had the same affliction.)

2) Tell us more about those pesky “dangerous experiments”. Can you bring those to life and make them more vivid in a few words? In one of Ken Follett’s novels (I think it was TRIPLE), there was a Holocaust survivor who had spent all of World War II having the Nazi doctors come in and break his leg in the same place. They wanted to see how a bone healed if you kept breaking it again every day. Now THAT’S vivid!

Daan wrote:

A successful lawyer vows to revenge the rape and murder of his wife and daughter.

Randy sez: Excellent! Another very strong high-concept novel. And Daan, you’re a lawyer, aren’t you? You should highlight that in your proposal.

Can we make this stronger? I think maybe we can. A “successful lawyer” is not nearly so interesting as a lawyer who’s having some kind of problem. Alcoholic lawyers have probably been overdone. But there are all sorts of personal problems a lawyer can have. What personal problem can you give him? You want your reader to identify with your POV character, and many people don’t identify well with a guy who’s got it all. So take away some of “it” from that lawyer. Harry Potter was likeable, in part because he came out of such a miserable family–those dreadful Dursleys.

I’m wondering if you can backload the sentence in some way to put a kick in the teeth at the very end of the sentence? You have several highly emotive words there: vows, revenge, rape, murder, wife, daughter. They’re spread throughout the sentence and so the whole sentence is pretty heavy. You’ve got rape AND murder. You’ve got wife AND daughter. That’s a LOT. I’m wondering if you can say more about the villain who did it, if only to get a few neutral words in the middle of the sentence before you give us the kicker at the end.

On the other hand, I may be too picky here. This is an awfully strong sentence.

Camille wrote:

A resigned widower’s heart is mended by a woman who discovers she doesn’t have long to live.

Randy sez: The first thing I see here is the word “mended”. That’s a relief! It tells me I don’t NEED to read this story, because I know he’ll come out mended. I don’t think that’s what you want to do. Don’t tell me the solution. Tell me the problem and make me worry that there isn’t a solution.

The next thing I see is “resigned widower” which doesn’t intrigue me nearly as much as a “one-armed trapeze artist” or a “standup comedian with panic disorder” or any character that has some interior conflict. “Resigned” sounds boring, and Camille, your writing is absolutely stellar, not boring at all.

The last thing I see is that the lady doesn’t have long to live. And I wonder what’s wrong? Can you be more specific? Details!

Brett wrote:

A high school student possessed by the ghost of his older step-sister moves back to his hometown.

Randy sez: This starts with a lot of sizzle. The word “older” is not really needed here, since the ghost of any sister, younger or older, is just as interesting.

I’d say the ending could be stronger. He moves back to the old hometown and then . . . what? Where’s the conflict? What’s the story question?

This has tons of potential, but tell me why I have to keep turning the pages!

Yeggy wrote:

A naïve teenage girl searches for her parents in a post apocalyptic world.

Randy sez: I think this has all the elements of a strong story; it needs some sharpening though. Can you strengthen “naive teenager” a bit? What’s her internal conflict? Remember, Harry Potter isn’t just a “boy wizard.” He’s an “orphaned and oppressed boy wizard”.

My second question is: what happened to her parents? Are they dead? Lost? Kidnapped? Hiding? Can you give us a few details to bring them into focus?

Finally, it seems to me that the post-apocalyptic world might be better to put right at the beginning, so we can focus on the conflict. Setting is rarely as kicky as characters and conflict, so put the setting first. I’m thinking of something like this:

“In a post-apocalyptic world, a teen beggar searches for her wealthy kidnapped parents.” Or whatever. I’d like to see something that adds some intensity to the desire.

OK, that’s enough for today. Tomorrow, I’ll continue critiquing more of your one-sentence summaries.

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