Who’s the current master of high concept?
I propose Dan Brown.
Putting The Da Vinci Code aside for a second, let’s look at Deception Point, something Dan Brown wrote before he became *Dan Brown*. Its concept:
Proof of extraterrestrial life.
It fits all the masters’ criteria: It’s short, it’s specific, it’s understandable. It’s familiar, but it’s also fresh, especially since the mental image it forms, in my mind at least, is not where the story goes. (I, being an anthropomorphically biased kind of gal, picture beings with two arms, two legs, and a head. Or at least some kind of mammal (sorry lizards). But in Deception Point, Mr Brown gives us insects!)
It implies conflict: If someone’s got proof of something, it implies someone else–the government maybe?–who’ll want to deny it or cover it up. And therein it promises more: Discovering proof of ET would make someone’s career, they’d go down in history. To what lengths would they go to get the credit? And last, it elicits an immediate emotional response. Curiosity, at the very least, about the nature of the proof. Because you know that if “Proof of extraterrestrial life” were a news headline on Yahoo!, everyone would be reading it.
Okay, let’s do The Da Vinci Code. There’s a gazillion aspects of this story that could be used as high-concept shorthand, but let’s go with:
What if Jesus had kids?
I don’t know about you, but pre-DVC, I always thought Mr. Christ was a bachelor. Having him procreate with Ms. Magdalene is totally a perspective skewer… and yet totally plausible. Mind = blown. Concept = high.
Michael Crichton, the previous master of high concept. Take Jurassic Park:
Dinosaur Amusement Park.
It’s short, clear, familiar, forms a mental picture and promises such a ride. And what about the conflict? Dinosaurs. Yeesh. What about the emotion? Awe. Fear. I’ve read it and I’ve seen it, and I’m still interested.
And of course there’s The Hunger Games:
Kids fight to the death on live TV.
What about stories a little less familiar?
I heard young-adult author Marissa Meyer pitch her debut novel, Cinder, on a panel at a conference once, and she said something like:
Four words: Cinderella as a cyborg.
There’s a novel called Meg. I haven’t read it, but the concept is stated right on the cover in two powerful words:
Let’s include some movies. Hey, why not? They’re stories too.
Snakes on a Plane
Hot Tub Time Machine
Execution could have been better for these stories perhaps, but poor execution isn’t the concept’s fault. What about another concept-right-in-the-title example. How about Seth Grahame-Smith’s:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Okay, now let’s look at the elephant in the room. Let’s look at JK Rowling. I’d say the concept of Harry Potter is something like:
Boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes to wizarding school.
Or perhaps just:
Wizard school is cool, but, nowadays at least, the concept itself doesn’t really stand out from all the other special-kid-goes-to-special-school kinds of concepts. Concept’s not where JKR excels, a fact I’ll probably be shot for pointing out, but one that becomes more clear when you also consider the concepts of A Casual Vacancy (a town’s political vacancy causes turmoil… ho hum) and the Robert Galbraith books (private investigator…of a supermodel’s suicide… ho hum). She does, however, excel at plot… And character… And world building. And probably scenes.
Which is to say, get your concept as interesting as you can, but if it’s not the most amazing concept ever, that’s not necessarily a story killer. Just execute the hell out of it. Fulfill it’s potential and then some. Go all JKR on its ass.
Now, I hear some of you. Fantasy’s easy, you say. (Not true, but I hear you…) What about something a little more realistic? I give to you Emily Giffin. How about the concept for Something Borrowed:
Consummate good girl begins affair with best friend’s fiancé.
Or even shorter:
Girl boinks friend’s fiancé. Four words.
The concept alone poses all sorts of potential for conflict and juicy goodness. A thirty-something single attorney, the consummate good girl (I can relate), finally does something arguably unethical. The concept promises bad-girl wish fulfillment. I heard about it, and I had to see it… and after I saw it, I had to read it. It got me good, and I don’t normally go for realism. Way to go Ms. Giffin.
Now you might say lots of stories have this same concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s true. But here’s the thing: all those stories probably play out differently. And being the bad-girl-wish-fulfillment sucker that I am, I’d be interested in reading a few of those. I know I read a few different vampire stories when one in particular took off, and eventually I even decided I preferred one of the less popular titles.
But my thoughts on this are different when it comes to wizard school tales. I’m not really interested in reading a bunch more magic school books. JKR really did a number on the ole wizard school concept. I left the adventure feeling totally satisfied. And maybe that’s it. So long as your concept doesn’t have a (somewhat recent?) mega-awesomely-satisfying story already clearly leading the concept’s pack, your own version is probably viable. But even if you do want to write about wizarding school–and you’re still hoping to stand out in the pack–then tinker with that concept until its glow still shines even when placed among the brightest of stars.
We can do this. Tell me what you’ve got!