The Psychology of High Concept

The term high-concept got on my radar at this year’s Romance Writers of Australia conference. I listened to a couple of panels where a mix of editors and publishers educated us about current publishing trends and what publishing houses were on the lookout for. High-concept came up again and again. And it got my psychologist brain thinking. What exactly is high-concept? I’ve know it’s your story’s hook, that it’s your story in a single sentence, but how do you translate that into practical know-how a writer can use?

Well, I did some research, and discovered that many of the very gatekeepers who use the term high-concept aren’t much clearer about what it means. It seems, unlike its varied definitions, high-concept is difficult to capture in a single sentence. So how can you as a writer deliver what these markets want, when there’s no clear consensus as to what they’re asking for?

Well, high-concept seems to be a collection of attributes, an assembly of qualities that make up a reader-grabbing whole. Lots of blog posts have articulated this, and there’s some strong commonalities across them all. But as I thought it through, I considered it from a psychological perspective. Why is high-concept so engaging? Why is it so highly sought after? I was looking for the ‘science’ of high-concept. This is what struck me (and I’d love to hear what you think):

  1. High-concept begins with a question

There’s one powerful motivator that led your reader to your book — curiosity. Human curiosity is so powerful it has us doing completely unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. Think about it, have you ever got lost, ever tried something just to see what would happen, or did things just for the heck of it? Yep, that was curiosity working its magic.

High-concept captures the innate curiosity that evolution programmed into our grey matter. How does it do that? That single sentence naturally sparks questions. Think of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton: dinosaurs are cloned and used to create a theme park. I can certainly see why so many people wanted to know how that turns out. They were curious…

  1. Ones that aren’t easily answered

What’s more, the question that birthed the concept isn’t easily answered. A reader (or a movie goer) doesn’t know how high-concept stories are going to end. In fact, what that opened ended ‘what if’ will do is spawn a multitude of its own questions. For example, Legally Blonde: A ditsy blonde goes to Harvard Law School. I chose this one because high-concept seems to be synonymous with big budget, Armageddon-type outcomes. But in Legally Blonde there’s no epic good-versus-evil battle with earth-ending consequences, but a ditsy blonde in Harvard could go in a multitude of directions. When a curious brain reads that single line they will begin to wonder and predict, and then wonder if their predictions are correct. The only way to get the answer is to watch the movie/read the book…

  1. High-concept grabs you fast

What’s more, high-concept does all of the above quickly. The process is practically instantaneous. Humans have a pretty short attention span (some studies claim it’s shrinking in today’s world of social media, smartphones and instant noodles, but the jury is still out on that one). In the book world, where digital and bookstore shelves house hundreds of alternatives, high-concept trumps the others because it grabs you, and it grabs you fast. The sparking of the questions, and the need to know the answer, occurs before the brain can move onto the next shiny object that may bring a dopamine rush. That’s why high-concept is captured in a single sentence; it manages to grasp a multitude of possibilities in a few short seconds.

  1. High-concept is emotive

Our brain is driven by emotion. I know we like to think we’re rational beings, applying the rules of logic calmly and rationally to those little and not-so-little decisions, but our every thought, our whole perspective is coloured by emotion. High-concept knows this and cashes in on it. What’s more, high-concept stories spark emotion, but not just any emotion. It goes for the big guns, the primal, intensely felt responses: fear, joy, hate, love, rage. There is no wishy-washy emotional engagement of the reader. The involvement is strong, immediate and intense. For example, the YA contemporary romance, Make it Count: Everyone she touches she sees the number of days they have left to live. This one taps into our need for love and connection, and underneath it all triggers a sense of fear – what if that was me?!? And yes, I was a bit cheeky — that’s my book 😉

  1. High-concept has a streak of originality

Our grey matter loves new and interesting. When presented with novel stimuli it lights up, it hones in the senses so it can explore and learn. It triggers our reward pathways and sends a flood of feel good chemicals through our synapses. High-concept captures the brains preference for novel stimuli (which simultaneously captures our curiosity!). Readers want to see what wonderful, unexpected trip your words can take them on. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel (to be honest, I think all the different types of ‘wheels’ have been thought of by now). Originality is about a fresh approach of perspective of the known or expected. Your story’s idea may be centred in a familiar context, but your approach to that idea comes from an unexpected angle. Consider Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Middle school survival guide—in comic form, or The Hunger Games: Fight to the death — on national television!

It’s important to remember that this list of high-concept qualities is not some check list for a good book, or a publishable book. There are plenty of big sellers out there that don’t meet all the above criteria. I created this list because I think it’s important that any statements we make about quality writing should have some basis, or that we should at least consider why a particular component should be included in our books. What do you think? Does your current manuscript tap into these qualities? Do you think there’s other components I haven’t included? Comments and feedback are a great way to get a conversation going. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

10 comments

  1. I was told by a talent scout that they’re stories you can summarise in one sentence and spark interest. She used her own book (as one does) saying, “It’s a mystery based on the finding of baby’s bones in the seams of an old wedding dress.” Useful examples include: The Time Traveller’s Wife (the title almost does the trick), The Handmaiden’s Tale, Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl (again, the title)…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Big budget, Armageddon-type outcomes? Epic good-versus-evil battle with earth-ending consequences? Sounds like my kind of thing! Sometimes, when blowing up another ship, skyscraper, plane, bridge or whatever in my WIP, I give thanks that I don’t have to actually PAY for all my destruction.

    ‘Make it Count’ does indeed sound high-concept, capable of being encompassed in a simple rhetorical question. What would I do if I had that power? Or would I want to be touched by such a person and know when I would die?

    Australia-wise, I’m closer to Matthew Reilly, I suppose. If in doubt, blow something BIG up! I also like the late Morris West, whose novels spanned from theology (The Shoes of the Fisherman) to adventure (The Navigator).

    Thanks for this, Tamar!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think most stories could benefit from an explosion or two.

    I’m reminded of the scene in the movie ‘LAST ACTION HERO’ where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an actor playing Hamlet. He says ‘To be or not to be,’ then ‘Not to be!’ and blows up Elsinore Castle!

    On the other hand, I sometimes think my WIP could benefit from a bit more romance!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just finished read “The Anatomy of a Premise Line” by Jeff Lyons, and one of the exercises it suggests involves a checklist for determining if your premise is high concept or not. I believe it has seven items, some of which are similar to yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting! When I did some research there were certainly some strong commonalities. I tried to focus on the science of why each component works, so I’m always interested to hear how others make up their lists 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tamar –

    Thank you for another enlightening post. Particularly the emphasis on the emotive element. I also agree with your assessment regarding the numerous definitions of High Concept; it seems like there are common threads, with some minor variances in the requisite elements. The novel I am working on outlining is High Concept. I am confident that my idea fulfills all the essential components. Now it’s a question of pulling all the right levers and pushing all right buttons in order to tug on people’s heartstrings…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, there’s the challenge! High concept is one of those things that’s easier said than done when it comes to making it happen word after word. I think knowing the components and aiming for them is definitely the best start though 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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