What is a high concept story?

Elements of a high concept story

Compelling story hook? Big "Wow!" factor?

Here are a few things that are true of high concept movies and novels:

  1. Epic entertainment factor

  2. Fast pace, high stakes 

  3. Often sparked by a  “what if” question

  4. Contains unique elements

  5. Generally has mass audience appeal

Some genres almost require a high concept premise, like fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. Agents and publishers want to see more than a unique premise - they want it to grab interest with just a brief description, sometimes known as the 'hook' or ‘elevator pitch’.

Stories do not need to be high concept to be entertaining or engaging--take Jane Austen’s novels, for instance. Her stories are about as far from high concept as you can get, but they are excellent stories with a big cultural impact. 

QUIZ: see if you recognize these high concept stories:

  1. One man struggles to find his individuality in a society dominated and controlled by a totalitarian government. 

  2. Two cities inhabit the same physical space, but somehow never meet. 

  3. A big city afraid-of-water sheriff faces must deal with a great white shark preying on his small resort island during a holiday weekend.

  4. There’s a top secret boarding school for girls training to be spies. 

  5. Advances in science and technology have enabled a powerful billionaire to create a unique tourist attraction - an island of living dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong? 

  6. Nonfiction: The book’s tagline is “The power of thinking without thinking.”

  7. Nonfiction: The subtitle is: "The curious lives of human cadavers."

How do these and other high concept stories fulfill each of the five characteristics? 

  1. High level of entertainment value: It’s impossible to define 'entertainment value', but this characteristic goes hand in hand with mass audience appeal. These stories often enter mainstream culture in a way that sometimes changes the way people think and speak.

    "I see dead people."

    "Use the Force, Luke."

  2. Fast Pace/High Stakes: The future of a culture, a nation, humanity, the galaxy, or the universe is at stake. The characters aren't saving a dolphin from an unscrupulous businessmen, or trying to keep their hair salon from going out of business. It's a life and death struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, like asteroids and alien invasions and global pandemics. The tension mounts as heroes and villains go head-to-head in spectacular clashes of wit and might, and at the climactic moment, it seems that all is lost and we are doomed. The dénouement is usually very short--if anyone manages to survive, there's little left to say except "Let's go home and pick up the pieces."

  3. Unique Elements: What does it mean to be original or unique? It’s mostly about the approach angle. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley chose to have the humans terrorize the monster. In H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds, the aliens who can’t be defeated by all the world’s armies are taken down by microbes. In The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse has finally happened, and a small group of people struggle to survive and rebuild.

  4. Born from a “what if” question:

    • What if the human race became infertile? (The Children of Men, P.D. James)

    • What if a group of high school students were a town's best defense against a Communist invasion? (Red Dawn)

    • What if a Russian sub commander defected and tried to hand over the latest Soviet submarine to the United States? (The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy).

  5. Mass audience appeal: High-concept stories, even those of a specific genre, still draw an audience far beyond that genre’s fandom. They cross over from being categorized as SF, horror, fantasy, and become mainstream on bookstore shelves, in movie theaters, and in our cultural lexicon. Many who don’t consider themselves to be scifi nerds or 'into fantasy' have seen every Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter movie, usually more than once.

In high concept nonfiction, these characteristics still apply, especially since many are written in a literary fashion. Each chapter is crafted with scenes as the author offers up different views of the subject, builds their argument, or paints the view for the reader. The language of high concept nonfiction is usually written so Every Man can access and enjoy it. 

Again, high concept isn’t about a story being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, boring vs. interesting--it’s in the approach and characteristics of the story the writer has chosen to tell.

In case you were still wondering, here are the answers to the quiz:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. The City and the City by China Mieville
  3. Jaws by Peter Benchley
  4. The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter
  5. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  6. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  7. Stiff by Mary Roach

How did you do on the quiz? Do you have a favorite high concept novel? Share it in the comments.