High Concept: Catching Readers One at a Time

Not every fiction proposal needs something called a High Concept, but I like to see one. A High Concept shows that the author can hone in on the story and has thought about what it says and how it can be positioned in the marketplace. It helps the publisher know in a snap of the fingers the unique and compelling nature of your story. One popular way to create a High Concept is to compare your work to two books or movies. You can choose extremely famous titles or venture into lesser known works with self-explanatory titles. I will make up a couple of examples:

Star Wars meets Across Five Aprils in this alternative history novel in which a spaceship lands in the middle of the battle of First Manassas.

The Wheel of Fortune meets Missing in this thriller about a Las Vegas kidnapping ring.

High Concepts like these are capsules that help orient an editor or marketing director to your work. They lend excitement and anticipation to the proposal.

However, not all stories work with this type of high concept. If you have to strain to find the high concept using titles, I recommend not pressing the issue, because stretching too far may only serve to make the book seem silly or unappealing. Instead, you may opt for a sound bite, which describes your book in 25 words or less. A couple of made-up examples:

A young woman finds what she thinks is a worthless trinket hidden among her deceased father’s possessions, but her discovery attracts the most sordid kinds of evil.

or

When rival chefs are booked to serve on the same cruise ship, will their competition ignite Molotav cocktails or flames of passion?

Again, this technique encapsulates what you as an author are attempting with your story, and high concepts encourage the editor to read more.

Remember at the proposal stage, the agent and editor are your readers. Once you lure them, the bait is set for many more fans!

Your turn:

What high concept or sound bite are you using for your WIP?

Make up a high concept that would entice you to read a story.

Make up a high concept for your favorite book.

35 Responses to High Concept: Catching Readers One at a Time

  1. Avatar
    Katie Hart August 16, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    Still tweaking this a bit, but here’s my current sound bite for my WIP:

    A teenage girl must help protect genetically-altered humans from hunters who see them as monsters.

    The very first note I scribbled down for this story idea was high concept: Buffy meets Princess Diaries meets Grimm.

  2. Avatar
    Jeanne August 16, 2012 at 6:41 am #

    You got mybrain cells working this morning. 🙂 I’ve been trying to figure out books that might work for a high concept for me, but I haven’t determined those yet.

    Though it still needs tweaking, a sound bite I thought about for my story might be:
    Can a woman learn to trust her husband’s lead while she’s dancing with another man?

    • Avatar
      Robin Patchen August 16, 2012 at 7:21 am #

      That’s interesting, Jeanne.

      • Avatar
        Jeanne August 16, 2012 at 9:00 am #

        Thanks. So is yours. What genre do you write?

      • Avatar
        Robin Patchen August 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

        I write contemporary fiction with a little romance and a little suspense. Is your contemporary?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 9:22 am #

      Jeanne, your sound bite does suggest romance and intrigue!

  3. Avatar
    Robin Patchen August 16, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    It doesn’t feel very “high concept,” but this is the pitch for my WIP. “A former soldier must protect his estranged wife after she is threatened by the psychiatrist who seduced her in her teens.”

    I have the hardest time coming up with those “story” meets “story” comparisons. I always feel arrogant somehow, comparing my book to others.

    Question: My current WIP has a theme of forgiveness. Should I somehow try to weave that into the pitch? I think it would feel more “high concept” if that were included.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 9:34 am #

      Robin, I understand how you feel about not wanting to seem arrogant when making comparisons. However, rest assured since this is an accepted way to pitch a book, you won’t be considered arrogant in the least. The comparisons don’t say, “I write as well as this bestselling or classic author,” (Although maybe you do!). Rather, it is a encapsulation of ideas to deliver a quick “Aha!” to the reviewer.

      Personally, I would explore the forgiveness issue in the “Theme” or “Spiritual Takeaway” section, but you could also choose a book or movie with an obvious forgiveness theme and use that as one part of the high concept.

      Each proposal is a reflection of the author’s personality. Do what works for you and your book. It’s fine if you press against the edges of the box. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Robin Patchen August 16, 2012 at 9:43 am #

        Thanks, Tamela. I’ll have to keep thinking about the comparisons. All that comes to mind is Lolita, but it’s Lolita grown up. And I don’t know that comparing something with Lolita would help me sell in the CBA. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Keep thinking!

  4. Avatar
    Laurie Alice Eakes August 16, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    Whew! I’m so glad I don’t need to come up with those comparison things. I am so not good at those.

    but the 25 words or less I can handle.

    I now want to read the book about the chefs. Anyone up to writing it? Were I an agent or editor, that would grab me straight away. It at least made me laugh.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      Laurie Alice, that is too funny! Sure, if someone wants to write that, I’d take a look.

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    V.V. Denman August 16, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Oooh, this was fun. 🙂

    Sound bite: An insecure teenage girl, ostracized by the local congregation, catches the eye of the new preacher’s son.

    High concept: The Scarlet Letter meets The Breakfast Club.

    • Avatar
      Jeanne August 16, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      Love it, V.V. 🙂

      • Avatar
        V.V. Denman August 16, 2012 at 9:18 am #

        Thanks, Jeanne. I think I recognize your sound bite from the ACFW newbie loop. I remember that tension. Sounds interesting!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 9:24 am #

      Very good!

    • Avatar
      Chris P. August 16, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      You had me at “The Breakfast Club” 😉

    • Avatar
      Jeanne August 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      You’re right, VV. I’m tweaking it. Still. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Mike Manto August 16, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    Excellent blog. Thanks.

  7. Avatar
    Jennifer Major August 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    A proud but gentle Navajo must fight the fear of falling in love with the one woman who’s soul may be forever broken.

    “Into the West meets Pride and Prejudice”

  8. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan August 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    This is for a non-fiction work, does that count?

    “Blue like Jazz” meets “Jesus has Left the Building” with a pinch of “Pagan Christianity?” stirred in for extra flavor.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

      Peter, that would make me keep reading the proposal. I’d want to know more about your topic.

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    Becky Doughty August 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    This is a tough one for me – but then one of the hardest things for me to write is my hook. Grrrrr.

    How about this:

    When Sargent Friday pulls over Miss Congeniality, he quickly realizes that he wants more than “Just the facts, ma’am.”

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

      Becky, very cute! It doesn’t go into the depth of the story, but it’s a great start and tells me I can look forward to a contemporary romance. I would read more of the proposal to see where the story will go.

  10. Avatar
    Naomi Musch August 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Oh, this is tough, but the timing is perfect. I’ve been sitting here working on this very thing and took a break to peek on FB & Twitter, and this post is what I found. Thanks! I need to go back to the drawing board now…

  11. Avatar
    Joan Miller August 17, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    Tamela, Thank you for this post. I’ve been struggling with soundbites. Question: is it acceptable to use a movie like “Easy Riders” in a comparison for a Christian book proposal?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 17, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      Joan: I don’t want to say there are rules because there are none. However, if you choose a movie with elements you think are questionable, then you have to consider if the editor or agent will also wonder. Just a thought!

      • Avatar
        Joan Miller August 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

        thanks for your insight. much appreciated!!

  12. Avatar
    Rick Barry August 17, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    Place Hunger Games and Star Trek into a bowl and mix well. Then sprinkle in flavoring from the Book of Acts. Your result will be this high-concept story of a teen who lands in the adventure of a lifetime…whether he wants it or not.

    (This is a resurrection of a speculative series I wrote for Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine. For a long while I’ve wanted to recast this as a novel. The time is right!)

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