The High Concept

What’s your story’s High Concept?

A man atop a cliffI run a regular Novel Writers Group at the ACT Writers Centre, usually spearheaded by a topic of the month.

This month it was The High Concept.

It’s worth devoting some time to it and figuring out.

During the discussion, the High Concept quite often got confused with Theme and Plot, probably because it’s tied into both.

Phillip Berrie, a member of the group, recently wrote a wonderful novella called The Changeling Detective.

Right there in the title is the basis of the story’s High Concept – a detective who can alter his appearance.

There’s a heck of a lot more going on in the book than that, and the overall series might have a different High Concept compared to the individual book, but as a stand-alone that’s what’s at the heart of it.

Break it down

What happens in the story is Plot, and this will influence the High Concept.

So will the story’s higher meaning – its Theme.

Both Plot and Theme hang off High Concept, not the other way around.

The Changeling Detective centres around a character who can change his appearance – short and simple. Everything’s tied into that. In this case, it’s an origin story – which further influences the High Concept.

Try explaining your High Concept to someone who doesn’t know the story

Practice with something familiar:

  • A family has been lost in space and is trying to find a way home. (Lost in Space)
  • Factions of a galactic empire fight for control of a rare mind and body-altering drug. (Dune)
  • Gods are manipulating people and events to try and win control of a universe. (Prophecy of Power: Quarry. Okay, that’s mine. Couldn’t resist)

The High Concept is your sales pitch, your Big Idea.

It doesn’t encompass your story – it’s the basis for it.

How do you find your own High Concept?

Look to the title.

You may not find it there (Dune, for example, doesn’t encompass it, though the Spice comes from the planet Dune and the story is set there – but the sequels come closer: Children of Dune, Chapter House Dune, etc).

Star Wars, Lost in Space, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – all give you insights into the story’s High Concept.

Consider you’re telling your best friend about a story you’ve just read. What do you say?

Imagine a bunch of robots are trying to destroy their makers, and:  

  • The survivors flee their homeworld looking for a safe haven… Battlestar Galactica.
  • A cyborg is sent back in time to end human resistance before it begins… Terminator.
  • A man has the power to manipulate programmed reality… The Matrix.

Find the basis of your High Concept and expand on it in a single sentence.

Anyone can write a story about a secret agent with a licence to kill, but there’s only one James Bond. That particular High Concept has spawned countless books, movies, games and rip-offs.

To find your own, you’ll need to add a little uniqueness.

Start with the word ‘imagine’ and then lay it out.

What’s mine? Imagine… The Gods are manipulating people and events in order to gain control of an entire universe. The premise of the story? A princess is being hunted by assassins because of a prophecy she wants no part in. They’re tied together – but certainly not the same.

What’s your High Concept? Let me know in the comments.

7 thoughts on “The High Concept

  1. Without giving too much away. Imagine being buried alive and the only way to save your life is to perform deeds for those already dead.

    Chris, I’m not sure if that’s what you are asking. This kind of stuff intimidates me to no end.


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