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What Is (and Isn't) High Concept Fiction, and How Do You Pitch It?

Pitching high concept fiction can be the key to skyrocketing to the top of agents' slush piles, but what is it, and how do you go about framing your story as high concept?

Pitching a high concept novel can be the key to skyrocketing to the top of agents' slush piles. But what is (and isn't) high concept fiction, and how do you go about pitching your high concept idea?

I had the pleasure of attending the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago. Alongside old friends of WD like James Scott Bell, and authors I personally admire (A two-hour world-building workshop with Christopher Paolini? Be still my heart!), were dozens of literary agents, authors and editors who presented in-depth and engaging talks on everything you need to know about writing and publishing fiction.

(How to write successful queries for any genre of writing.)

One session that attracted me with particular magnetism—and then delivered magnificently—addressed "high concept" ideas and pitches, presented by Nelson Literary Agency's Angie Hodapp. Here are a few of the things she covered.

What Is (and Isn't) High Concept Fiction, and How Do You Pitch It?

If you remember nothing else, remember this: "High concept is all about premise."

Generally, we think of high concept as a Hollywood term, but high concept novels (and queries) tend to rise to the top of agents' slush piles because they offer something broadly applicable but totally new, or a totally new spin on a familiar model.

Here's a breakdown of the contents of your average agent's slush pile, according to Angie:

  • 85% of queries are quiet or derivative (e.g., generic vampire story) or blandly situational (e.g., watch someone deal with a divorce)
  • 10% of queries are "whackadoodle" (so outside the norm that you can't even begin to imagine how to make it work)
  • 5% of queries are "I must read more" (offering something completely new or a completely new take on something—this is where high concept lives for the most part)

"High concept is not required to get published."

Literary fiction, for example, is generally not high concept. It is about artful prose or experimentation with structure and typically tends to be internal, experimental and introspective.

Genre fiction doesn't have to be high concept either. There you'll find many audiences with a certain itch and genre-specific expectations that must be fulfilled—and that's about all you need to get a piece of genre fiction published. Think, for example, of the popularity of superhero movies over the last decade: The audience for that type of film is usually looking for a certain tone, type of character arc, etc. There are exceptions, of course, that are high concept, and they often have the power to open up new routes and tropes within the genre. (E.g., Watchmen defied the superhero genre as a graphic novel when it came out.) But you'll find a lot more formula there than not.

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However... "High concept does exist in every genre."

Because it's all about premise. But more importantly…

(Premise vs. Story: One big mistake writers make.)

"High concept is about mass commercial appeal and wide audience potential."

To qualify as high concept fiction, your story should have the potential to:

  • capture many sectors
  • be a hard-cover release (from a publisher's perspective)
  • be a series
  • cross genres (which gives it the opportunity for placement in bookstores on a center display)
  • display general human appeal (vs. genre-specific or formula-based appeal)

"High concept is built around a unique what-if premise that can be pitched in one to three sentences."

BUT not all stories that can be pitched in one to three sentences are high concept. The distinction is easiest to explain through examples of high concept pitches.

How to Generate High Concept Ideas—and Pitch Them

Remember when I said earlier than most high concept queries are in that 5% "I must read more" portion of the slush pile? In order to write high concept fiction, Angie recommends two strategies for getting started:

  • Think of something recognizable and twist it.
  • Embrace your comp titles and core tropes.

These are really two aspects of the same step. According to Angie (and to Paula Munier, who has said much the same thing at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference and in her webinars and courses), the best way to get an agent to understand why your high concept idea is new and where it fits in the market is to explain it in relation to comp titles and core tropes:

  • "It's a buddy cop story but with _________." (Or, to phrase it as a what-if question: "What if two diametrically opposed cops were suddenly [placed in a totally new and unexpected situation]?")
  • "It's a teen girl's first romance story but with _________." ("What if a teen girl suddenly met [someone totally unlike anyone you would expect in a teen romance story] and they [did something totally unexpected]?")
  • You can also phrase it as "X meets X," such as: "It's Breaking Bad meets Outlander." (However, Angie noted that you should probably avoid extremely popular or ambitious titles for the most part because they're difficult to live up to. There are exceptions, of course. George R.R. Martin pitched the Song of Ice and Fire series as "The Lord of the Rings meets the War of the Roses.")
  • "It's Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets Firefly." (This tells us that it's funny but probably has serious themes, and probably takes place in space.)

HOWEVER, not every twist makes a story high concept.

For example, this is not high concept: "It's Cyrano de Bergerac with a gender swap."

Why isn't it high concept? For a story to be high concept…

"Whatever element you twist has to impact the plot, not [just] the characters or the setting."

To impact the plot, you must return to that what-if question—the premise (remember?)—and add characters.

Angie had a whole host of full pitches—you'll have to ask her for more of them—but here's a paraphrased version of one she shared.

Filmed in a mockumentary style, this comedy film features a group of vampires of varying ages who room together in New Zealand. When a visitor they had intended to eat is unexpectedly turned into a vampire, the group struggles to adapt to the norms of modern life while the new vampire struggles to fit in.

If you haven't seen What We Do in the Shadows, it's an excellent film, and its twists on both vampire and mockumentary genres with comedy and friendship make it a powerful high concept idea. (In case it's not clear, the "what-if" question in this scenario could be: "What if a group of immortal vampires lived together like contemporary bachelors in New Zealand?" Then you add a great cast of unexpected characters.)

Why should you write high concept fiction?

As I mentioned earlier, most high concept fiction is found in that final 5% of the slush pile. Not everything in that segment is high concept, but the ideas that aren't high concept have something strikingly groundbreaking and genre-defying about them, usually execution-based: Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pulp Fiction, Sliding Doors—movies that were something totally new when they arrived. One example from literature is House of Leaves, where the found-document, interactive shape of the book defines what it is. These typically don't "work" more than once without seeming derivative or overly echoic.

If you can do something this groundbreaking, Angie says, that's great. Otherwise, aim for high concept to get the attention of literary agents.

So there's your crash course in writing and pitching high concept fiction, courtesy of Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency.

Is your novel or story idea high concept? If so, share your high concept pitch in the comments below—we'd love to hear it.

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Have an amazing story idea, but need to learn the basics of how to write a book? WD University's Fundamentals of Fiction will take you through all of the basics of writing a novel including how important it is to choose a great setting, how to build characters, what point of view you should choose, how to write great dialogue, and more. Register today!

Fundamentals of Fiction—WD University
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