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.

17 Comments

  1. M.L. Eqatin March 31, 2008 at 10:07 pm #

    Hmm. High-concept sounds like it refers to speculative fiction, fantasy, suspense, etc. I’m trying to fit historical fiction — not the kind with time-travel or alternate history, but real, well-researched HF — into the ‘concept’ mold. Would the fall of Richard III, or the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus, count as high-concept? Both events impacted history globally, but there isn’t much suspense now, is there?
    But that isn’t exactly low-concept, either. Might be quite sweeping and impersonal, battles and all that. Let’s take the Hornblower series, for example. Would you call that high-concept or low-concept?

  2. Daan Van der Merwe March 31, 2008 at 11:11 pm #

    Thanks for this Randy.

    Cogratulations Pam! Good to see you post again. I was beginning to think that you got lost in the Giant Redwood forest.

  3. Camille March 31, 2008 at 11:32 pm #

    Thanks, Randy, for noting that a novel does not have to be high concept to be great, and that intensely personal is a low but worthy concept. Although if Jane were alive today, I think she’d figure out a way to blow up a helicopter with subtle, ladylike irony. Or with Lady Catherine.

  4. Livinus April 1, 2008 at 8:23 am #

    High concept novels are the most difficult to write WELL. Problem:
    1. Your unbelievable story must be made believable, at least temporary in the world you create. The higher your concept the more prosaic your details must be – I think Randy’ knows better how to do this.
    2. The danger must be made visceral or personal at some point, so as to get deeply into the skin of a reader.

    Who cares if a planet size meteor is falling to earth, except a small fragment would hit a barren but now pregnant woman who in the spate of miscarriage would rush to the neighbourhood hospital to discover that the hospital electricity has also been damaged and . . .

    I sometimes fight the urge to keep working on high concepts, but have not succeeded yet.

  5. bonne friesen April 1, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Camille, you make me howl! Lady Catherine could blow up a helicopter with a glance!

  6. Karla April 1, 2008 at 5:34 pm #

    Regarding regional dialects that we talked about last week: I found a fun website that tests your vocabulary: http://www.angelfire.com/ak2/intelligencerreport/yankee_dixie_quiz.html

    Have fun!

  7. Tiffany Shaw April 2, 2008 at 8:16 am #

    M.L. Eqatin said, “Would the fall of Richard III, or the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus, count as high-concept? Both events impacted history globally, but there isn’t much suspense now, is there?”

    Sometimes, the stories that everyone knows about, or knows the end to, or knows the incidents that followed from it can be refreshed and made intense by telling the story from the perspective of a different character.

    I’m currently reading a fantasy novel called Night of Knives, the first book by Ian Cameron Esslemont. He’s writing a series concurrent to and based in the same world as Stephen Erikson’s series the Malazan Book of the Fallen, but this book is basically a prequel to Erikson’s books. But despite the fact that anyone who read Erikson’s series knows how Night of Knives turns out, the story is very gripping, because it’s told from the perspective of new characters. All of the very intense action takes place on one very high stakes night.

  8. Peter Knight April 2, 2008 at 7:12 pm #

    The notion did come from scriptwriting didn’t it? I’ve seen it described as ‘That which fits in a one line description’ – but not a ‘blurb’, and stakes would have to be high: So it seems that it could be a form of writing in a box, setting oneself constraints – which is very useful anyway. Good thing you brought this up; thank you.

  9. Helen August 10, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Huh? Maybe it’s different with books but that’s not the correct definition for films, and I don’t know why it would be different.

    High concept means that you can explain the premise quickly and easily.

    Ex. The Proposal – An older boss forces her younger assistant to marry her for citizenship.

    Something that isn’t high concept is based more on complex relationships that are hard to explain in one sentence. Like – Jane is coming of age and she can’t wrestle with her hatred for her cousin, yet her brother still hasn’t forgiven her for the trauma she cause him in kindergarten…

    If one concept can be “higher” than another, where is the break between high and low?

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  11. Charlie July 5, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    High concept means that the themes of the story are esoteric, rarefied, or lofty. It’s the exact opposite of what you just said it was.

    • Randy as Admin July 19, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

      Good heavens, Charlie. Where did you get this idea?

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