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What is “High Concept”?

In today's tough marketplace, agents and editors spend a lot of time talking about "high concept" books. Instead of being offended by the fact that this is more of a marketing term than a writing one, you better learn it, know it, and live it. Is your book based on a premise that will be easy to boil down into a logline? Is that logline unusual and compelling enough to attract the attention of a broad spectrum of readers (or viewers in the case of writing for film.)

It's all about the pitch, people. You have to be able to sum it up in two or three sentences in a way that is powerful enough to make people respond emotionally. You need an amazing subject, a provocative title, a compelling inciting even that opens your story, and a great hook that makes your version (possibly of an old theme, aren't most tales old as time?) unique or special.

Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff has one of the best explanations I've seen for "high concept." She says your premise needs to culturally topical (currently a cultural phenomena - vampires, anyone? zombies?)
2.exploit a common fear around a situation we can all relate to
4.generate water-cooler talk controversial enough to generate press
6.include a big twist

Okay, maybe not all those at once, but that list should get you started. I gotta admit I sometimes  want a "quiet" book - a character driven, in-depth storiy about the motivations and dreams of ordinary people - like Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan, a terrific slice-of-life read. But I think it's gonna be a while before we see many of those books getting big pushes from publishers again. I'm still reading them, and I hope you'll let me know if there's a good one I've missed.

Posted in 2010

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