What is a High-Concept Idea?
Have you ever heard a story idea so catchy that it grabs you with just a handful of words, despite the idea itself sounding almost too simple? Dinosaurs in a theme park escaping their enclosures. One day repeating over and over. Cinderella, but as a cyborg. These short descriptions of Jurassic Park, Groundhog Day, and Cinder have more going for them than just great taglines; they are high-concept ideas with distinct premises and easy straightforward pitches.
A high-concept idea puts high emphasis on the concept of the story. The idea is familiar enough to grasp immediately, but with a twist to give it a brand-new take. High-concept ideas usually snag interest quickly from agents and editors because they are easier to pitch than a character or theme-driven story.
So how do you know if you have a high-concept idea on your hands? In this post, we’ll give you five components to consider, and explain why each one matters.
The premise should be simple enough to describe in a single sentence
Look at the examples in the first paragraph. Each of them was pitched in eight words or less and left you with an instant image of the type of story you’d be getting. High-concept ideas are often based on what-if questions: What if there was a theme park that showcased live dinosaurs, and they escaped? What if you were trapped in a day that restarted every morning? Despite these ideas being so simple, the possibilities in these scenarios are endless. Keeping your idea short and simple emphasizes its unique twist, without watering it down with details about character growth or setting.
The concepts should be universally familiar
A high-concept idea needs to be quickly and easily grasped, without the need for elaboration. It shouldn’t need an explanation about how your world works, or introduce a niche subject that needs context. For example, no matter who you’re talking to, regardless of which genre they read—or even whether they read—will instantly know what both dinosaurs and theme parks are. This is why movies with high-concept ideas usually do better at the box office: the ideas are universal enough to draw in consumers of all different interests and backgrounds, and their quick snappy taglines make them an easy sell for undecided viewers.
For agents or editors, whose slush piles are often comprised of either familiar plots they’ve seen a million times or material too bizarre to sell, a high-concept idea is the ideal middle ground—familiar enough to relate to, but with a unique twist to make it stand out.
The story is about the idea
There shouldn’t be a lot of subtext in a high-concept idea. Character arcs are always good, but if the unique twist in your idea is only one part of a bigger picture, then it wouldn’t qualify. A high-concept idea is the bigger picture. The struggle the characters face when dealing with the premise you’ve presented in your pitch should remain front and center throughout the whole story, and your characters’ emotional journeys should directly tie in with it. Which leads us to our next important component…
Emphasize external action over internal reflection
High-concept ideas are not the place for deep character introspection or thematically complicated narratives. Elements like these are considered low-concept, and though they often hold deep and meaningful stories, they cannot be easily pitched in a single line. High-concept stories remain focused on the central premise, with character growth happening in external and conspicuous ways, rather than through flashbacks or contemplation. Major plot points should be externalized and obvious, and should change the direction of the narrative.
The best way to come up with something unique is to hone in on the details. There are several methods you can approach your idea with to turn it from something interesting into something amazing.
One way is to raise the stakes. In Jurassic Park, a theme park with dinosaurs would be a compelling premise by itself, but when you add in the fact that the dinosaurs escape, you get more specific about the problems this will cause, and raise the stakes for everyone.
Another method is to have your main character be a fish out of water. The idea of someone being forced to repeat the same day over and over again in Groundhog Day is intriguing on its own, but by making the protagonist a cynical weatherman who hates the small town he ends up in, the writer puts him outside his comfort zone, instantly promising more conflict and complications.
You can also write a twist on a familiar story. In Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the author takes a well-known fairy tale and makes the titular character a cyborg instead of a human. It introduces countless questions right off the bat: How will being mechanical change Cinderella’s character? How will the author incorporate the familiar trappings of the old fairy tale into a setting with robots? How will it change other aspects of that world? The questions that arise give you a good idea of why even a simple twist can make a story high-concept, and why agents or readers might instantly pick it up.
Let’s take a look at some popular novels with high-concept ideas and see how they employ the above components:
Example 1: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The earth’s rotation begins to slow by a few minutes every day.
This is a high-concept idea because it’s simple and easily understood; anyone can instantly grasp it and see the significance of it happening. While the book itself mixes this foreboding catastrophe with events in the main character’s personal life, the slowing of Earth is never far from the characters’ minds, from seeing unexpected effects to showing the ways different people in society react to it. Instead of choosing a scientist well-equipped to study this bizarre phenomenon, the author narrates from the point of view of a teenage girl—a good fish out of water character who is struggling with friendships and school in addition to this quiet but chilling disaster.
Example 2: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A man who frequently time travels against his will has to navigate marriage and the danger of his condition through unexpected disappearances.
The ideas presented in the premise are universally recognizable—time travel and marriage. The twist of combining these two concepts works beautifully in this high-concept idea: it’s a story about the relatable struggle of a marriage with someone who’s frequently gone, but with the twist that he’s absent because of time travel he can’t control.
The novel deals with heartfelt questions about love and tragedy, but the plot points remain externalized, as the main character’s journeys through time land him in danger, as well as continuously and directly affect his relationship with his wife. As the novel progresses, the stakes are raised time and again, as visits to his wife from his future self reveal that their time together is shorter than they think.
Example 3: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
When a woman disappears and her husband is accused of her murder, it unravels the story of a marriage that was not what it seemed.
This premise couldn’t be simpler, but the familiar concepts of happy marriages and dark secrets pair nicely together, promising a complex and captivating thriller. It offers not one, but two, intriguing what-if questions: What if your loved one vanished and you were blamed for their murder? What if you thought you knew everything about a marriage, but had barely scratched the surface? By raising the stakes of the woman’s disappearance with her husband’s murder accusation, then twisting that concept by hinting at a dark and sinister relationship, the author delivers a high-concept idea that is sure to have readers dying to know how it plays out.
A high-concept idea is not only exciting to create, it’s a total blast to write. Combine some of the above components to come up with one of your own. Not only will you find some fascinating new territory to explore, but you’ll have a ready-made pitch that’ll snag the attention of agents and readers alike.