Want to Get High (Concept)?

Go to any writer's conference and you'll hear the following two words ad nauseum: High Concept.  Agents, publishers, your Uncle Bernard--everybody wants your story to be high concept. And as I judge contest entries, I can tell you the high concept can be quite elusive. So what exactly does that mean?

High concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all. --James Bonnet

Okay, great. Sounds easy enough. Movies and tv shows use this all the time. It's just a log line, right? Well, not really. Let's look at a few log lines from today's tvguide.

Swingers--Warmly amusing story about the do's and don'ts of dating, centering on six friends who go looking for love at hip LA hotspots.
Definitely, Maybe--On the eve of his divorce, a jaded Manhattan ad exec tells his ten year old daughter how he met her mother.

*Shrug* Both good movies, but based on those descriptions I could take 'em or leave 'em. They tell you in general what it's about but there's no real intrigue. That's not to say they don't have high concept, but these loglines don't speak to it.

Now let's look at a few examples that are considered "high concept.

Speed--A cocky cop must find a way to save people stranded on a city bus that will
explode if is slows below 55 mph. (source)
Double Jeopardy--When a young wife discovers the husband she’s convicted of murdering isn’t dead, she escapes custody to track him down and kill him. (source)
The Hangover--After a wild bachelor party in Vegas, three friends wake up to find the groom missing, and no one has any memory of the previous night.
Back to the Future--In 1985, Doc Brown invents time travel; in 1955, Marty McFly accidentally prevents his parents from meeting, putting his own existence at stake. (imdb)

Ooh, now I don't know about you, but those grab me. Why? What are the differences between a straight logline and a high concept.

High concept stories have...

1. A unique premise

This doesn't mean you have to do something that's NEVER been done before. Let's face it, that's hard. But put a twist on it. In Speed, we've seen bomb/terrorist plotlines before, but wait, let's put it on a bus, oh and let's make sure that the bus can't slow down. In New Moon, we basically have Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.

2. Universal appeal

If your idea is unique (#1) but so bizarre that no one can relate to the premise, then you've lost your high concept. In Double Jeopardy, being betrayed by a spouse is something most people can connect with. No, maybe not everyone has been betrayed by their husband/wife, but we can imagine what that would be like. And certainly everyone has been betrayed at least once in their life by a friend, family member, etc.

3. Instant emotional connection

If we don't connect emotionally with a story, then what's the point of reading it? In Speed, we can connect with the idea of being an innocent bystander on the bus caught in that life or death situation. Or the cop whose trying to save everyone. In The Hangover, we can imagine the panic we would feel if we woke up and had no memory of the previous night and our friend was missing.

4. Obvious Potential (Can be visualized immediately)

When you hear a high concept pitch, you instantly start imagining what could occur. This doesn't mean a predictable story necessarily, but it gets our mind working. In Twilight, we can imagine what problems might arise when a vampire falls in love with a girl whose blood is absolutely irresistible to him. Clueless goes to Harvard Law (guess the movie). We can imagine the funny antics that will ensue.

5. Only one to three sentences (preferably one)

If you can't cover it in this amount of time, your concept made need a shot of heroine--sorry, I can't resist making lame puns--your concept needs to get high.

A few things to help you create your high concept...

  • Create a compelling character with a desperate desire
  • Give the character a flaw related to their job or situation
  • Have a life-altering, inciting event
  • Insert a quirk of fate or irony


Alright, so I hope that helps. I know that we all want to be able to do that "elevator pitch" if ever given the right opportunity. And we certainly want that one liner in our query that is going to get an agent or publisher excited. I'm terrible at this, so this post is as much for my benefit as everyone else's. I'm bound and determined to have my high concept pitch before I jump into my next novel.

Here are the sources I quoted from, check them out for more info:

Conquering the High Concept

High Concept Defined

Got High Concept (from RWA)

What's all this talk about high concept? (from the Knight agency)

If you want to see examples of loglines (some high concept, some not) and taglines (i.e. hooks), go to imdb.com and enter any movie. They offer one line plot summaries and the hook for every movie. It's awesome.

So have you done this? What's your logline or high concept pitch? Do you think your current WIP fits these guidelines? What are some great high concept books that you've read or movies that you've scene lately? What would be there logline?

*Repost from October 2009