Donna Everhart

That High Concept Appeal

Just when you thought you’d learned as much as you possibly could about writing, another term comes along, and if you are like me, it’s new, but not new in general.  In the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest, an article was written called, “What HIGH CONCEPT Means, in Any Genre.”

(I would include the link – but WD has it set up where you have to pay for the article)

It appears the term, “high concept,” has been around for a bit, but I’ve only heard of it in the past six months.   Many agents across the board, ask for these types of stories in their submission guidelines.  The thing is, some of us are just coming up to speed on the definition, and strangely, that includes agents – who seem to have varying viewpoints.  Some say it’s the story’s “hook,” some say it’s what’s “fun” about your story, or, “it’s your story in a single image,” (huh?),  or “the story’s heart,” etc.

So, what is high concept according to Writer’s Digest ?  They have identified seven “qualifiers” to help answer this question:

  1. High level of entertainment value (subjective, but the suggestion was to ask for feedback on your story)
  2. High degree of originality (finding new ways to present the familiar)
  3. Born from “what if” question (think Jurassic Park – “what if dinosaurs were cloned?”)
  4. Highly visual (having visual quality, usually books capable of cinematic imagery)
  5. Clear emotional focus (sparks “primal emotions.”  Love, rage, hate, fear, joy – nothing gray, foggy, or tepid)
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element (one of a kind)
  7. Mass audience appeal (broad general audience or a large niche market)

The article goes on to say not every story possesses all seven, your story may be strong in two areas, or vaguely hitting five areas in the list.   But, the more you nail down, the better chances of having it classified as such.

Below is a link to a short video tutorial by Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner’s, where she gives her view on the subject and note, this was from 2011, so she was aware of it two years ago :

The “Magician” recently referred to this term in an email to me as well.  Her story is definitely high concept, firing on all seven qualifier cylinders. 

WD also gave some examples of books that were classified as high concept.  Some of these will not surprise you because they are the ones I immediately thought of as I began to learn about it:

  • Horror Genre:  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Seth Grahame-Smith)
  • Young Adult:  Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins) and Beautiful Creatures ( Kami Carcia & Margaret Stohl)
  • Romance:  Save Haven (Nicholas Sparks – this one surprised me) and Fifty Shades (E. L. James – this one did not)
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy: A Memory Of Light (Robert Jordan) and Ever After (Kim Harrison)
  • Thriller/Suspense:  Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and Catch Me (Lisa Gardner)

Th article in WD ended by stressing that if your story isn’t high concept, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of submission.  Stories are picked up for reasons other than being part of this particular category, and as Rachelle Gardner pointed out, not all books have to be high concept to sell.

What I got from all of this is, it does have the potential to help you target your book to the right market and sets you up for submission success and best seller appeal.

Just curious, when did you learn about this buzzword, and has it changed your approach to writing?

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