Wednesday, November 28, 2007

High Concept Stories

It was pointed out to me yesterday that Enchanted, Inc. is now showing up on the first page of results when you search Amazon just for the term "enchanted," thanks to the Kindle edition. Yes, all three books are now available for Amazon's new e-reader. The ranking is up a bit on the print edition, too, so I'm hoping that exposure is spilling over.

In my last writing post on how to (and how not to) strengthen your plot, I mentioned high concept. This term gets thrown around often enough that I thought it deserved its own post. It's a term that originated in the movie/television world, and according to Michael Hauge in his book Writing Screenplays that Sell, it means simply "the story idea alone is sufficient to attract an audience, regardless of casting, reviews and word of mouth." In other words, it's a movie you'd be willing to see regardless of who's in it. High concept means the movie might get funding even before stars are attached or a director hired, and it means that even a cast of unknowns could make the movie work. To be high concept, a movie has to have a plot or premise that can be quickly and easily described in such a way that from that short description you have a very good idea of exactly what the movie's about and who might like it. One of the best high concept examples I can think of is Star Wars. You don't even need a description. The title alone says it all -- it's science fiction and involves space battles. At the time of its release, most of the cast were almost entirely unknown, and the ones who were known weren't exactly household names among the target audience.

In contrast, a "low concept" story is one where you generally need a star attached to get it funding or to draw in a crowd because the idea itself doesn't sound all that exciting. These tend to be the Oscar-bait films where it's more about how the story is told -- the execution through writing, acting, directing, etc. -- than about the story itself.

For a deeper example, let's look at two successful films.

On the high concept side, we have The Terminator: A merciless cyborg from a machine-dominated future travels back in time to kill a waitress before she can give birth to a future revolutionary leader.

We can tell from this description that this is a science fiction story, and it's probably an action movie. They aren't exactly going to be sitting around sipping tea and talking about poetry. It's likely to be violent and will involve chase scenes. There's also likely to be a growth arc for our heroine, if she starts out as a waitress but will one day be the mother of a warrior. The movie will appeal to science fiction fans and action movie fans, which are mostly male, so we have that demographic covered, but our heroine is a woman, so there's likely some girl power stuff that will appeal to women. You could add a second sentence to the description about the soldier from the future who comes back in time to protect her because he's always been in love with the idea of her, and then you've raised the concept even higher by introducing a romantic element.

On the low concept side, there's When Harry Met Sally: A man and a woman try to maintain a friendship without romance getting in the way.

Based on that, you don't have a very strong sense of what this movie will be like. It's probably a romance, but will it be dramatic or funny? What approach will it take to romance vs. friendship?

But cast Billy Crystal as the man and get Rob Reiner as the director, and you then know it's probably a comedy and will probably have a lot of satirical observations about life, love and the differences between the ways men and women approach life and love.

What does this have to do with books? Well, the only name that gets associated with a book is the author's, and if you aren't well known enough for your name to say it all, then if you want to write commercial fiction, you pretty much need a high concept story (this doesn't apply to literary fiction, but I think it still helps). You need to be able to get the attention of an agent or editor with your query letter, then an agent needs to be able to get an editor's attention with a pitch, then the editor has to get publisher buy-in with a pitch, then the sales force has to get stores to buy, then you have to get readers' attention. Doing all of that is a lot easier when you can tell from a short description exactly what the book is about and who might be interested in it. If it takes you five minutes to describe your story idea to someone so they can see what's interesting or special about it, then you don't have a high concept -- or else you haven't found the high concept in your story. High concept also makes word of mouth easier to spread because the easier it is for someone to describe a book, the more likely it is that they'll be able to talk about it in a way that intrigues someone else.

The "X meets Y" stereotypical film pitch gets thrown around a lot, but that isn't really high concept. It's just a pitch for a high concept story, and from what I've heard from editors and agents, I would caution against using it unless you're very, very careful. There's always the risk that the person on the receiving end of the pitch doesn't like one of the two things you're comparing or that it's not so easy to see how those things go together. And there's the risk that you'll sound unoriginal. I will admit that I pitched my Enchanted, Inc. series as "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter," but that was because I felt like my books really did straddle the line between the two genres represented by those icons of their respective genres. It was the best, shortest way I could think of to give people an accurate sense of what my books would be like. I still use that as an attention-grabber when I visit bookstores or when people ask me what I write.

However, when my agent pitched the first book in the series to editors, she described it as being about an ordinary girl who goes to the big city to be extraordinary, only to find out she's so very ordinary that magic doesn't work on her, and that makes her a valuable job candidate for a magical corporation. To my agent, the high concept was the idea of someone who was immune to magic. That was the twist that made the book different.

I think science fiction, fantasy and horror writers have it a little easier because those genres are almost high concept by definition. Just mentioning magic, space ships, killer cyborgs from the future, vampires, werewolves, etc., gives people a good sense of what the story is and whether they'll like it. It's a little more difficult in romance or mystery where you could pretty much describe almost every book in a very similar way (two people overcome obstacles to find true love/sleuth solves a crime).

Because this is such a big topic and this is getting epic, my next writing craft post (on December 12) will focus on finding the high concept in your story or making your story more high-concept.

In other news, as a public service announcement, Pushing Daisies is on an hour later tonight -- and it is on, in spite of what TV Guide said.

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