You may have seen some agents, publishers, and people in the movie industry seek high-concept manuscripts/playwrights. For a simple reason, high-concept is a mega-seller. A wide range of audiences loves these films/books.
Why do they sell so well? Why are they exceptional? What are they, anyway?! Answering these questions is as hard as writing a high-concept book itself!
First, the origin of the name is disputable. One opinion says they are called high concepts because they easily rise ‘high’ through the slush pile. Another says this category is called ‘high concept’ in contrast to ‘low concept’ books which are books that normal plot and story. The best instructive definition I found was that high concept books are like a writer’s voice! You know it as soon as you see it! Insightful, isn’t it?
During my research for writing this blog post, I came across many definitions. The one, I read frequently around, was that high-concept manuscripts can be pitched in one attention-grabbing easy-understandable sentence. This answer is unconvincing because it is the consequence, not a definition. However, it brought me to the next question what is the reason beyond their succinct pitch (or logline)?
Why is the logline of other books, at least, one paragraph while the logline of high-concept books is one sentence?
I found the two following complementary definitions which shed light on the nature of this category of books:
- When the EVERYDAY meets the EXTREME (Reference)
- High-concept narratives are typically characterized by an overarching “what if?” scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. (Wikipedia)
Keeping these two definitions in mind, let’s take a look at some famous high-concept movies and books.
High-concepts movies & Books
- What if today stays forever and tomorrow never comes? If this doesn’t sound familiar, watch the movie Groundhog Day (1993). The basic concept of the movie is very simple. There is no need for marketing to explain the meaning of today and tomorrow to the audience. The twist in the simple concept is also obvious: tomorrow never comes. A ridiculous assumption, right? But, it wonderfully worked when the author added a Character Arc to the story.
- What if you are alone with a tiger? You’ll escape. What if you are with a tiger in a boat? Then it becomes a high-concept book: Life of Pi (2002) by Yann Martel which later a movie with the same name produced based on the book.
- We tell lies. We shouldn’t, but we do. What if humans lose the ability to tell lies? What if in such a world, only one person has the ability to tell lies? Here we go, The Invention of Lying (2009)!
- We live only life. What if we could live more than life? Between life and death, there is a library, and every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. Amazing plot, isn’t it? No wonder it sold brilliantly. Midnight library (2020) by Math Haig.
A long list of high-concept movies is available on Wikipedia. You can test this what-if question on them and see for yourself if it works.
Writing high-concept books seems straightforward. Find a familiar concept and add a twist—a weird assumption, right? It is not that easy though.
The challenge is not in finding a concept; there are countless concepts around. The difficulty is in finding a concept that holds a story together, until the end of the story—an Overarching concept. In the movie Groundhog Day, until the end of the movie the day stays today. The film ends when today turns to tomorrow. Now that this movie exists, it is easy to think of what a person can do eternally in a day. But, go one step back and imagine you are writing that story. It is so hard to engage the audience in a 100-minute movie with a simple concept that tomorrow never comes!
Before we look at high-concept picture books, let’s look at some confusions around and about high-concept books:
- Concept books and high-concept books are NOT the same things. In a nutshell, concept books don’t have a story. They introduce a concept, a basic idea or an experience, or a feeling to the young readers (To read more, please read this blog post). In contrast to the concept books, high-concept books have (actually should have) a masterfully crafted story. They should have a Narrative Structure.
- High-concept is NOT a genre. There are high-concept movies and books in the horror, fantasy, thriller, and sci-fi genres.
- Another wrong assumption is that high-concept books don’t have a Character Arc. Some of them have, some haven’t. For example, Groundhog Day has a positive Character Arc.
- Don’t confuse the inciting event of a story with the idea of a concept book. We have a story when we have a Narrative Structure and one of defining elements of it is the Inciting Event. An event ignites the engine of the story and the characters will deal with the inciting event and/or its consequences throughout the story.
High-concept picture books
Now let’s look at some high-concept picture books.
- What if a pirate babysits? Pirate Stew (2020) by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell.
- You know the tale of three little pigs and the wolf who wants to destroy their houses. What if the little pigs learn martial arts to defend themselves, rather than building houses? Intrigued? Then read Three Ninja Pigs (2012) by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Dan Santat.
- Rabbits love eating carrots. What if it happens the way round? What if carrots come for a little rabbit? This is the high-concept idea of Creepy Carrots! (2012) by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Browns.
If you know more high-concept picture books, would you please let me know in the comments below?
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