L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Whether discussing movies or books, most agents and editors are eager to find projects that are high concept. In this post, learn how to develop high-concept book ideas to find more success with your writing.

Robert Lee Brewer

Whether discussing movies or books, most agents and editors are eager to find projects that are high concept. In this post, learn how to develop high-concept book ideas to find more success with your writing.

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High concept is a term often tossed about by agents as something they are eager to see from writers. While many agents don’t expect all writers to pitch high-concept projects, there is no denying that high concept gets their attention the most. So, what is high concept? And, how can you develop high-concept book ideas to find more success with your writing?

When it comes to books, high concept is a story that can be pitched with a concise premise that draws high interest from literary agents, editors, and readers. Or, at least, that’s the high-concept pitch.

(Click here for the 7 qualities of high concept fiction.)

There is a little more that goes into high concept. Here’s a quick list of qualities that high-concept pitches share:

  • Super entertaining
  • Original or unique
  • Emotionally focused
  • Visually enhanced
  • Appeals to the masses

Easy peasy, right? So, let’s look at how to make this happen.

Create More Compelling Stories!

The Big “What If” Question

Most high-concept pitches start with a “what if” question. So this is a great place to start when developing your own book ideas. The basic concept is that you grab a successful book or story idea and turn it in a new direction.

Here are a few high-concept ideas already out there:

  • Boy discovers he’s a wizard and that a wizard murdered his parents. (Harry Potter series)
  • What happens to people left on Earth after the rapture happens? (Left Behind series)
  • Teenagers are selected to fight to the death on television. (The Hunger Games series)
  • A meteorologist is stuck living the same day over and over. (Groundhog Day)
  • Police officer visits estranged wife at an office party attacked by terrorists. (Die Hard)

Stories about boys, teenagers, meteorologists, and police officers are not unique on their own, but each of these ideas takes an interesting concept and raises the stakes by asking, “What if?”

What if the boy is a wizard who also has a mortal enemy? What if the teenagers have to fight to the death on television? What if the meteorologist tasked with predicting the weather is stuck in a predictable loop that may never end? What if the police officer trying to repair his marriage has to keep himself and his wife alive in order to have a chance at making that happen?

Develop High-Concept Book Ideas – A Writing Exercise

So, learning is one thing. Let’s actually try developing some high-concept book ideas. The great thing about high concept is that it’s so concise you can do it in a few words.

Here’s the writing exercise:

  1. Pick a normal character.
  2. Trying to do a normal activity.
  3. When something unexpected and high stakes happens.

Here are a few attempts:

  • President’s secret service officer tasked with babysitting an 8-year-old and keeping her alive.
  • Genealogist discovers a secret that could unravel the government.
  • Cross country cyclist finds himself hunted by people in a pick up truck.
  • Poet writes images that then appear in her actual life.

For each of these examples, I started with a person, thought of an activity they may normally do, and then raised the normal stakes or gave it the plot a bit of a twist.

Why Is High Concept So Powerful?

A high-concept idea does not guarantee publishing or commercial success. Writers still have to write great stories and characters that people love. But high concept does make the pitching process so much easier and effective, because the concept is easy to communicate so that readers understand (and get excited about) what they’re about to read.

While developing a high-concept idea at the beginning of your project could help guide the execution of concept to manuscript more seamlessly, here are a few older stories with a low-concept pitch and high-concept pitch.

Story #1: “The Cask of Amontillado,” by Edgar Allan Poe
Low Concept: Unreliable narrator investigates concepts of revenge.
High Concept: A slighted man buries his acquaintance alive.

Story #2: “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Low Concept: Unreliable narrator discusses her husband and her confinement to her room.
High Concept: Confined woman discovers another woman hiding in her wallpaper.

Story #3: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving
Low Concept: Humorous ghost story set in rural New York.
High Concept: Teacher comes face-to-face with a bloodthirsty—and headless—horseman.

Notice that I didn’t have to change any of these stories to take them from a low-concept pitch to a high-concept pitch. Rather, I had to find that one thing that made each story uniquely entertaining and make it easy for a potential reader to visualize.

Now apply this to your own stories to find the high concept hiding within.

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