High Concept?

Posted on 10/06/2009


I come to you with hat-in-hand

I have been querying my story, Telecks, without much success so far. I guess it’s time to rewrite the query. There are about 10 agents left on my list. I had two requests for partials, and they said they liked my writing (I mean, who wouldn’t! I rock!) But ultimately had to pass. One agent sat on my story for a long while, mulling it over, but also decided to pass. Her feedback: For SF to sell, it really needs to be high-concept, big-idea stuff.

Okay. Feedback is good (and this is one of my favorite agents who I would LOVE to represent me) and I believe my story is somewhat big-idea (It deals with the potential end to the human race as we know it!) but apparently that didn’t come across in my query letter. And I know it doesn’t come across in the first few chapters, which start small, and grow exponentially from there.  But what caught my eye was the term “high concept.”  I thought I knew what it meant, but I was WRONG.

Do you know what High Concept means? Really? Tell you what–take out a pencil and write down your definition. No, go ahead, I’ll wait.

<checks nails>

<looks at bee flying around outside>

<plays wastebasket basketball>

Okay. You done? Yes?  Huh. I don’t believe you actually wrote anything down. <glares at you> I think you just kept on reading. Well, I’ll let that slip for now, but next time, make sure you do as I say!

What is High Concept? I initially thought it was end of world type stuff. You know, like Independence Day or Armageddon. It is these things, but it’s also stuff like, The Sixth Sense or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Odd, I know, but that’s what I’ve found in my research. There is no Standard Definition. It’s more of an ethereal, inchoate idea that you know when you see.  It’s like looking for that one perfect song. It’s hard to put into words what beat, riffs, and bass line it’s supposed to have, but you know it when you hear it.

Here’s one list I found online for High Concept:

  3. The INCITING ACTION, which is the problem of your story, and
  4. The HOOK, which reveals the uniqueness or special circumstances of your story.

Not sure if that’s a definition (and it’s not) but it gives you somewhere to go. I can make up a list of four things for my current manuscript that fit that. Here we go:

  1. The FASCINATING SUBJECT–Aliens arrive over the planet, triggering latent psychic abilities in humans.
  2. The GREAT TITLE–Telecks (meh.)
  3. The INCITING ACTION, which is the problem of your story–The aliens use their advanced technology to slowly take over nations and the only ones who can stop them are the Telecks.
  4. The HOOK, which reveals the uniqueness or special circumstances of your story.– Lead character is not a run-of-the-mill hero. He’s an IT geek with a very ascerbic, judgemental tongue (think of Holden Caulfield). This needs work)

Anyone who’s read my story can you chime in and see if I’ve captured this correctly?

That’s my list. Some parts are not great, some are really tight.  But is it High Concept?  See, I think it is, but it’s not up to me.  To sum the story up: Aliens arrive over the planet, triggering latent psychic abilities in humans. That’s my Original Idea. The story is about how the aliens start hunting these people (called Telecks, if you haven’t figured that out yet!) because the aliens don’t know what caused the Telecks to become. Hell, no one does!  The aliens view the Telecks as a threat to their plans–so they want them removed from the equation.  Not only that, when the Big Twist comes near the end, we learn (we! Ha! I already knew, fools!) that not only are Telecks special, they very might well be the only hope for humanity’s survival in the future!  HA! 

Okay. Let me get off my high horse here. I am, of course, working this out in my head as I write it.  I need to figure this High Concept stuff out.  Here’s another list I found:


Okay…that’s all good and well. Let me try those out too and see how I fit in:

YOUR PREMISE SHOULD BE ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE –Um, I think the whole “aliens coming to earth” has been done a lot. But the triggering of latent abilities in some humans is a little unique.
YOUR STORY HAS TO HAVE MASS AUDIENCE APPEAL– Who doesn’t like a giant sci-fi movie with people throwing stuff around with their minds while being chased by aliens!?
YOUR PITCH HAS TO BE STORY SPECIFIC –hmmm…Well, when I pitch the story, it is specific, my tagline is: Independence Day (the movie) meets Holden Caulfield. (meh, not bad, but not perfect)
THE POTENTIAL IS OBVIOUS–Sure thing. Action, action, action. Aliens, psychic powers, humanity taken over, the end of human! I mean, what’s not potential about that?
YOUR PITCH SHOULD BE ONE TO THREE SENTENCES LONG–Sure. Aliens arrive, Telecks appear, Aliens want the Telecks, etc. I wrote it above.

So I am almost there. I just need to fine tune this thing. But that begs the question: If I can find a way to pitch it as High Concept, does merely my pitch make it so? Does putting these ingredients together and making the story sound High Concept actually mean it is?

 There’s the rub.

 I really don’t know. I could work all this stuff out to sound High Concept-y, and pitch it that way, but would it be? I think it is already, but that takes us full circle back to what is High Concept?  Sheesh. My mind is reeling. 

So you tell me, what is High Concept to you?  And while you’re at it, tell me what you think of my work on this? Did I fail miserably? Am I more lost now than before? Does merely stating a story in a “High Concept” fashion, make it so?  Tell me!!

Posted in: Writing