Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Is it “High Concept?”

“Looking for high concept stories.”

Have you ever seen this phrase in the “wants” listings for publications or publishers? I know I have. But I have never understood just what “high concept” meant. (I think some of the editors involved may not either). I had some vague notion that it was some ethereal form of literary wonder, something my suspense fiction surely didn’t have. I assumed my work didn’t qualify. After all, I write horror and suspense. Surely that isn’t “high concept?”

I have finally, years and years later, stumbled upon a working definition. I found it in a guest blog on a Writer’s Digest (I know. Don’t get me started.) site called “The Writer’s Dig.” The guest writer was Jeff Lyons, story editor and story development consultant at Kensington Entertainment. He also teaches at Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

I stipulate to Mr. Lyons’ expertise.

According to Mr. Lyons, “high concept” is not a single quality, but a continuum of qualities that you can use to pinpoint the height of the concept present in your story. Each story will have a different combination of seven qualities that can push it toward (or away) from “high concept.”

The seven qualities are:

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche audience)

Most stories (however good) do not possess all seven qualities. High concept appears on a continuum, so you might have two qualities represented well, or five qualities represented more weakly and have the same “high concept” value. The more qualities you can identify in your story, the more “high concept” it will be.

But, in order to judge our work more accurately, we need to take a closer look at the seven qualities and what they mean.

High level of entertainment value:

Defining “entertainment value” is as easy as defining art. It’s in the eye of the beholder, which is why it is critically important to get an outside opinion. Have someone you trust explain to you what is purely entertaining about your story. Get a second opinion. Get a third.

High degree of originality:

There are no original stories, someone is saying. True. But there are original approaches to a familiar story. For example, everyone knows the Cinderella story, but not as told by one of the step-sisters.

Born from a “what if” question:

What if dinosaurs were cloned? What if women stopped giving birth? What if Martians invaded the earth? All were the basis of successful, high concept stories.

Highly visual:

High concept stories have a visual quality that is palpable. When you read one, your mind starts conjuring images and you can see the story unfold.

Clear emotional focus:

As with imagery, high-concept stories spark emotion, but not just any emotion. Usually it’s a primal emotional response: fear, joy, hate, love, rage. There are no wishy-washy emotions.

Inclusion of some truly unique element:

Originality is about a fresh approach or perspective. Uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind. There is absolutely nothing else on the world like it.

Mass audience appeal:

High-concept stories, even if easily categorized into a specific genre, appeals to an audience beyond the narrow confines of that genre’s die-hard fans. It has crossover value. For example, high concept mysteries might appeal to people who don’t consider themselves mystery buffs.

Remember, as Mr. Lyons warns, this list of high-concept qualities is not a method to judge whether your work is good, or bad, or worthy of submission. All it does is give you some idea of whether it qualifies as “high-concept.” It merely is a tool to judge whether you should submit to someone wanting high-concept fiction.

There is plenty of perfectly good fiction that is not—and shouldn’t be—high-concept.

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One thought on “Is it “High Concept?”

  1. I have read the term used before and had no idea what it meant. Thank you for clearing that up with me.
    I think the story I’m planning no lacks one or two of these but I’m really working on making it highly visual with clear emotional focus.

    Liked by 1 person

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