What high concept means

by | Aug 30, 2010 | Writing Advice | 109 comments

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High concept is one of the most understood concepts in storytelling. So what does high concept mean?

High concept means that a novel/movie/TV show’s plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.

  • Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept.
  • Wizard school? High concept.
  • There’s this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.

High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn’t mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn’t mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn’t mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it’s very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.

Why? Well, my hunch is that the more media, the more Tweets, the more links we’re constantly besieged with, the more readers are drawn to hooks that we can easily understand and digest.

So not only do you need to know what high concept means, you might also want to consider embracing it if you’re thinking of a new project. But only if it’s true to the story you want to tell.

UPDATED 12/10/19

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  1. Stu Pitt

    Vegan Zombies

  2. Anonymous

    All too often these days I read about agents wanting "high concept" but I hear "gimmick." Can you elaborate on the difference, Nathan?

  3. T.N. Tobias

    Does the old "It's like X meets Y" pitch apply to high concept?

    It's like Tron meets King Kong.
    It's like Twilight with Mountain Trolls.
    It's like Ulysses meets Something with a plot.

  4. Ishta Mercurio

    AH – thank you! I have been going around and around with the definition of this term, and now it makes sense. I don't think "high concept" are at all the right words to use to describe what "high concept" is supposed to mean, which is ironic since we're talking publishing and these are the people who should be able to pick exactly the right words, but whatever. That doesn't really matter.

    What matters is that your readers know what it is now. Thanks!

  5. Nathan Bransford


    It doesn't have to be a gimmick. A literary novel could be high concept, for instance. It more just means that the novel has a punchy, appealing hook. The execution might be shoddy or incredible, but the idea of the novel itself is both appealing and easy to wrap your head around.

  6. abc

    Balloon boy!

  7. Nathan Bransford


    I've seen it described that way, but I don't always agree with that definition. I think true high concept is more based on describing the plot in hook-y fashion. Sometimes the X meets Y works (Jane Austen and zombies), but for the most part I think it's more based on what is happening in the actual novel than the works that are similar to it.

  8. Erika Robuck

    Honestly, I'd pick up the novel about the wandering man over the candy factory any day of the week. But clearly, that's just me.

  9. Jacqueline Lichtenberg


    That's a post by the late BLAKE SNYDER author of SAVE THE CAT! series on screenwriting.

    The real eye-opener though is in the comments below it. Read what Sara Beach had to say. I think she hit on the explanation with the idea of the mountains seen from afar — a point of view shift.

    All other definitions I've found in the industry focus on the end-result of what you have AFTER you've applied the "High Concept" screener to your material.

    Sara and Blake have hit on what a writer DOES (inside the mind) to "get" a High Concept idea.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  10. swampfox

    Vodka Martini shaken not stirred.
    High concept.

    I was going to use another example, but I'm a teacher, after all.

  11. Author Guy

    Werewolves on the Moon.

    My wife wanted that for the title but my publisher preferred St. Martin's Moon, so guess what the book's going to be called?

  12. reader

    I always think that if the title says it all — Snakes on a Plane, Wedding Crashers, Atonement, Pride and Prejudice — then it's high concept.

    Maybe I just need to come up with better titles for my slower, literary, book club fiction type novels and trick the pub industry into thinking that they are high concept.

    I think it's the bias against high concept, though too, that despite what the writing may hold, pitching it can come off as gimmicky or too broad — Janet Reid just eviscerated someone on Query Shark for something that was pitched in that same broad manner that I would call a high concept pitch.

  13. A.L.

    So, many works in the comic industry would have the high concept of "Super Heroes" or "Masked Vigilantes"?

    Can genre/niche work as High Concept? I.e. Space Opera, instead of the more blanket 'science fiction'?

    It sounds like it uses the more literal meaning of the words. The concept of the story at the very top, the most simplest aspect of it.

    Vampire High School Romance. Or Wizard School. They explain a lot about the story in very very basic terms, and its not until you go several levels down that you start getting into the more "Coming of age story AT Wizard school" or something like that.

  14. Rick Daley

    High concept is the new vampire.

  15. Becke Davis

    Isn't it always a risk to compare a story to a movie or TV show? If the person you are pitching hasn't seen the show, your high concept will be a total wash.

    At what point does a movie/show/book become famous enough to use this way? For instance, you might say it's The Sixth Sense meets Hansel & Gretel, but would Medium meets Hansel & Gretel have the same impact?

  16. Karen Schwabach

    In his book _Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing_, David Morrell suggests "high concept" means a plot that can be described briefly enough to suit the attention span of a Hollywood producer whose brain is fairly fried from drugs.

  17. MJR

    Watching movie trailers is a good place to learn about high concept because most movies have a high- concept premise (unlike a lot of novels). You should be able to get the gist in a second or two. For example, the teenage children of an upscale SoCal lesbian couple look up their mothers' sperm donor, who suddenly becomes involved in all their lives…(THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT). In one sentence you have a high-concept plot.

  18. TLAstle

    Stu Pitt – I'm glad I didn't have any water in my mouth whenI read your comment or it would have been a spit take. Too funny, especially coming as the first comment after Nathan's post.

    word verification – undumb – seriously.

  19. Thermocline

    Yeah. Snakes on a Plane tells you pretty much all you need to know.

  20. Marilyn Peake

    About a year ago, I found out what "high concept" was, and I was very surprised. Recently, I’ve been sending out queries for my science fiction novel novel – written in literary style – about outer space aliens and religious holograms designed by the military, and have heard back that this novel is "high concept" and a "potential best-seller". Makes me happy. (And I will be much happier when and if I actually sign with an agent.)

  21. Mira

    I did NOT know what high concept meant, and now I do. I had all the miunderstandings you mentioned.

    Thanks, Nathan.

    Is that Dublin book real? Oh my, I am so commercial. Why would someone read that? On the other hand, that sounds rather easy to write. Is lit fiction easy to write? I wonder if I pissed anyone off asking that – sorry. But I could write a book where someone wanders around thinking and does nothing. I really could.

    Anyway, that would be a fun challenge to re-write lit fiction as high concept. An Irish guy who has 'questions' reaches an ephiphany (sp?) at a funeral. That's kind of fun. You could write anything as high concept, I think, you just have to tweak it.

    I'm sort of rambling in this post, but evidentally that means this post is literary fiction, right?

  22. T.N. Tobias


    The book he is mentioning is Ulysses by James Joyce and is considered a masterpiece.

  23. Nathan Bransford

    I also love ULYSSES by the way, it's one of my favorite books of all time. It's just basically the exact opposite of high concept.

  24. Vicky

    At last, a clear explanation! Thank you! I'm sending everyone to your blog!

  25. Mira

    Oh dear. I'm such a doofus. Sorry for bringing down the intelligence of your blog, Nathan.

    Well, now I'm going to have to check out Ulysses and form an EDUCATED opinion.

    Color me embarrassed.

    Although….it does sound easy to write. Doesn't that sound easy to write? Maybe I'll feel differently when I actually read it. I know. I'll buy it on my I-phone and read it tonight.

  26. Nina

    My husband has his heart set for vampires going out in to outer space.

    Maybe he's on to something?

    I dunno…

  27. Marsha Sigman

    Great explanation. I get it and I happen to write it…or at least I try very hard to.

  28. Laurel

    Vampire virus infected monkeys!

    I tend to like high concept but in small doses. Sequels, (Matrix, I'm looking at you), third season (yes, 24, you too), etc. and the edge is gone. High concept doesn't mean the story isn't there but it really limits the directions you can take it in the future.

    Like Water for Chocolate was pretty high concept for lit fic. A repressed woman's emotions spill into everything she cooks.

    Most of the lit fic examples I can think of have that mystical reality vein.

  29. Jared X

    I've given up my quest to write a high concept novel since Hollywood stole my idea for a literary novel about a hot tub that is also a time machine.

  30. Mira

    Okay, I just bought Ulysses on my Kindle/I-phone for 1 dollar. I read the first five pages.

    I can't understand a word. It's completely incomprehensible to me. I wish I did understand it, Nathan, since you love it. I wish I could understand it.

    I'm not sure what else to say, so I guess I'll be quiet now.

  31. T. Anne

    So high concept = clear idea in one sentence? Sounds like something every story should boil down to. If that's the case, isn't every story high concept?

  32. Nathan Bransford


    I personally think the only way to really understand ULYSSES is to read a "how to understand Ulysses" book at the same time or to take a class with an expert. It seems a little crazy to read a book to understand the book you're reading, but once you see what Joyce was accomplishing it's pretty amazing. It's a lot of art for art's sake and by no means a beach read, but also, I think, a phenomenal achievement.

    • Christy Charles

      Listening to Ulysses being read in French when it's not your native tongue…now that's something. Not only do you need the guide to understanding Ulysses but an accompanying translator who has read the guide.

  33. Nathan Bransford

    t. anne-

    While every book can be summarized, high concept tends to be very hook-y. They elicit a "that sounds awesome" with just the one sentence.

  34. flibgibbet

    So according to your article (and what I view as reality) these are our choices:

    Write a high concept story that panders to the everyman and makes big bucks for ourselves and the industry; write a high concept story that resonates with some, makes a lesser amount of money, but gets high praise from the critics du jour; or write a smaller story of our choice, that has little chance of every being read, much less published, but has a slim chance of becoming a classic after we're dead.

    I choose option number two. I'm not gifted enough for option three, and not interested enough to read, let alone write, option number one. (There are certainly pearls on the genre shelf, but IMHO, they're the exception).

    And for sure, the definition of "high-concept" is going to morph the same the way "literary fiction" has morphed.

  35. Mira

    Nathan – Thank you! I'm not doubting it's a masterpiece. But I was starting to doubt my own intelligence.

    I do think that understanding high art can require training, but once you 'see' it, it can be very profound. I feel the same way about art appreciation courses. Someday, maybe, I'll take a literature appreciation course on Joyce. 🙂

    But at least I'll know it isn't easy to write. I couldn't write that in a million years. I can't even read it!!

  36. Soooz

    Uh-Huh. Thanks Nathan. So when I submit my book with an anthropomorphic, fast talking, well dressed crocodile as a pivotal character amongst a group of Hollywood 'A' listers holidaying in a resort on Australia's 'Great Barrier Reef, I should list it as "high concept'?

    Or is it preferable to have the Agent tell me that themselves?

  37. Nathan Bransford


    I'd let the agent figure it out on their own.

  38. Juice in LA

    You know what might be fun and useful for us all? If we each try to describe our own staggering work of epic genius as a "High Concept" project.. it Could be useful for all those authors who struggle to reduce their own work to that one sentence synopsis?

    headed to the Forums to post the idea right now…

  39. Dominique

    Thank you for explaining this in clear, direct language.

  40. Anonymous

    D'Oh! I'm so glad you defined this for me. The term sounds so obvious I'd never thought to look further for a definition. And now it turns out I was completely wrong! One misunderstanding down. More likely to come

  41. Melanie

    Before the whole vampire and zombie craze erupted (again) in the last several years, I had this idea: Zombies are killing all the humans, and a vampire must save them so he won't run out of food.

    That's the closest I ever came to high concept. I'll stick with my quiet literary fiction instead.

  42. Marilyn Peake

    Nathan and Mira –

    I belong to an online book club in which one really bright person repeatedly says that ULYSSES is the ONLY really good novel ever written. 🙂 I don't agree, but he feels that ULYSSES sticks to the true form of a novel better than any other novel ever written. He's read more books than anyone else I know, even foreign books in their original language.

  43. Marilyn Peake

    flibgibbet –

    High concept books often get high praise from the critics. High concept simply means that the concept or idea appeals to a large number of people. The critics then take a look at how well the book was written.

  44. Kristin Laughtin

    Ahh, you make it sound so simple! But I get it now. And hopefully will be able to execute it well in the future.

    @Nina: I wrote something like that once, of a sort. It's definitely high-concept, but mine still needs a lot of work, so he should get a move on!

  45. Marjorie

    I like the story about the guy who walks around Dublin for a day. I like quiet stories about quirky people. I like black and white films. Maybe "high concept" is not my cup of tea….

  46. Jan Markley

    Thanks for explaining high concept in a high concept way (succinct and in a way we can all understand)! I never really got what it meant before.

  47. ryan field

    Excellent example with Snakes on a Plane. I've had to write a lot of tag lines, but this is even more concentrated.

  48. D.G. Hudson

    High concept means you don't need a degree to understand what's happening in the story? It's usually there right in your face. This could translate into what appeals to the LCD (aka the masses), therefore making it profitable in the publishers' eyes. (Harry Potter & Da Vinci Code, two examples)

    Writing seems to get its definition more and more from the marketing angle. Perhaps, sadly, this is a side effect of the growing pains affecting the publishing industry.

    How about some literary examples of high concept? Does the reader even notice such a lofty concept as high concept?

  49. Laurel

    @ Melanie: Start writing the Vampire vs. Zombie novel NOW. That is a great concept. Awesome. Dramatical, even!

    And: as long as there is The Sound and the Fury I have no doubt that there is a real novel apart from Ulysses. It takes a Southern Gothic to match an Irishman, but there you have it.

  50. Elizabeth

    Aha moment! Thanks for defining "high concept." I never quite knew what it was.

  51. Bane of Anubis

    High concept = LeBron James joins forces w/ DW and CB to become the new most hated team in the league.

    anti-high concept = Mugsy Bogues and Spudd Webb go on a cross-country odyssey to see if anybody still recognizes them (w/ a cameo from Earl Boykins).

  52. Steppe

    An ancient ghost invades a military simulator starting the Apocalypse.

  53. elizajane

    Reading through (some of) the "1001 Books to Read before You Die" I came to Ishguro's *Never Let Me Go,* which surprised me by being a High Concept novel, coming from a generally non-high-concept author. Is it a good book? Yes. Is it enduring like some of his other books? I don't think so. I think it's hard to write a high-concept book that endures. But a marketable one? I can see that.

    BTW, Ulysses is one of the 1001 books that I was thinking of skipping. But perhaps not.

    Biggest surprise so far: Christa Wolf, *Patterns of Childhood.* That was a book I needed to read before I died.

  54. Anonymous


    I would really enjoy seeing your version of a good query letter for ULYSSES.

  55. Laura Martone

    I get it. I do. Now… how to do it – ah, there's the rub.

  56. Laura Martone

    Oh, and one more thing… Uh, Mira, good luck reading ULYSSES in a single night. And I mean that with the utmost sincerity.

  57. gsfields

    Tea Party Zombies in Washington

    …can non-fiction be High Concept?

  58. Mira

    Marilyn, I'll defer to your friend (and Laurel). I've met my literary waterloo.

    Laura, I read five pages and I'm going back to my nice novels that are easy to understand and always have happy endings. Nice to see you here, btw. 🙂

  59. Terin Tashi Miller

    Nathan: thanks so much. For a number of things.
    1) for defining the industry's view of "high concept." Which, to me, sounds like a simple, x plus y = tons of money, movie rights, serial rights, foreign rights, rights, rights, rights, sales, sales, sales.
    2) for adding that Ulysses is NOT "high concept," yet one of your favorite books of all time.
    It is, indeed, a work of literature as art, or I guess I should say writing as art, which to me is the definition of literature.

    Seems to me several of your blogs have actually reinforced my opinion of the current publishing/book selling industry–there is no more compelling reason to buy or accept a book proposal than "high concept." "High art," not so much.

    So, those who plan to write "literary fiction" had best put away their dreams of sudden success and instant wealth. Until, as one commentor suggested, they're dead (and someone else sells their idea to a movie producer as "high concept"–a journalist winds up investigating a murder…)

    And those who want only to "publish," to be accepted as a writer and perhaps get rich off of the least amount of words–a "treatment" that's declared "high concept," after a one-sentence "high concept" pitch, should instantly take heart: there is hope, and possibility, as apparently some agents (not you, obviously), and publishers, prefer not to read.

    Mira: you can get Ulysses without a guide. You just have to read with your ears,without any distracton–read it out loud to yourself, in a closet if you need the isolation from other distractons, stumbling over the accent and some unusual words etc. And picture who's speaking and where they are and why and what they're doing and what they're saying. As if you're walking just a few steps behind, overhearing a conversation you've only stumbled into, in which you have, in the beginning, nothing invested nor any opinion.

    But don't try to absorb it in a day, or a night, or a week. Or on the first reading. It's a thick book, filled with lots and lots of words. And, other than the feeling of the words, and some odd goings-on, it doesn't appear to be filled with excitement. Unless the concept of something never before (that time) done, or even attempted, with language excites you.

    It is an amazing novel. I wouldn't say there's never been a better one written. But I will suggest it was so new, and so unusual, and so originally considered unsaleable and profane, it took a friend of Joyce's to publish it because no one else would risk it.

    And now, look. Nathan Bransford, a literary agent in 2010, confesses it's one of his most favorite books.

    But we're far more likely to someday see a movie about James Joyce than we will a movie version of his most famous novel.

    Because reading actually can make your brain work. It can make you envision places and people and things, perhaps differently than what Sir Richard Attenborough or Steven Spielberg decide something should look like.

    Here's a high concept: some kids playing in a tree house near their home discover books in it that take them to adventures–and time barely passes back at their house.

    When will Hollywood get hip to Mary Pope Osborne's "The Magic Treehouse" series for kids?

    This, I think, gets back to the basic problem: the publishing industry requires profits, naturally, and gets far more with a "marketing concept" for an idea than with a piece of art.

    Too bad. There was a time, actually, when publishers profited from art. Scribner's would never have done as well without Max Perkins' "stable" of writers. Nor, arguably, would American literature.

  60. Nathan Bransford


    I don't know – on the one hand, yeah, debut literary fiction is pretty hard to sell, especially when it's not high concept. On the other hand, Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM is coming out, non-high-concept, and it's one of the most hyped books in years.

    I think what's happening in the publishing business is what's happening with culture at large. The things that are popular are really really popular, and then everything else is appealing to a niche audience.

  61. Nancy

    Nathan, it sounds like you're describing a log line, that one-liner you read to know what the movie is about: "Woman receives a treasure map and goes to Columbia to rescue her sister." (Romancing the Stone) This works for screenplays, why not for novels? It breaks your story down to a simple, compelling nugget. And if it's not compelling or simple, you don't have a strong plot into which you can build a sub-plot or characters.

  62. Deb

    I'm getting the sense from the comments that people think high concept never equates to high art. I don't think that's true. Lord of the Flies is pretty high concept, despite being classic literary fiction.

    I'm in agreement with Nancy based on your post, Nathan. Aren't we talking about the log line here? I don't think I can get Franzen's Freedom down to a log line, but he probably could.

  63. Deb

    Okay, maybe not. Just read Jacqueline's comment on Save the Cat, and now I think I see the difference between the logline and the high concept (very nice, Jacqueline):

    Take two elements generated by the same THEME that have a natural conflict or stark contrast between them, and look at them from far, far away so you can see the entire statement at once without shifting your focus.

    Pan in just close enough that you can recognize what you’re looking at, and you have the 4-word High Concept statement.

    Get a little closer, and you can see the volcano that’s going to erupt among those mountains in the distance — and you have your 1 snappy sentence description.

  64. Nina

    @Melanie: Great concept! If you don't write it, I will ;-p

    Kristin: Chop, chop! You know you have at least one fan already =D

  65. Myrna Foster


    Joyce also wrote short stories. My favorite is THE DEAD, and you wouldn't need to read a book or take a class to understand it, though it wouldn't hurt to look up a brief biography; you might find his life more fascinating than his writing. If you can't find the story on its own, it's at the end of his DUBLINERS collection.

    Nathan, thank you for this post.

  66. lac582

    I don't think it's so much about the pitch, the one-sentence distillation itself, and more just that 'high concept' is where the concept, the idea, is the instant strength of the story. It's the kind of thing that when you hear it you go "man, that's a great idea, wish I had thought of that!"

    Or even if that hook is not your particular cup of tea, you instantly recognize that it has mass appeal. That the execution would have to really blow it for it not to be a commercial success.

    Agents (or movie studios) like it because it's a lower-effort sell, people will want to read it/watch it as long as the execution fulfills the expectations set by the premise.

  67. Anonymous

    Yep, I've got one . . . and I ain't tellin' no one.

    The secret is a simple, wildly popular and widely understood concept, with a twist that has not been seen before.

  68. lora96

    Very informative, since I clearly did not know what that meant.

    Also, current project is not high concept. It doesn't lend itself to a concise soundbite. Nor is it so erudite and brilliant that it wouldn't have to. Maaaaybe tighten up that plot a little.

  69. lora96

    @Karen: I love that! I always knew David Morrell was my kinda guy.

  70. Nik

    If 'high concept' helps get readers (or audiences) then it works. Tagline, slugline or whatever. 'No one in space can hear you scream' – you know it's a horror film set in space. Mine is 'When she was a cop, she made their life hell; now she's a nun, God help them!' Well, I like it, anyway!

  71. John Jack

    The term high-concept premise originated as a movie thing, and was co-opted by writers, probably as a consequence of publishers wrangling movie rights. Cultural diffusion.

    It's not so much about the hook, a term I don't care for because of the hook, line, sinker, and bait fishing expedition analogy, it's about the complication, the dramatic complication.

    Snakes on a plane. Dual complication pitting humanity against nature gone awry in precarious flight. Creepy crawlies in the air, oh, my. Revealed as a MacGuffin by comparing with Alfred Hitchcock's seminal The Birds, and coiner of the term MacGuffin. Hollywood comes out with a new nature gone awry about every few years. Bees, ants, worms, spiders, foliage, it was about time someone looked upward again.

    High-concept premises translate easily to visual media. Low-concept doesn't. Subtext complications. Nuance that isn't so easily relevant to universal experience.

    Take Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons compared to Cold Mountain. An orphan must make his way alone in the alienating world versus a soldier must make his own way home from the war. The orphan cannot find a sense of belonging, truely orphaned. The soldier is returning to his sense of belonging place. Not a few parallels in the latter with Homer's Odyssey which Joyce's Ulysses emulates. One of the better movie treatments of Ulysses is O Brother,
    Where Art Thou, 2000, staring George Clooney in the reprise role of Odysseus.

  72. John Jack

    My absent-minded intent was O Brother, Where Art Thou reprises Odysse but also Ulysses. Oh, well.

  73. Daisy Harris

    I'm a HUGE fan of the one sentence synopsis. Which is pretty much a high concept line.

    I liken the one line synopsis to " knowing what your book is about." I mean, if I don't know what my book is about, how will someone else?

    Also, the one line synopsis can be helpful when writing subplots hay go astray. Yesterday I couldn't figure out why a scene I planned seemed off. Then I went back to my concept line, which is basically, newborn zombie girl's joie de vivre revives battle-hardened zombie soldier's will to live, but in process girl learns that knowledge comes with a price.

    The scene I was writing had nothing to do with knowledge v innocence, depression v hope or any kind of depeninnng of main characters. So I dropped it and adjusted the subplot to re-enforce the main one.

    Hence the value of high concept. For me at least.

    Cool topic, thanks. D
    The subplot scene

  74. Dara

    Thanks for posting this! I'm not sure if my current WiP is high concept or not…and I may have to re-think it a bit. But my new project is, so that's a good thing.

  75. Shell

    You just made my brain hurt. But thanks. I'm sure I needed it.

  76. Julia Rachel Barrett

    Nathan – this is actually the most practical post I've read in a long time – great!
    If you read these comments, I invite you to stop by my site and read my 'high concept' – no…not really – I'm serial blogging about our disastrous canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota and our struggle to survive.
    Just got back home Saturday night.

  77. Terin Tashi Miller

    Nathan: thanks.
    You're no doubt right on target.
    I'm just glad there are (still) agents like yourself out there not only willing to admit you have an interest in some niches, but also noting some niches still deserve attention even if they aren't REALLY popular.

  78. ee hershey

    I think once you distill many books down to their one-line movie promo sentence, they'll seem to become high-concept. I'm still sort of confused by how high-concept differs from simply having a strong hook.

    I loved "Juice in LA's" idea of having everyone describe their own novel with a high-concept description. And it would be a great project to do the same with some classic works as well!

  79. Mira

    Terin and Myrna – thank you for the recommendations about reading Joyce. I'll keep those in mind. Appreciate it. 🙂

  80. John

    I'd like to see a relationship tree that shows how the massive jumble of literary terms are related when it comes to describing what sort of genes a novel has.

    "Oh he's quite literary but he inherited the high concept traits from his father's side."

    For example it's usually Commercial Fiction vs Literary Fiction, but now you see places wanting literary with commercial appeal, thus a high-concept literary piece. Then there are terms like "upmarket" and "upscale", etc. floating around out there that I stumble upon from time to time.

    About that relationship tree: Forget it.

    A relationship tree attempting to show all this would look like the hillbilly family tree–lots of incest and inbred novels running around barefoot in stained coveralls.

    And nobody wants that.

  81. Scott

    Nicole — steampunk is a recently-born sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy that basically consists a Victorian-era setting melded with magic. (STEAM-powered society, but with magic or sci-fi elements, and often associated with geek/punk culture). See the wiki article for more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

    John Jack — a lot of people on here are confusing high concept with other things like taglines, pitches, etc. Thanks for clearing it up.

    As a film guy I started incorporating the idea of high concept into most of my writing projects from the beginning. I find it helps you steer clear of sticky messes that you have to end up calling "literary" in order to excuse the vagaries and lack of plot.

    Call me low-brow, but I say if you can't succinctly describe your plot in an exciting way in less than twenty or thirty words, you're in trouble and you need to rein things in.

  82. Dan

    The best stuff is usually defined by strong characterization or an interesting plot. Almost every story can be described, more or less, in a one-sentence hook or elevator pitch. But "high concept" is a novelty act; a story that can be encapsulated or fully described by its title, "Snakes on a Plane" being a very on-point example. See, also: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"

    The quintessential high concept genre is the horror movie. Characterization in this genre tends to be flat or sterotypical because these people are fodder. The high-concept is the monster; monster-alien, ironic serial-killer, evil puppet, killer-leprechaun. Sometimes, high-concept manages to transcend its simple description; there's more to "Jaws" than just the concept of a killer shark. On the other hand, everything that is going for "Piranha 3D" is stated in the title.

    Lots of stories have interesting premises; most of them, even. But they're not "high concept" because the real hook is a compelling voice or character or central conflict. A goofy idea executed with flat, stock characters and a conventional plot is going to run out of steam pretty fast.

    In the movies, a very good director can get a lot of mileage out of a concept by stringing together inventive, splashy set-pieces that riff on the premise. But it doesn't necessarily work on the page; that's why "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" are better movies than books.

    I wonder if editors who want "high concept" are looking for novelty titles like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," or if they're saying that they're looking for something new instead of the millionth urban-fantasy/paranormal romance "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" variation.

  83. Anonymous

    Um, "High Concept"…

    Top of the Empire State Building?

    Legal Marijuana and a bowl of Rice Cripsies?

    Champaigne at 40,000 feet?

    "Fear of Heights" meets "Conceptually Challenged"?

    Maybe: Roller skates in San Francisco?

    (alright, I'll quit now)

    (No I won't. Just whispering it to the cat. "Cat Whisperer!!" Cool!)

  84. DiDi

    Sorry–I'm running behind these days. Just reading the blog and loving it. Making me think.

    Suggestion re:
    "Author Guy said…
    Werewolves on the Moon.

    My wife wanted that for the title but my publisher preferred St. Martin's Moon, so guess what the book's going to be called?"

    How 'bout "Badass Moondoggies"
    lol. Just had to…sorry!

  85. Dan

    "Magic Fantasy Kingdom" isn't really high concept; it's a setting. I'd argue that "wizard school" is also the setting for "Harry Potter" rather than a high concept.

    However the youth hostel/murder factory of the film "Hostel" is very much the high concept; that's the whole of the movie.

    Concepts which were once novel, such as the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" urban-fantasy world or the zombie apocalypse have become sub-genres. The literary/monster mash-up went from a high-concept to a subgenre before people realized that the same joke isn't funny the fiftieth time. In the same way that the central gag of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was really theadbare by the time they tried to use it to sell "Android Karenina," if there were lots of movies about snakes on planes, you couldn't really differentiate your product by resting on concept.

    Of course, there are many genre products that continue to rest on a well-used concept and have nothing else to recommend them; there will always be B movies and pulp fiction.

  86. jjdebenedictis

    So high concept means something that is easy to position?

    (Where 'positioning' is a marketing term that means telling your potential audience what the product is so they can decide whether it sounds like something they want. A commercial for a movie positions the audience by telling them what sort of movie to expect.)

  87. elfspirit333@gmail.com

    Re: Ulysses, maybe it would be more "high-concept" if it were described as a modern-day version of The Odyssey, set in Dublin.

    It sure has lasted longer than lots of high-concept books.

  88. Anonymous

    Every time I visit this website, and read this blog, I grow more depressed.

    With each new niggling rule that's tossed at me I feel that yet another part of my soul has been torn off.

    At some point you just have to follow your instincts as a storyteller and do what YOU think is right.

  89. Nathan Bransford


    I think you must not have read the last line of the post.

  90. Haleyknitz

    @Stu Pitt: even though you'll probably never see this comment for you: LOL

    what if you can describe your high concept with only a few words, but those few words would give away the story? is it still a high concept, or is it something else?

  91. E. Martin

    The classic film industry logline might sell to "pros" but it wouldn't sell to the consumer, which begs the question of why the "pros" are so fetishistic about it.

    Try to imagine a book cover printed with just a title and a one-sentence summary. Or a movie trailer that's only as long as a logline and contains the same amount of information. Epic fail.

    ANY book/screenplay can be reduced to a catchy logline by a clever (read: slithery) marketing mind. Most actual books and screenplays, however, are awful. What this means is that a catchy logline is essentially meaningless in terms of the quality of the work it is supposed to represent.

    The loglines for any novel-length book worth reading or feature-length film worth watching will be reductionist to the point of laughability. Even scripts that start as loglines must be expanded to the point that the finished product cannot be honestly represented by the logline.

    If it can, then what you have is not a feature film or a novel, but just a painfully long vignette.

    It's only by willfully ignoring all the flops with fantastic loglines, and all the successes with terrible ones, that we fool ourselves into believing that the logline is a useful professional selection tool.

    It's a fetish, the literary equivalent of a neat (but ultimately useless) gadget, a mere emblem of "coolness," and nothing more.

  92. Maurice Broaddus

    i pitched my novel series as "'the wire' meets 'excalibur'"

  93. Scott

    Remember, a tagline is different than high concept.

    High concept is something that your story is or is not, and a statement that expresses the high concept ("Snakes overrun a plane in midflight!") is a sales tool to sell producers/publishers on the movie/book, not a marketing tool to sell consumers on it.

    The latter would be the TAGLINE that you see on the movie poster/book cover. The tagline rarely tells you much about the plot. It's purpose is to excite a consumer:

    "In space, no one can hear you scream." from Alien, or "The truth is out there." from the X-Files.

    You would whip out your high concept line for an agent you run into at a conference and only have his attention for the next ten seconds: "Basically, my book is this: a killer dinosaur hatches out of little Billy's Easter egg!" You are not hiding the surprises from him, you're trying to impress him with the powerfully simple plot device, succinctly.

    Then when that book is published, the publisher's marketing department would put something like "He just wanted a tasty Easter treat…" on the cover. This intrigues the potential reader into buying the book, without giving away the surprises.

    By the way, this concept is totally copyrighted by me, don't you dare steal it! I KNOW you were going to…

  94. Idem

    Thank you so much for this. I asked about high concept a bit ago in the comments to another post, and I really appreciate your addressing it here. Thanks to you I now know that, for better or worse, my story is probably not high concept.

  95. Idem

    Could I try out an analogy of my own to see if I've got this right? What about in the realm of recipes…something which showcases bold, often contrasting flavors – like watermelon-feta salad – could be high-concept. On the other hand, biryani is a subtle mix of many flavors slow-cooked so as to meld together. In the watermelon-feta salad, you appreciate the conjunction of bright, strong flavors, whereas in biryani, you appreciate how the masalas have infiltrated the vegetables/meat, how the rice is flavored with lime and coriander. There's a place on the table for both dishes, but we enjoy them for different reasons.

  96. Author Guy

    "My husband has his heart set for vampires going out in to outer space.

    Maybe he's on to something?

    I dunno… "

    I've already got one of those half-written.

  97. J. T. Shea

    PLANE IN A SNAKE! An actual chapter title from my WIP. And it's not a metaphor. Of course, it's a small plane in a very big snake…

    Mira, NOBODY understands ULYSSES! James Joyce had very poor eyesight and dictated the novel. Many of the weirder words and phrases are now believed to be typos.

    Terin Tashi Miller, ULYSSES was filmed by Joseph Strick in 1967. Milo O'Shea played Bloom. Joyce would probably have approved. Before becoming a writer he opened Dublin's first movie theater.

  98. Anonymous

    Two teens find a locked up zombie girl and have sex with it. <— High Concept. (Unfortunately the movie 'Deadgirl' is poorly executed but that didn't stop the indie film crowd from raving about it. Ahhhh marketing… you can sell poo to a manure pile.)

  99. JustSarah

    I often find tyat high concept is a lot easier with short fiction.

    After seven chapter, it gets sort of complicated to cram into five words.

  100. Theresa Milstein

    Thanks for clearing this up. I had a totally different idea of what it meant.

  101. Ron Peters

    Something Chloe Kardashian could get in ten seconds and think "Cool! That'd be fun!"

  102. Steven W. Johnson

    Book title: Not Much of a Crime.

    Back cover blurb: Allison King finds herself embroiled in a fight for her life when she decides to campaign for a vacant seat on the town council of Charleston Nevada. Does she have what it takes to overcome the political corruption, intrigue, and murder that permeates the town and still save the adult video empire she created in Los Angeles?

    High Concept? Porn star takes on City Hall.


    Steven W. Johnson



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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