Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
This term turns up fairly often in descriptions of successful story. I have an idea what it means, but there’s no way I could give you a definition.
And concept, in terms of story, gets tangled up with idea, and premise, and theme.
Maybe that’s a good place to start.
In his book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks explains idea as the “initial seed of a story,” to which concept adds “a forward thinking aspect” which expands the idea and develops detail. The premise then “brings character into the story.” And the theme “is what the story illuminates about real life.”
His example, with apologies to Clive Cussler, goes as follows:
Idea: “raising the Titanic from the bottom of the sea.”
Concept: “secrets [are] still hidden there that certain forces would kill to keep concealed.”
Premise: “an archetypical hero … is hired to do this job and in so doing saves his country from potential attack.”
Ok, got it. We’re talking about the “imaginative,” or “insightful” or perhaps “brilliant” development of a raw idea into concept. Right?
Wrong. What we’re really talking about, according to longtime screenwriter Steve Kaire, is not concept at all. It’s the premise. This, he says marks the difference between stories that are “pitch driven,” (that can be sold simply by pitching the premise to a film maker or publisher) and those that are “execution driven” (that “have to be read to be appreciated.”)
Mr. Kaire’s “comprehensive definition of High Concept” lists five mandatory requirements, three of which address the quality of the pitch rather than the story.
So … not so much about quality as marketability.
But Mr. Kaire is concerned with film. Would a general fiction writer say the same?
Jeff Lyons at Storygeeks.com, does agree that the issue is primarily “market appeal.” Commercially appealing books, he says, have “a clear line of demarcation” from the rest, and “That line is the high concept.” Still, his “seven common traits” of high concept in stories are much like the qualities we might expect to find in good writing:
- High level of entertainment value
- High degree of originality
- Born from a “what if” question
- Highly visual
- Clear emotional focus
- Inclusion of some truly unique element
- Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche market).
Sally McDonald, defining high concept for Tropical Writers, Inc, touches on several of the same traits, then adds one more that comes close to summing it up for writers:
High Concept story, she says, “inspires readers & other authors to exclaim: ‘why didn’t I think of that.’”
But of course the marketing aspects of high concept are really appropriate too, else our “imaginative,” or “insightful” or perhaps “brilliant” stories might never be read!
Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, Writer’s Digest and Storyfix.com
“High Concept Defined Once and For All,” by Steve Kaire, Writer’s Store
“Write Better: The 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories,” by Jeff Lyons, Storygeeks.com,a guest post on The Writers Dig Blog,Writersdigest.com.
Sally McDonald, Tropical Writers, Inc