High Concept Definition
Different people define high concept in different ways, but I think this is the best explanation…
A high concept story has a premise that can be clearly conveyed in one compelling sentence.
Most high concept stories pose a question of “What if…?” For example: What if a lovely midsummer festival turned out to be a series of gruesome cult rituals? What if the figures in a natural history museum came to life at night?
It’s easy to understand why a high concept story is going to be interesting to watch or read. Readers—or moviegoers—are already imagining the challenges and the possibilities.
A high-concept premise often has humor, suspense, romance, conflict, irony, or a few of the above, baked right in. It makes people want to know just how it’s going to play out.
Why do so many editors and producers love this? Because it’s easy to market! A moviegoer doesn’t even have to watch the trailer to want to see the movie…they see the poster, the title, and maybe a tagline, and they’re all in. A reader sees the title, the cover design, and maybe a line or two of sell copy on the back cover, and they get it. They’re headed to the cash register.
High Concept Examples
I already mentioned a couple (Midsommar and Night at the Museum), but here are some more!
Once Upon a Royal Summer, Teri Wilson (romance)
A woman who plays a princess character in an amusement park falls for an actual prince.
This romantic comedy novel is always my go-to example, because I acquired it when I was working in publishing! It hit the USA Today bestseller list, and I knew that it would.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (historical fiction)
A count is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an elegant hotel.
This is one of my favorite novels of all time. Most people associate “high concept books” with genres like romance, thriller, or science fiction, but this is a great example of how historical novels and literary novels like this one can still be “high concept.”
Groundhog Day (romantic comedy film)
A cynical weather reporter finds himself re-living the same day again and again.
And this is one of my favorite movies of all time! Another example of a high-concept magical premise like this is the movie It’s a Wonderful Life (a man gets to see what the world would’ve been like if he’d never been born).
Free Guy (action/comedy film)
A man learns he is actually a non-player character in a videogame.
Free Guy is also kind of a romantic comedy. I loved it.
The Martian, Andy Weir (serially self-published science fiction novel turned mega-bestseller and blockbuster film)
An astronaut fights for survival after being left behind on Mars.
This is a great example of a premise with high stakes baked right in.
I could literally spend all day making a list of more examples, but hopefully you’re getting the idea of a simple premise with rich storytelling possibilities.
What About the “X Meets Y” Pitch?
The “X Meets Y” pitch is often equated to the “high concept pitch.” I would say that it’s a subset of high concept. Basically, you’re smashing two known stories or properties together to make or describe a third thing.
Agents use “X Meets Y” a lot in pitching books, and you’ll see it a lot in book deal announcements, too. It looks like this:
This can be a quick way to get an idea across. It’s also a fun creative exercise.
In my personal experience, the drawback of the “X meets Y” pitch is that the person you’re pitching to may not be familiar with one of the properties—or with both of them. As streaming platforms have multiplied, this has become more and more of an issue.
Why Don’t More Writers Write High Concept Books?
I think there are two reasons why.
Plotting is hard. High concept is even harder.
When I worked in the book publishing business, when I passed on a story, about 90% of the time, it wasn’t because of the writing style. It was because of the plot. Maybe it was too thin, maybe it was going in too many directions, or maybe the characters’ motivations just didn’t make sense. In my experience, more writers struggle with plotting than with any other aspect of writing, and it’s often because they balk at getting help and learning more about how to do it.
A great, simple, high concept plot can be even harder to land on and flesh out in a satisfying way.
High concept doesn’t always come naturally.
Writers find their inspiration in all kinds of ways, but for many writers, the impressions and ideas that wander into their heads as they’re going about their day aren’t high concept plots. High concept usually involves some rational, analytical, strategic thinking. For some writers, that’s exactly the kind of thinking they are sick of and getting away from when they write.
Are All Good Stories High Concept?
Absolutely not. Many great books and films are too complex to be adequately summed up in one sentence. Many of them don’t rely on an implied “what if?” proposition. I’m not putting high concept down, and I’m not putting complex, hard-to-summarize stories down, either. One isn’t inherently better than the other.
I hope this has helped to explain what high concept fiction and movies are. If you have other great examples, questions, or comments, we’d love to hear them—please share them below! Thanks so much for reading!