What Is High Concept?
On this page, we'll answer the question, "What is high concept?" and talk about how to come up with a high-concept story premise of your own
The term "high concept" is used in film and publishing to describe a certain kind of story premise.
You don't have to write a high concept story. But it can be fun to try!
A high concept premise can easily be summarized in a sentence or two, and that short summary makes people think, "Wow!". The one-sentence summary is enough for people to imagine what kind of story it will be and to get interested.
Here are some examples of books with and without high-concept premises to show you the difference...
SOME HIGH CONCEPT BOOKS:
- Turn of Mind
by Alice LaPlante
(A woman with dementia doesn't know whether she's guilty of the murder she's being accused of committing.)
by Christina Dalcher
(In a dystopian future, women are forbidden to speak more than 100 words per day.)
- The Chain
by Adrian McKinty
(A mother can only save her kidnapped daughter by kidnapping another child.)
- The Temeraire
series by Naomi Novik
(The Napoleonic Wars are fought with dragons.)
NOT HIGH CONCEPT
- Normal People
by Sally Rooney
(The complex relationship between two troubled young people as they come of age.)
- Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
(The inner life of people in small-town Maine, with a focus on an ornery, strong-willed schoolteacher.)
- My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
(The friendship between two girls growing up in Naples in the 1940's.)
, Olive Kitteridge
, and My Brilliant Friend
are all literary novels which focus on their main characters' inner lives. These novels are interesting because of the writing and the characters. But that is difficult to convey in a one-sentence summary.
The premises of Turn of Mind
, The Chain
, and The Temaire
series could all be expressed with "What if...?" sentences.
What if a woman with dementia were accused of murder... and didn't know if she were guilty?
What if the Napoleonic Wars were fought with dragons?
You can come up with intriguing high-concept premises of your own by asking yourself "What if...?" questions.
High-concept premises often take something familiar and give it a twist: the Napoleonic Wars... plus dragons!
The Harry Potter
series has a high-concept premise that comes from combining two different genres: boarding school novel + fantasy novel = a boarding school for wizards.
In A Deadly Education
, Naomi Novik takes this premise one step further: a magical boarding school that wants to kill its students.
In my summaries of high-concept novels I have described situations rather than characters, because the situations are what makes these books high-concept. But each of these novels has a main character who is dealing with the situation in a specific, personal way.
Novik's A Deadly Education
is about a girl named Galadriel who, in order to survive in a school filled with monsters, must overcome her own antisocial impulses and form alliances with other students, while also resisting her propensity for destructive black magic.
is about a woman named Jean, married to an agent of an oppressive government regime, who must protect her daughter from that regime while spying on her husband and hiding an extramarital affair with a member of the resistence.
When you develop your own high-concept story premise, you can start with a "What if...?" thought experiment, or A plus B (e.g., Napoleonic Wars plus dragons, boarding school novel plus fantasy novel). But then you'll want to come up with a main character and give that character a goal in the story. Otherwise, you have a situation but not a story plot.
Our 8-week course on story structure will show you how to turn your ideas into great stories or novels
What Is High Concept? - Next Steps
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