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« Face Off Friday: First Novel Querying | Main | Characters in the Belfry and (Not so)WIP Wednesday »

Who Wants to Get High (Concept)?

Go to any writer's conference and you'll hear the following two words ad nauseum: High Concept.  Agents, publishers, your Uncle Bernard--everybody wants your story to be high concept. So what exactly does that mean?

High concept is an intriguing idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all. --James Bonnet

Okay, great. Sounds easy enough. Movies and tv shows use this all the time. It's just a log line, right? Well, not really. Let's look at a few log lines from today's tvguide.

Swingers--Warmly amusing story about the do's and don'ts of dating, centering on six friends who go looking for love at hip LA hotspots.

Definitely, Maybe--On the eve of his divorce, a jaded Manhattan ad exec tells his ten year old daughter how he met her mother.

*Shrug* Both good movies, but based on those descriptions I could take 'em or leave 'em. They tell you in general what it's about but there's no real intrigue. That's not to say they don't have high concept, but these loglines don't speak to it.

Now let's look at a few examples that are considered "high concept.

Speed--A cocky cop must find a way to save people stranded on a city bus that will
explode if is slows below 55 mph. (source)

Double Jeopardy--When a young wife discovers the husband she’s convicted of murdering isn’t dead, she escapes custody to track him down and kill him. (source)

The Hangover--After a wild bachelor party in Vegas, three friends wake up to find the groom missing, and no one has any memory of the previous night.

Back to the Future--In 1985, Doc Brown invents time travel; in 1955, Marty McFly accidentally prevents his parents from meeting, putting his own existence at stake. (imdb)
Ooh, now I don't know about you, but those grab me. Why? What are the differences between a straight logline and a high concept.

High concept stories have...

1. A unique premise

This doesn't mean you have to do something that's NEVER been done before. Let's face it, that's hard. But put a twist on it. In Speed, we've seen bomb/terrorist plotlines before, but wait, let's put it on a bus, oh and let's make sure that the bus can't slow down. In New Moon, we basically have Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.

2. Universal appeal

If your idea is unique (#1) but so bizarre that no one can relate to the premise, then you've lost your high concept. In Double Jeopardy, being betrayed by a spouse is something most people can connect with. No, maybe not everyone has been betrayed by their husband/wife, but we can imagine what that would be like. And certainly everyone has been betrayed at least once in their life by a friend, family member, etc.

3. Instant emotional connection

If we don't connect emotionally with a story, then what's the point of reading it? In Speed, we can connect with the idea of being an innocent bystander on the bus caught in that life or death situation. Or the cop whose trying to save everyone. In The Hangover, we can imagine the panic we would feel if we woke up and had no memory of the previous night and our friend was missing.

4. Obvious Potential (Can be visualized immediately)

When you hear a high concept pitch, you instantly start imagining what could occur. This doesn't mean a predictable story necessarily, but it gets our mind working. In Twilight, we can imagine what problems might arise when a vampire falls in love with a girl whose blood is absolutely irresistible to him. Clueless goes to Harvard Law (guess the movie). We can imagine the funny antics that will ensue.

5. Only one to three sentences (preferably one)

If you can't cover it in this amount of time, your concept made need a shot of heroine--sorry, I can't resist making lame puns--your concept needs to get high.

A few things to help you create your high concept...
  • Create a compelling character with a desperate desire
  • Give the character a flaw related to their job or situation
  • Have a life-altering, inciting event
  • Insert a quirk of fate or irony

Alright, so I hope that helps. I know that we all want to be able to do that "elevator pitch" if ever given the right opportunity. And we certainly want that one liner in our query that is going to get an agent or publisher excited. I'm terrible at this, so this post is as much for my benefit as everyone else's. I'm bound and determined to have my high concept pitch before I jump into my next novel.

Here are the sources I quoted from, check them out for more info:

If you want to see examples of loglines (some high concept, some not) and taglines (i.e. hooks), go to and enter any movie. They offer one line plot summaries and the hook for every movie. It's awesome.

So have you done this? What's your logline or high concept pitch? Do you think your current WIP fits these guidelines? Also, what do ya'll think I'm my kinder, gentler new blog design? I'm on the fence about it, so let me hear it. :)

**Today's Theme Song**
"High Enough" - Damn Yankees
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)

Reader Comments (22)

This is absolutely such an awesome post! I love it. Thanks for the tips, because although I conceptually understand the high concept log line, you've broken it down really well. Particularly the fact that a high concept blurb should make the reader/listener WANT TO READ IT.

Well done.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

My teen ghost hunters series is high concept. With Swingers, though, I'd say it's more character-driven. Definitely, Maybe's concept is a father telling his daughter stories about three women he's loved to see if his daughter can guess which was her mother. Actually, when put like that, it sounds a little sick!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Faris

Excellent information! Now to come up with some great lines...

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStrange Fiction

here's my high concept for one of my finished books:

A young widowed mother gets a first chance to make a second impression with a former high school crush who doesn't recognize her.

whatcha think?

jeannie" rel="nofollow">The Character Therapist

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeannie Campbell, LMFT

Love that Jeannie! That definitely works.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni Griffin

Excellent info, Roni. I've heard of the term before, but have always been a bit confused about it. This clarifies things. :)

My loglines - need to be sharper and tighter before I can call the high concept. I don't think they have that obvious potential and universal appeal... yet.

I like the new design<:

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Kariaxi

This is great! Very well put!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

Thanks for the links. It's helpful stuff!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

Should you have a high concept before you start writing?

Love the new design =)

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

As always, spot on, Ms. Groupie. As we all know, these things are all easier said than done, but they make a world of difference.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJm Diaz

It almost sounds easy, when you put it like that.

Sadly, log lines are the only thing I suck at more than synopses.

Still, at least I know the theory, and that's half the battle right?!?

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGem

This is probably the best High Concept post I've ever read. Great job, and thank you!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Amy, yes I think the idea is to have this concept in your mind before you start writing. Although, it doesn't meant that if you already started, you can tease this out.

Thanks to the rest of you for the feedback on the post. I'm glad you found it helpful!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni Griffin

Great post. I love the examples.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTara

*sigh* You always bring me the best posts...

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

Thank you, I had never heard of this before. But I will use it for sure.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTabitha Bird

Wonderful post. I love when someone gives some thought to what they are posting. I obviously need to become a follower. Only can we call it something different...I hate being a follower. Maybe we'll call it "fanatic".

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStewart Sternberg

Why do your posts always scare me?? :( I'm suddenly fearful that I will never come up with such things! AHHHHH!!!!

However, I just watched the movie Swingers for the first time the other day. It was all right- I guess.

I suppose I'm going to have to look at these links...sigh...and see what I have to live up to.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGirl Meets Gun

This is a really good and thorough post. Thanks for the research that went into it.

I HOPE my ms has all the elements needed to make it high concept.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Ledbetter

Stewart, welcome to the blog! And don't worry, this site doesn't have followers, it has fellow groupies. :)

GMG, I'm sorry that my posts are scaring you. I never thought of this as a horror site. ;)

And thanks to the rest of you guys for all the feedback about the post. Ya'll are too kinnd.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

Fantastic post. You really explained it well.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawnB

What a great post, Roni. Lots of good info. Thank you.

I like your new blog look, but I liked it before too. Aren't I helpful? ;) The "Groupie Rating Scale" is cut off on my screen right now (even if I slide to the right), but maybe that's just something goofy with my computer.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn VanderMeer

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