Pitching High Concept

I’ve recently finished my novel, A Reasonable Price, but I can’t tell you what it’s about because it’s a secret.

Here’s what I say to anyone who asks about it: “A Reasonable Price is the story of a mother’s battle against the doctor who used her son in a secret experiment.”

Here’s how most people respond: “Oh, interesting.” Which we all know is a code for “Boring.” Not the response a writer wants after spending a year on a novel.

Here’s my dilemma: My description is vague because my novel is high concept commercial fiction. I know this because a major NYC lit agent said so when I showed her my WIP (work in progress) this summer at a writers’ conference. What is high concept fiction? Briefly, high concept means the one sentence description (i.e., the hook) is shocking. Exciting. Fresh. High concept fiction takes a startling idea and frames it in an original story.

If I tell people what my novel is really about, I have two problems. First, any writer who thinks she has a great idea (okay, I guess that’s all of us), is fearful that someone else might steal the idea and get the story out faster (never better) than she would. In that case, our idea would no longer be Fresh. This rarely happens, but it would be soul-crushing if it did. Taylor Stevens has suffered comparisons and untrue accusations about mimicking Stieg Larsson because The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released shortly before Stevens’ The Informationist even though she wrote her book long before she, or anyone in America, had ever heard of Larsson’s trilogy. Fortunately, Stevens’ work is fantastic in its own right—just ask James Cameron who recently bought the movie rights for The Informationist. 

My second reason for keeping my “hook” a secret comes from a good friend of mine, Larassa Kabel, a very talented artist. Larassa said to me, “When you are working on a powerful idea, telling people about it releases the energy.” An artist, a painter or a writer, must have a burning energy inside in order to create something powerful.

Other than the aforementioned literary agent, I have told only four people what my novel is really about, plus the three beta-readers who are proofing it for their various fields of expertise—until this week.

This week I began the querying process. (Wow, I managed to type that last sentence without any swear words! I’m quite proud of myself.) I must have written two or three hundred variations of my query letter before I felt it was ready to send out. My first question for myself was, “Do I tell the high-concept secret?” Eventually, my answer became clear, “Uh, yeah. Duh.” I have been so secretive about my novel, that it was difficult to start talking about it. The high concept idea is the hook, and all queries must tell the hook (but never the ending).

So now it’s out there. A handful of agents have my secret in their Inbox.  If I’ve done my part well enough, one day the rest of you will know the secret of A Reasonable Price.

Curious about a few examples of high concept stories? Snakes on a Plane is the best bad example I can think of. Here are a few good examples: Jaws, Home Alone, Se7en, The DaVinci Code, but also Romeo and Juliette. But the three best (my opinion) high concept stories, the ones my novel most relates to, are Seven Pounds (starring Will Smith), Never Let Me Go (written by Kazuo Ishiguro), and The Skin I Live In (directed by Pedro Almodovar). The secret behind these three novels/movies is NOT announced in any of the marketing campaigns.

Their power lies in the secret that unfolds with the story, not on the back cover.

How about it? Do you agree, disagree? Do you have other examples of high concept? I’d love to hear from you!


4 Replies to “Pitching High Concept”

  1. I think you have to hint enough of the secret to make me want to read it. So maybe half-tell the secret or just enough of the slip showing to arouse the reader. Your one line summary does raise my interest but without knowing more I’d have to hear a recommendation from someone who’d read it or be confident that you are a fabulous writer whose style I love. So, I suppose that means I would want to read it because I love your style, but you might have to give more to the masses.

    High concept is still fuzzy to me. I’m all about plain old excellent writing.

  2. Hello Cara. Thanks for your comment! I agree with what you said, theoretically. If I walked into a bookstore and heard a vague comment about a book, that wouldn’t be enough for me either. When I heard Will Smith’s interview with Oprah about Seven Pounds, she said to the audience, “I can’t tell you what it’s about; I can only tell you it’s fantastic and you must see it!” That was the endorsement I needed. And yes, I loved it.

    In my case, since my book is not yet available for purchase, I haven’t felt the need to “sell it” yet. Most of the people I’ve spoken to about it have been happy with my description, probably because they’re a little confused about the whole “Karolyn is writing a book” idea in the first place. However, when it is published, I will take the advice of “my agent” and pitch it however s/he recommends.

    As for the plain old excellent writing… I hope I’m getting there!

  3. I think my best example of high concept would be The Sixth Sense. If you know Bruce is dead, then you’ve messed up the entire experience for the audience, but because it was a movie with plenty of graphic creepiness that didn’t reveal the lynch pin of the entire plot, then they could still market it effectively and keep the surprise, well, a surprise. Do you have some good dramatic twists you can throw out as marketing that will increase interest without revealing what needs to remain hidden? The other aspect to having a secret is that you dangle the secret itself – build suspense and make them really wonder and build up desire to know. Think of it as delicious gossip which can only be slowly revealed and unraveled.

    1. Yes, The Sixth Sense is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, and your analysis is spot on.

      If my 200th draft of my query letter fails to win me an agent, I will study the marketing campaigns of The Sixth Sense plus the others I mentioned above, and keep at it. Hmm, delicious gossip… I like!

      Thanks, Larassa, for your comments.

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