Some of you might have heard the words “high-concept” thrown around in reference to a valuable or desirable type of manuscript or screenplay. Or maybe, like me, you spent four years getting a degree in creative writing and had never heard the words invoked once. Either way, it’s an important idea to know about, whether or not you choose to write towards it.
what is high-concept v. low-concept?
First, it’s important to realize that “high” and “low” don’t correlate to “positive” and “negative” here. I think of it as how important the concept is to the piece overall. High-concept means the concept is a high priority, and low-concept means it’s a low priority.
You can identify a high-concept work by seeing if you can pitch the entire idea as a short “what if” statement. Let’s try a few examples:
- Jurassic Park is high-concept: “What if dinosaurs were cloned for a theme park?”
- Freaky Friday is high-concept: “What if two people switched bodies?”
- Snakes on a Plane is high-concept: “What if there were snakes on a plane?”
That’s not to say that high-concept is a universally desired trait. If such things as character development, theme, subtext, etc. are more highly valued than the concept itself, a work maybe labeled low-concept. Some of the most renowned classic works in history could be defined as low-concept:
- Pride and Prejudice
- Don Quixote
- Anna Karenina
what does this mean for me?
As a writer, this doesn’t mean anything in particular for you. You don’t have to aim for high-concept or low-concept. But knowing the definitions might help you classify your work, and, as a result, have a better idea of how to best pitch it for publication.
It’s undeniable that high-concept works are generally more successful in some markets, such as young adult literature and big-budget film. If you intend to be a young adult author or a screenwriter for major Hollywood productions, it might be a good idea to aim for high-concept work. Some high-concept works will get picked up for publication based solely on the “hook” (the “what if” statement).
how do I write it?
If you decide that you do want to write high-concept fiction, the hardest part is coming up with that hook. Here are some tips for finding your million-dollar idea:
- Write everything down. The best what-if ideas will probably come to you in your day to day life. As you’re sitting in a meeting, you might think, “what if people had clones that went to work for them?” As you’re bored in traffic, you might think, “what if you could fast-forward through time spent waiting?” As you’re lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep, thinking about all the stuff you have to do, you might think, “what if you could buy a pill that gave you eight hours of sleep?” Most of these ideas will be ridiculous, but some of them won’t be. And speaking of ridiculous…
- Don’t fear the ridiculous. Many of these high-concept ideas sound stupid on the surface. Cloning dinosaurs might sound silly as a concept, but when Michael Crichton put it together with science and suspense and believable, complex characters, it became a best-selling novel and a wildly popular movie. Don’t be afraid to try and work with an idea that seems silly at first glance. Things that we’re unfamiliar with often sound silly, and if we’re unfamiliar with it… well, that means you may have come up with a really innovative idea.
- You might already have it. Try thinking about ideas and concepts you already have in terms of this what-if structure. You might find that you are already working on a high-concept idea, and better yet, phrasing it in those terms might help you refine and focus your concept.
Whether you write high-concept or low-concept work, thinking about it from the perspective of the pitch, the “hook,” can be helpful for understanding what makes up your novel or work’s main appeal.
What category do you think your work falls into? Can you make a what-if statement for it? Let me know in the comments!