Writing the High-Concept Novel

I first heard the term “high concept” applied to novels a few years ago and I have to admit, for a time, the idea had me banging my head against a wall. Generally used to describe a film or a television show, high concept is basically a one or two sentence tagline that’s tightly worded and conjures an immediate image in the mind. Take “Snakes on a Plane.” You almost can’t help but smile. Those four simple words practically scream “campy high adventure.” So while I understood the idea of pitching the high concept movie, I wasn’t so sure how high concept translated when talking about books. After mulling it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s really not a lot of difference.

In today’s highly competitive publishing market, it’s not enough to simply write a good book. In order to get your good book read by agents and editors you have to have a hook. And high concept is the ultimate hook. A high concept tagline not only makes your book easier to pitch, it shows that you, as a writer, know the value of marketing.

A high concept pitch has several elements:
A great title
An original idea, or a well-known idea with a new twist
Has universal appeal

Take the following examples. These are recent deal blurbs that I pulled from Publishers Marketplace (an excellent place to find out what is selling and to whom).

Kate Pearce’s The Tudor Vampire Chronicles, a series of vampire romances dealing with the complicated supernatural lives of the queens of King Henry VIII, and the real reasons why some of them survived and some of them died.

This one is a no-brainer. Vampires are extremely hot right now (they have been for some time and it doesn’t look like they are going to go out of fashion) so a vampire romance is a good lead in. But there are a LOT of vampire romances out there. What’s different about this story is the Tudor timeline. It’s not a historical time frame that’s done often in romance. Add in the fact that Showtime’s’ hit series The Tudors have actually made Henry the VIII sexy, and you have a hot, fresh twist on a well-known idea. Plus, it helps that the story of Henry’s wives is something that almost everyone in English speaking countries is aware of. The story hints that paranormal elements are responsible for some of those beheaded queens and I’m instantly intrigued.

Vicky Dreiling’s Confessions of a Duchess: A Matchmaker’s Misadventures, The Bachelor in Regency England (minus the hot tub and camera crew).

I have to admit, the title didn’t necessarily grab me, however, historicals set in Regency England are extremely popular. The term “matchmaker’s misadventures” made me think “fun” which was cemented by the one line blurb: The Bachelor in Regency England minus the hot tub and camera crew. Brilliant!

Todd Ritters’ debut, Death Notice, in which a small town police chief must thwart a serial killer who is sending in obituaries to the local newspaper before the subjects end up gruesomely murdered.

Yuck. I’m creepily grossed out. But who doesn’t love a good suspense novel? There are elements to this story that seem familiar (the serial killer on the loose who thinks he’s clever enough to outwit the cops so he actually sends them clues), but the obituary element seems like a new twist, plus I’m empathetic to the poor small town police chief who has to catch this sicko.

So, while high concept is used to refer to the pitch used to try to sell the book, it also refers to the book itself. When I got the idea to write my Bunco Babes series, I immediately thought “Sex in the City meets Bunco.” I didn’t pitch my story in those exact words, but it was the tagline in my head as I wrote out my synopsis and I think it came through.

Is there a tagline or a short blurb for a novel that has instantly intrigued you? And if so, what was it?

Maria Geraci

6 replies
  1. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    OK–that's weird–my first comment, the one where I got Cathleen Schine's name wrong, didn't post, but the follow up correction did.

    So, I'm going to try after this to re-post the first bit . . .

  2. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    Oooh, good question. I don't think of novels in terms of high concept, or rather not the ones I read or buy, etc. For my own writing, since I do lots of screenplay work, I do think of those terms, but not quite the same way as you describe it.

    For me, the high concept is in the actual tagline or log line for the script. Now, sometimes a title evolves to match that concept, as I think was the case for Snakes on a Plane, exactly to hit the campy notes. In my work, high-concept, particularly in pitching, has meant stuff like "What would happen if everyone who watched a mysterious unmarked video-tape died seven days later?" (The Ring); or "What's the real reason we've never gone back to the moon?" (Apollo 18); or "A dissatisfied 20-something fakes amnesia after an accident so that she can "do-over" her whole life." (A novel by Caprice Crane, "Forget About It").

    I used to teach high-concept as the aerial view of your story, making an analogy of using Google Maps and thinking of stories as a pin in the map of the big world, full of detail and terrain and populated by real people, etc., but that at first look you only see from miles above, the key roads and major intersections the only things you can read. Then, you write to get closer to that pin in the map, each level of magnification and each draft getting more and more down to the specific location of your story. You start to see smaller streets, buildings, parks, etc., then finally trees, people, cars, what's on the table for dinner, etc. You go into the story from great distance, and that distant view is the high-concept. But, the whole trip has to be interesting at all points.

    In the example of "Forget About It", you get a frame of the story, the genre, the tone, etc., but it's only later that you'll find out the wonderful details: how did the woman come to get amnesia, what life/man/family/choices is she trying to re-do by her pretense, what does she learn about being able to forget about your life and the folly or reward that brings, etc.? And, finally, how would it be if I was her? As you can tell, I'm pretty fond of this high-concept and I WISH they could get a movie or TV show derived from it off the ground!

    But, back to your question of novels and high-concept: maybe because I'm old enough that I grew up with less, not "none" but less, of the "sound-bite"/tagline culture of today, I don't think of novels and what I read as having high-concepts . . . but, it is also true that I do respond to short-form answers to my question of "what's the book about?". So, I guess I'm full of crap! For example, I did just finish a book I really enjoyed called "The Three Weissmans of Westport", by Carolyn Schine, and I bought it because the answer was "it's about an older woman who moves to a run-down cottage in Westport with her two floundering middle-aged daughters after her husband of 40-some years gives her the boot". It was light, but wonderfully and artfully written. I picked it up because I went to a bookstore lecture on book-group reads and got my answer, plus I opened it to the front page and liked the writing chops there displayed. High or low, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

  3. Laura Spinella
    Laura Spinella says:

    Interesting read, Maria!! I think the high concept is tougher to write than the entire book!!

  4. Courtney Kirchoff
    Courtney Kirchoff says:

    I agree with Laura, writing the high concept sounds harder than writing the novel!

    For mine, the title is pretty average: Jaden Baker. What makes it an interesting read is Jaden's character and what happens to him (and how he copes with it). I didn't want to name him anything too weird to grab attention. Instead, I used a tagline, which summarizes Jaden's tactics in dealing with his enemies: "For those receiving it, patience is a deadly virtue."

    Great blog post!

  5. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Just saw this deal by my agents for a book with a very cool concept:

    Menna van Praag’s THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET, a debut set in Cambridge, England about a ruined Ph.D. candidate who finds herself living for 99 nights in an unconventional home for women that has hosted a roster ranging from George Eliot to Beatrix Potter, many of whom have stuck around in strange incarnations to help newcomers.

    Now I can't wait to read it!

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