High Concept Plots ~ What Are They and Why Do I Care?
What is a high concept plot?
This is the million-dollar question. Different people have different answers,
and after reading a lot about it, I haven’t found the definitive answer. I have
come up with some theories about high concept novels, though.
First Theory: high concept stories sell because they’re a little shocking
In his excellent article on high concept, Steve Kaire says:
In seeking originality, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. We can take traditional subject matter that’s been done before and add a hook or twist to it which then qualifies the material as original. Using the kidnapping plot, there have been dozens of films which covered that subject area before. In the film Ransom, Mel Gibson plays a wealthy businessman whose son is kidnapped. That story in itself offers nothing new. The hook of the movie which makes it original is that instead of paying the ransom, Gibson uses the ransom money to pay for a contract hit on the kidnappers. That twist makes the film original and therefore High Concept.
Some plots are familiar
and comfortable. There’s room for such stories. But if you’re trying to break in with agents and editors, I’m guessing something fresh is the way to go. When I’m judging fifty contest entries, I want something to POP off the
page. And when agents and editors are reading through
their hundreds upon hundreds of queries, they want the same thing. They want to
be grabbed by something new and improved.
But they don’t want
something so new that they don’t know what to do with it. They seem to want, most
often, a fresh twist on an old idea.
Second Theory: high concept stories sell because they’re familiar
We want something we
loved in the past. We don’t want to commit to a journey into a strange and
far-away place without having at least a trusted guide with us. What if we get
lost? What if the food makes us sick? We need a security blanket with us, when
you push us to try something fresh and exciting.
This is why people sometimes
pitch high concepts using pitches that marry two familiar stories or concepts to give them a strange new feel:
- Godzilla in Disneyland =
- Rags to riches story at the
race track = Seabiscuit
- Oliver Twist meets Superman =
Third Theory: high concept stories sell because of they’re universal
They are universally appealing to your
audience, I mean. I’m writing middle grade and young adult books for young
readers, so if I’m looking for high concepts, I need to make sure my ideas appeal to young readers. They should plug readers into one or two of the following shared experiences or desires.
My themes, settings, characters, and plots should be universally:
o acceptance, a happy
ending, security, success, a cause greater than ourselves, the hope of a
creator who loves us and will take care of us, the desire to be worthy of love,
the desire to live with integrity, the desire to save the world
o pain, death, being
unloved, being the object of ridicule, being vulnerable
§ which play out in things
like: suicide, 9/11, terrorist attack, shark attack, the dark, gym class
experienced (by us or by someone close to us)
o school, parents,
friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, first kiss, success, failure, embarrassment,
divorced parents, learning to drive, moving away from home, blamed for
something you didn’t do
held with passion (loved or hated—controversy sells)
environmentalism, religion, spirituality, suicide, pregnancy, abortion
intriguing—what would you do?
o what would you do if someone left a recording, blaming you for her suicide? (Th1rteen R3asons Why) What would you do if a
vampire fell in love with you? (Twilight) What would you do if all the adults in the wold disappeared in one night? (Gone)
unexpected—they offer the twist
o TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY was
a twist on suicide, TWILIGHT was a twist on Eve and the forbidden fruit. ARTEMIS FOWL offers the twist on
the fairy story with his fairies, and their L.E.P. Recon force, being
sophisticated and using advanced technology, and with the child criminal
mastermind who really loves his parents. (Let’s face it, Eoin Colfer’s books
are full of twists—he has a twisted mind, I guess. I
adore his books.)
known (a person or event)
o Armageddon, Jack the
Ripper, Atlantis, the president’s daughter, princesses,
o super powers, bad boys
who love good girls, take-charge heroines, looking inside yourself for the power
to defeat your enemies
Okay. Those are my
theories. What do you think? When you map out your books, do you ask yourself 1) what’s the universal
hook? 2) what’s the familiar hook? and 3) what’s the fresh new twist? Do you
think I’m right to say that this is the next level we have to take our writing
to if we want to sell agents and editors on our stories?
Sally Apokedak has published short works in a number of places, has won various and sundry contests, and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She’s between agents at present, and can be found blogging about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com.