Have you ever reencountered a writing lesson or precept that you knew but had begun to overlook? And when it hits, you say to yourself, “Uh-oh, let that one slip through my fingers.”
It recently happened to me at a writing conference. And although I was familiar with the concept of High Concept, I’d never heard it so highly touted as I did during those two days. The topic was raised in no less than three sessions, by three different instructors.
For those of you who may not be familiar, or who need a refresher on just what High Concept is as it relates to story, I recommend this article at Writer’s Digest by story consultant Jeff Lyons. In a nutshell, it’s the unique and original spin that gives a story concept impact and broader appeal. One of my favorite examples was offered at the conference by presenter Bob Mayer. Start with a poor boy falling in love with a rich girl. He successfully woos her, but societal forces work to keep them apart. Nothing special, right? Been done thousands of times. Now, put them on the Titanic. That’s High Concept.
I confess, having the topic of High Concept stay with me after the conference is likely due to self-consciousness. You see, I used to be high on High Concept. But somewhere during the flight, my enthusiasm to reach it descended. And the way these sessions presented High Concept as the de facto perch from which to launch, well, I guess I was left feeling a little low.
My Reaching Days
Although when I started writing I hadn’t been formally taught the meaning of High Concept (or much else about writing fiction, for that matter), I instinctively sought ideas with twists I thought might attract attention or interest, even if only from other history buffs. For example, the genesis idea for my first trilogy was to tell the tale of the first Sack of Rome in 410 AD… from the perspective of the Goths. As the story unfolded, it evolved into a series. So for the second edition I decided to feature two brothers fighting in an alternate version of the pivotal Goths versus Romans Battle of Adrianople… on opposite sides (why yes, I am a John Jakes fan, why do you ask?).
Where next for book three? A highborn Roman woman marries one of the brothers, then realizes she feels a maternal bond with one of her slaves, a Gothic boy. When the slave boy leaves to aid his sister’s escape, the woman pursues them. She is caught and held captive by a group of Goths led by her husband’s brother, now at war with her people. She becomes both bargaining chip and sympathetic liaison—a linchpin and lightning rod—for an entire war.
Whether or not I’d achieved any altitude, I was clearly reaching. But a funny thing happened on the way to market. I started digging.
Digging Rather Than Reaching
After I finished a draft of my trilogy, and during my various attempts at rewriting for salability, I started a side project that featured the brothers’ father. I knew that if I really wanted to get to know their deepest fears, aspirations, and motivations, I had to know the father’s story. What started out as a short story ended up at almost 200K (it sort of sprawled on me). Long story longer still, the first third of the father’s tale has evolved into my work-in-progress.
It’s funny, but the deeper I delve into my characters’ truest aspirations, deepest fears, and innermost motivations, the more my supposed High Concepts seem to slip through my fingers. In fact, I can see that I’ve been actively downplaying some of the elements I used to think of as “grabbers.” An example of this is my Skolani warrior sect. The Skolani are exclusively women—sort of a Germanic version of the Amazons. In previous editions and incarnations, I made a point of prominently featuring their culture and martial prowess. I thought they were pretty cool (still do). But I think my efforts to portray how cool they are made them decidedly less cool. Now my Skolani-isms are featured on a need-to-know basis—mere texture in the weave of the story’s world. Subsequently, the individual Skolani characters have become more human. And thereby (hopefully) more interesting and relatable.
Even my initial premise—Romans versus Goths from a Gothic perspective—is absent from this first edition. The story is about my protagonist’s rise to power among his people, and doesn’t really involve the Romans. Rather than focusing on the collision of cultures, I’m exploring the individuals behind the coming collision. Whoops, there goes another one.
Perhaps you can see why I became self-conscious over High Concept.
What’s It All About, Alfie?
As I was contemplating my toppled High Concepts, up popped this essay by Steven Pressfield on theme. I highly recommend it, but I’ll summarize by saying that Pressfield believes our stories have to be “about something.” To explain, Pressfield starts with a corollary to the question:
‘What happens when a script is about nothing? What does a novel with no theme feel like?’
It feels empty… hollow.
When you set it down, your expression is a blank stare. You feel like you’ve just consumed a meal that provided zero nutrition. You wonder, ‘Why did the writer even write this at all?’”
I believe this “zero nutrition” feeling can happen regardless of whether or not the story is High Concept. And I recognize a bit of emptiness in my previous efforts. This had been at least part of the problem with my High Concept aspirations. Lots of stuff happening, but without enough meaning behind it. I’d already been seeking depth but hadn’t quite found a way to define what I sought.
Now I realize my delving has led to the exploration of theme. I want my stories to be about something. I want them to leave readers thinking and feeling, long after they turn the final page.
Can We Dig And Reach?
I’m sure many of you have by now asked the same question, and I’m sure there are many examples of High Concept stories with deep themes. I looked through my own shelves to find examples, but didn’t have much luck—particularly when it came to my own genre (epic historical fantasy). And on my “favorites shelf,” I didn’t find a single example that I could say exemplified Lyons’ definition of High Concept. I did stumble across a box of books in the basement in which there were several titles that fit the bill. Many of them were even made into movies. I realize their ending up in a box in the basement is merely a matter of my taste in genre and reading preferences, but it still got me thinking.
In spite of the lack of High Concept titles on my favorites shelf, I can see that many of my favorites do indeed offer some intriguing element that initially attracted me, even if that element can’t rightfully be called High Concept. But with the benefit of hindsight, having been carried beyond that initial intriguing element, I see that almost all of them fit Pressfield’s description of theme to some degree. The books that left a lasting impression on me are definitely about something. The characters stand for something. And that something is rarely obvious or simple. It’s intricate. It requires contemplation. For me, this is the source of a novel’s resonance.
As most of us naturally do, I aspire to write the sort of books I would love to read. And in looking back on the ones that have stayed with me, I’m slightly less concerned about reaching for High Concept. When I consider the books that I didn’t want to end, the ones that I’ve reread, or know I’ll reread, I see that they’re stories that carry me well beyond an initial attraction to an overriding, resonant theme or themes.
While I never want to quit reaching, I think I’ll continue to focus on digging.
How about you? Are you a reacher or a digger? Or both? Can you name any favorites that both reach and dig—stories that are clearly High Concept and explore deep themes? Please name them in the comments. I’m curious about this.