Guest Post: Finding that Elusive High Concept

October 17, 2014 2 Comments

Hello, fellow bloggers! Today on the blog, we’re happy to introduce a debut author, Mary Elizabeth Summer. Earlier this summer, I was approached by this author to see if I was interested in having her for a guest post, which of course, sounded fabulous, so that’s what we did. Mary Elizabeth Summer’s novel, Trust Me, I’m Lying just recently released – this past Tuesday in fact, and just happens to be one of the books I still need to review. The plan? Hopefully that can go up next week! Until then, come and meet Mary Elizabeth through this lovely guest post she wrote for us. Join me in welcoming Mary to the blog – and read up on her advice for aspiring authors. finding that elusive high concept

Guest Post: Finding that Elusive High Concept. Mary Elizabeth Summer joins us to talk about the "high concept" in writing. Text © Rissi JC
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Finding that Elusive High Concept, by Mary Elizabeth Summer 

Any writer steeped in the publishing industry long enough has heard the phrase “must be commercial, must be high concept.” It’s been repeated ad nauseam in forums, conferences, blog posts, and rejection letters. It’s been driven into us until our bones are grafted with the phrase. But finding that elusive high concept is not nearly as easy as one would think, given how ubiquitous it is in the publishing narrative. 

For those writers still at the toe-in-the-water end of this publishing whirlpool, let me bring you up to speed on what we mean by high concept. Nathan Bransford (and a lot of other smart folks) define it as a story premise that can be described succinctly in a single sentence or phrase, e.g., reality TV show forces kids to fight each other to the death for their freedom. (Here’s Nathan’s post on the subject.) 

High concept is also something that hooks a reader’s interest with high and universally relatable stakes. In the example above,
we’re immediately sympathetic to and worried for any children, even ones we don’t yet know, who are forced to kill each other over something as frivolous as other people’s entertainment. The stakes are incredibly high (risk of death is the ultimate in high stakes), and the fact that they’re being watched and judged and manipulated against their will is very easily relatable—we’ve all
experienced emotional fallout from one of these at some point in our lives. 


So now that we’re all on the same page about what high concept means, how does one go about finding ideas that are high concept?  

Method 1: See what else is out there and twist it.

The plethora of creative retellings of fairy tales is a prime example of this method. Take a beloved fairy tale that
everyone already relates to, and make the protagonist a cyborg. How cool is that? 

Method 2: Steal from history.

Truth really is stranger than fiction. The Nazis, for example, collectively committed greater atrocities than any antagonist I’ve ever written. What if the Nazis had won World War II? What would our world look like today? (See Caroline Richmond’s THE ONLY THING TO FEAR for the answer.)  

Method 3: Tell a better news story.

Another great breeding ground for ideas is newspaper headlines. Find a piece that intrigues you, and then fictionalize it. For
example, April Henry’s inspiration for GIRL, STOLEN was a newspaper clipping she came across about a blind girl who happened to be sleeping in the backseat of her mother’s car when it was stolen. Henry riffed
off the idea, coming up with her own story of how the girl dealt with that
problem, but the idea initiated from a news story.


Those three methods are merely the tip of the iceberg. Inspiration comes from everywhere. You just have to recognize it when you see it. And to that end, here are some tips to help you. 

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid of bad ideas.

The key to fruitful brainstorming is putting the inner judge to sleep and letting in all the ideas, good, bad, and ugly. The reason for that is not because some of the ugly ideas might turn out to be good ones. Ugly ideas are ugly for a reason. If they were good ideas, they’d have been in the good column from minute one. But the ugly, stupid, hackneyed ideas are actually necessary. Letting them out encourages your brain to generate more ideas. It’s like priming a well. You pour in a little water to get the mechanism going, and then the first bit of water that comes up is gross and slimy and probably full of germs. But you don’t stop pumping, thinking all the ideas are bad. You keep pumping until the fresh, cool, crystal-clear ideas start flowing like Niagra Falls. This is where mind maps become important. Use them.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to scrap ideas.

Hey, if it’s not working for you, it won’t work for anyone else. Even if you’re 20,000 words into it, let it go—or be prepared to
rework it entirely. It’s just one idea out of hundreds you will have to have over a long, successful writing career. Don’t get too attached to one book. If you’ve lost all zest for the project, get out now, and start on a new idea at once. Caveat: That being said, don’t mistake the middle doldrums for a premise that just isn’t working. Everyone flounders through the middle, second-guessing everything about the book, and feeling like every word is cut out with a scalpel. That’s the middle doldrums.

Keep slogging through those until you reach the reenergizing third act. But if you start to feel really icky about your premise as a whole, then don’t be afraid to shelve it and move on.

Tip 3: Never stop looking for your next idea.

Remember that pump example above? Well, it’s true here, too. If you stop pumping, the well is going to dry up, and then
you’ll have to prime it all over again. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for anything that catches your interest—a bit of conversation, a lyric in a song, a line from a TV show—and write it down. I use the Evernote app on my phone for this. Other writers use notebooks. The more ideas you write down, the more will come to you. And it’s not just ideas for a high concept premise I’m talking about. Anything that snags your attention could be used to add layers of complexity to your already existing project. 

Tip 4: Keep it simple.

If the idea can’t be effectively distilled to a single sentence, then it’s not high concept. Throwing in the proverbial kitchen sink to make your idea unique is not the answer. Unique is nice, but it’s not essential. There is nothing new under the sun, not really. A hook that grabs you and stakes that are both high and relatable, those things are far more important to a story. So what are your thoughts about high concept ideas? How do you find them?

Thank you SO much for joining us today, Mary Elizabeth Summer – and for sharing some of your advice! Appreciate you taking the time to share insight with us.  

…and congratulations on your debut novel!   

To learn more about Mary Elizabeth Summer: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Guest Post: Finding that Elusive High Concept. Mary Elizabeth Summer joins us to talk about the "high concept" in writing. Text © Rissi JC

Trust Me, I’m Lying:

(Disclosure: this post does contain affiliate links; if you buy anything through these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you to anyone who makes a purchase through these links. Read the disclosure page for details.)

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About Rissi JC

amateur photog. #bookblogger. downton abbey. inspys. internet-photo-shy. writer. the aspiration is to someday write professionally. a girl can dream, right?

Rissi JC

amateur photog. #bookblogger. downton abbey. inspys. internet-photo-shy. writer. the aspiration is to someday write professionally. a girl can dream, right?

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  • Tressa S October 18, 2014 at 7:35 AM

    This is one of the books I've been highly anticipating. It pretty much had me at the comparison to Ally Carter and having a smart and witty MC. :) I have my copy waiting for me to read, but have been putting it off while I read some other books. I'm hoping to read it this week.

    I'm hoping to one day write. I don't know that it will ever happen, but it was interesting to read Mary's tips. Thanks for sharing!

    Rissi – I hope we both enjoy this one!

    Tressa @ Wishful Endings

    • Rissi October 20, 2014 at 5:11 PM

      Yay! Hope you enjoy Trust Me, I'm Lying, Tressa. It's really quite cute despite – ahhh! – a twist ending. Happy reading.

      Good luck with your writing, girl; that's awesome. You should look into Anne Elisabeth Stengl's fairytale contests; this December submissions are due for the B&B contest (Five Enchanted Roses) and last year she hosted a Cinderella retelling. Who knows what next year will bring! :)

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