Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Does Your Book Meet the Test for High Concept?

By: Karen Albright Lin

We typically hear of High Concept in the context of movies, but it applies to everything from poems to comic books, novels to fortunes in cookies.

High concept is a unique premise with mass audience appeal, the essence of a highly marketable story. It is the seed of a log line, what will be on the book’s back teaser.

Consider these high concepts:

l  Nonfiction - East Eats West – a cookbook about how Asians adjust our food to meet their tastes (I foresee writing this one in the future).

l  YA - Wish You Were Dead by Todd Strasser. High school students mysteriously disappear after being mentioned in a blog.

l  Poem – Ginsberg’s Howl.  Sexual outcasts find their glory.

The Fewer the words, the higher the concept. Snakes on a Plane. The title is the high concept, as is Memoirs of a Geisha. Titles and phrases are great but it’s more common to pitch with a sentence or two. Here’s a sentence that captures the high concept of a comic book: Super Zero is about a geeky, terminally ill teen who goes from utter obscurity to becoming humanity's last hope after the zombie apocalypse.

Occasionally a book is successful without being high concept. Haven Kimmel’s memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, is about growing up in small town Indiana. It’s her witty voice that sells the book. Contrast that with Ally Carter’s high concept novel called I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You. Again, the title is the high concept.

Convey what the story is about, not what happens. There are several ways to do this. And they work for all genres.

You likely have a high concept if it can be described as one story crossed with another or one story with a twist. X meets Y. An example would be Time Traveler’s Wife meets grown up Harry Potter. Be sure to compare with books that sold well. Jaws in space is a pitch for Alien, a quick idea of what’s coming.

Often a winning high concept often implies fast action and suspense, an intriguing locale, or a promise of interesting subject matter. It’s easily understood and implies an inciting incident, a problem that must be solved like a man-eating shark must be destroyed. Take us on an emotional trip as in 127 hours.

Put your idea through some tests. 

Can you tell someone the gist of the book quickly? Does it imply the protagonist, goal and major obstacle/event/battle, an antagonist, genre and sometimes a sense of time and place?  Example: A man has a gene that causes him to involuntarily time-travel. He meets his wife at various stages of her life.      
Does the premise sound unique? Have mass appeal? Imply a promise and execution?  Would it stand on its own without the author’s name on the book? Is it specific enough to stand out from the crowd. “Urban fantasy love story” is vague. But “Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves” is high concept for Underworld

Implied in my earlier praise of Snakes on a Plane, high concept has all the elements in its title. It helps to think through your high concept before you write your book. You’ll understand your story. When your work is finished, high concept will help titillate your buyer.    

About the Author: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. Can never hear this enough, because I GET it, and then when it comes to my work I'm stumped. Thank you, Karen, will print this out and as I begin my new novel next week I'll endeavor to START with high concept. :)

    1. Great idea. Starting with High Concept will make it more likely you'll have something marketable when you finish... AND you'll have a goal with each chapter... continue conveying the high concept... if the theme you've set up isn't there, it may not be a chapter you need. Was Sauron ever far out of the character's thoughts in Lord of the Rings? If it was, we'd lose some of the big picture tension. I'm already interested in hearing your High Concept? What would be on your "movie" poster?

  2. Thanks for so many great examples. I know the High Concept idea sells books to agents, editors, and book buyers. My problem is coming up with the right combination of words.

    1. I'd be happy to hear your sentence or two high concept! I'll give you feedback on it, if you like.

  3. So generous, Karen. First supplying us with an article that defines...then critiquing for a reader. I'm thrilled that you share your expertise with us on Writing from the Peak. Thank you.

  4. Your explanation cleared up a lot of questions in my mind. Thanks so much.


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