Wednesday, June 22, 2016

You Can't Write A High Concept If Your Story Doesn't Have One

Yesterday, I had on my "Oldies Station", you know the one that plays things from the 80's? (I really didn't need that yesterday)...and... they were playing Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing All." Needless to say, that nice little "ancient" ditty, got me thinking about something I see a lot with many authors and their submissions or pitches. Authors trying to make something out of nothing.

One of the key elements we need to hear in a submission, pitch or marketing tool (for those of you in self-publishing" is the "High Concept" of your story. In one or two sentences, we need to know what is unique and marketable about your story. What is it that makes this story stand out from all of the other projects out there and makes the reader, editor, or agent want to buy the project? Taking the word itself, it is simply saying what makes your "Concept" "Higher" or better than all of the other projects out there?

Many seem to think that the high concept is nothing more than describing your plot by combining two different books or authors. "My story is really a mix of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who." Now, while using this can sometimes clear up a confusing story, it really doesn't show us what makes this story unique from all of the other projects out there.

So, getting back to Air Supply. For many authors, when it is time to write that query, craft that pitch or even answer the editor or agent when we ask what they would describe as the high concept, and all they come up with is silence, the answer should be glaring them in the face. The story simply doesn't have a high concept. There is nothing special to it.

I remember working with a group of authors over a weekend where we had one session on query letters. We outlined a basic query letter and I had them working on it independently for a few minutes. As I looked around the room, I saw pencils, pens and computer keyboards frozen in time. Their faces had those deer in the headlight look. The silence was deafening. Suddenly, one author called me over to her table and looked me in the eye and said this was impossible.

I asked here what the problem was and her answer was immediately agreed on by the other authors at the table. "My story isn't unique."

Now, this is where things get really difficult. A) If your query letter should contain a high concept; and B) Your story doesn't contain a high concept, what are your options?

First of all, (and this is that Air Supply link), you cannot make something out of nothing. In other words, writing something to tell the editor, agent or author that your story is special when it isn't cannot be made up. It becomes very obvious to all of us on this end that you are tying to sell us on something that isn't there. Think of those movie previews where the producers have filled that short clip with explosions, loud music and so forth, but in the end, there is nothing that makes the movie stand out. Why? There is no high concept.

Secondly, this might mean you will have to go back to the storyboard and see what you can do with the story. You may be looking at a serious re-write, or just a huge over-haul. I will tell you, just changing names or locations will not make the story unique.

Finally, you may need to focus your attention, not on this book, but the one newest project. Before you get too far into it, you might want to start thinking about that high concept. This is really where those plotters have it figured out. Make sure it is there from the ground up.

Now, for those of you getting ready to send out submissions today, or this weekend, take the time to look at that submission. What makes your story unique? Are you showing us? Or are you getting ready to send us something like everything else out there?


  1. Hi Scott,
    Can you give me one or two examples of a unique "High Concept"? I'm beginning to think there is nothing new under the sun and that every book in some way resembles another one like it that is already out there, just told in a different voice.

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  3. Michele Young's NO REGRETS where the hero falls in love with the girl because of who she is and not what she looks like. She is heavy with glasses and flat hair.

    Jean Love Cush and her novel ENDANGERED where an African American boy is charged with first degree murder and the attorney argues the Endangered Species Act for the basis of the defense.

  4. Thank you, Scott. That is helpful to me in understanding what you were trying to communicate.