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.