Wednesday, November 7, 2012

High Concept and Red Wheelbarrows

We are a society that loves high concept. Agents hunt it, editors want it, directors demand it. That translates to thousands of writers banging at computers across the country trying to write it. One problem is that the definition isn’t always clear. I was having lunch this week with two writer friends, a screen writer and a Sci-Fi novelist. We tried on definitions of high concept, but as soon as we thought we had a sleek fit, one or the other of us objected. It was as bad as trying to find a pair of good fitting jeans. As we regretfully discarded each definition one by one, I thought of it as the literary equivalent of “that  makes your butt look fat.”   Did I mention that the two other writers are male? They would have a different analogy, I’m sure. 

So what is the elusive definition of high concept? Agent Nathan Bransford says in a post a, “hook that we can easily understand and digest."

John Truby, in The Anatomy of a Story says:  "high concept. . . means the film (story) can be reduced to a catchy one-line description that audiences will instantly understand and come rushing to the theater to see."

It sounds like they’re describing this year’s politics: complex problems reduced to sound bites, one sentence solutions with the difficult bits left out. No wonder our society loves high concept.

"But what about substance? What about beautiful writing, fresh ideas? Can high concept be all that?" I asked.
"What about William Carlos Williams?" my SciFi friend asked? 

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

I wanted to say I didn’t know SciFi writers read poetry, but I kept my mouth shut. He had a point. A short idea, but deep. The catchy one line phrase might belie writing of substance. The sleek fit. The pants are looking better. But still there was something missing. I wasn’t ready to buy yet. The fit still wasn’t perfect.

In the post,"High Concept Writing the Michael Crichton Model," seemaxrun says, “Extreme” and “first” define “high concept.” Ah, writers must take “what if” and stretch it as far as it will go. What if we could clone dinosaurs? Extreme might be a good word to include. 

So we tried a new style: High concept is a story idea taken to the extreme that resonates at a gut level, appeals to a wide audience and is easily described in a single sentence that begins with What if. . .

I got my wallet out. 

Sci-Fi guy wanted a tighter fit. “An idea so big yet so simple, it screams:  why didn't I think of that?”
I’m ready to buy, but you can be honest, does this definition make my butt look fat?


Mary Cronk Farrell said...

Very interesting to think about. High concept is another one of those "I know it when I see it" things.
I just finished reading Matt de la Pina's I WILL SAVE YOU. I would definitely call it high concept, but it has layers and layers upon layers. One might be able to describe it in one sentence and most people would instantly get it, but the one sentence would never do the book justice. Writing a novel is getting across a single, central idea, but every chapter, every line, every word is necessary to convey that one single thing.

Maureen McQuerry said...

I love your comment. Nothing wasted. Everything builds the concept.