Thanks to the recession and other factors in recent years, many literary agents and publishers now have a more vocal preference for novels with a high concept. High-concept work, to put it simply, is work that’s easy to pitch effectively.
To define high-concept less simply . . .
To be high-concept, a work must be: (1) highly original; (2) widely appealing; (3) easy to visualize; and (4) easy to sum up in three sentences or less while demonstrating the first three elements.
See “Write Better: The 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories” by Brian Klems (his elements for a high-concept story requires: high level of entertainment value; high degree of originality; a “what if” question at its core; highly visual; clear emotional focus; inclusion of truly unique element; mass audience appeal); “High Concept Defined Once and For All” by Steve Kaire (requiring, for high-concept: your story be original and unique; your story have mass audience appeal; your pitch be story specific; the potential is obvious; pitch is one to three sentences long).
This aspect of the work generally has to come early on in the writing process. You come up with some awesome premise or twist that just about no one else has heard of.
Basically, the work has to appeal to the mainstream audience (or at least a large portion of a certain niche). This lies in the premise, theme and storytelling—the messages must be easily digestible (and entertaining) for as many people as possible.
Easy to visualize
If the aspects that makes your narration original or appealing lies in subtleties of character development or the like, then you’re pretty much screwed as far as having a high-concept work.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from having a high-concept work that includes subtle awesomeness. However, you must also have more surface-level awesomeness so that the originality and appeal of your work can be easily visualized (e.g., teens forced to participate in a televised fight to the death).
Easy to sum up while demonstrating awesomeness
Nathan Bransford provides a good example of high-concept versus low-concept pitches:
Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept.
Wizard school? High concept.
There’s this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.
-Nathan Bransford in “What High Concept Means”
Of course, today, if you were to pitch a story about a kid winning a golden ticket to go to a candy factory, or a kid going to wizard school, you would be lacking the originality element required to have a high-concept work.
Pitching (my) YA without a high concept
Character-driven and not much else?
I’m currently querying agents for my YA novel.
The early drafts of my manuscript were heavily character driven and did not rely on an eye-popping premise. Being an English major who read a bunch of literary stuff, as well as a fan of The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones, I was accustomed to narrations that started slowly. Consequently, I wrote my novel the same way and thought it was perfectly fine.
I was wrong. I was super-wrong, especially considering the fact that my novel is intended to be a commercial YA.
With my faulty belief that my voice, dialogue, and character development would be enough, I sent out a batch of queries nearly three months ago. Looking at that query letter now, it’s easy to see that my hook was not hook-y enough, and that I spent too many words describing not-so-original junk. That query was a highly pure form of suck, and I don’t blame agents for responding with form rejections (luckily, I didn’t send out too many queries using that letter).
After my handful of rejection emails, I brought my manuscript to the writing-gym (i.e., various Barnes and Noble, and Starbucks locations) and spent nearly three months developing a stronger premise and re-polishing the novel (along with major plot alterations). After X amount of feedback and Y amount of revision, my novel is much better than it was back at draft three (or whatever draft I was querying with in July).
Looking at my own definition for a high-concept work, though, I’m not entirely convinced that my novel is high-concept. It likely satisfies the first two elements; there is originality in plot points and characters, and is hopefully widely appealing. However, it may be difficult to visualize and summarize the best parts of the novel.
With this in mind, I’m going to take another look at my query, and hope I won’t have to substantially alter my manuscript anymore (well, unless I get a revise and resubmit from am agent; or notes from a publishing house’s editor).
Lesson of the day
If you’re writing commercial fiction, YA or otherwise, aim for a high concept right away. It’ll save you some time.