What Is a High Concept Book?
Recently I’ve been listening to The Manuscript Academy podcast. In each episode, agent Jessica Sinsheimer (creator of The Manuscript Wish List) and author Julie Kingsley interview someone from the publishing industry, usually an agent or editor. Often, the agents and editors say they are looking for books that are “high concept,” but when they’re asked to define what they mean by high concept books, they struggle. “I know it when I see it,” agent Lauren Spieller said.
The problem with a single definition is that a book can be high concept in a variety of ways. But one thing that all high concept books have in common is that the premise can be quickly described in an attention-grabbing, easy-to-understand way. Often high concept books are explained using familiar books, TV shows, or movies (often called “comp titles”).
Some YA high concept books:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: In a dystopian society, kids fight to the death on a reality show (using familiar concepts)
The Thousandth Floor series by Katherine McGee: Gossip Girl set in futuristic New York (using a familiar TV show)
One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus: The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars (using a familiar movie and a familiar book/television series)
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher: A girl commits suicide and sends thirteen cassette tapes to her classmates, explaining her “reasons why.” (using an attention-grabbing premise and unique storytelling device)
Is High Concept Just About Marketing?
When I was explaining the idea of high concept to my husband (and bemoaning that I should be writing more high concept books so I can have them turned into Netflix shows), he said, “wait, isn’t this just about marketing? Can’t any book be high concept if you just find the right way to pitch it?”
Intriguing idea, but I think the answer is no, not all books are high concept. A more literary, character-first novel may not be high concept. For example, Sarah Dessen’s (very popular) YA novels tend to be more about the characters and their emotional arc than about the plot. And though Jenny Han’s novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was high concept (a high school girl’s love letters to her crushes accidentally get mailed), the two follow-up books in the series are not particularly high concept; they are about Lara Jean and her high school life: family, friends, romance, jobs, college decisions, etc. They’re wonderful books, but not high concept.
And let me be clear: a high concept book can ALSO be literary and character-first. Those are often the gold-standard when it comes to what agents and publishers want. (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Gone Girl, and The Hate U Give are a few examples of literary and high concept.)
Also, no matter what kind of book you’ve written, when you begin querying agents, you should certainly brainstorm high concept ways to pitch your manuscript. Having a quick, catchy way to explain your book (especially if it includes comp titles) helps people remember it and gives them an easy way to talk about it to others. A high-concept description could definitely help spread the word about your book once it’s published as well. So if your manuscript could be considered high concept, find a way to highlight that in your query to agents.
Let’s look at a real-life example. My friend Monica Gomez-Hira wrote a fabulous YA book called Once Upon a Quinceanera. She could have pitched this book as “a Miami teen works as a party princess…and ends up having to dance opposite her Beastly ex.” That’s fine. Party princesses are fun. But here’s how Monica and her Pitch Wars mentor described it: “Jenny Han meets Jane the Virgin in this flashy and fun Own Voices rom-com.” And guess what? Monica got an agent and a book deal. Her novel is coming out in January 2021.
A word of caution: if you’re using comp titles to pitch your book, make sure they’re accurate. Don’t claim that your book is “Gone Girl meets Harry Potter” or “Schitt’s Creek set in outer space” if it really isn’t.
How Can I Write High Concept Books?
#1 Start with the premise. Brainstorm ideas by combining two unexpected things or starting with the phrase “what if…”
“What if Cinderella was a cyborg?” (Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which was described by Entertainment Weekly as “a cross between Cinderella, Terminator, and Star Wars.”
“What if two kids in a cancer support group fell in love?” (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)
“What if there was a girl who was literally allergic to the outdoors and couldn’t leave her house?” (Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon)
“What if Hilary had never married Bill Clinton?” (Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld)
#2 Make a list of TV shows, movies, and books that you love. Think about how you might write something similar, but with a twist.
For example: Groundhog’s Day meets Mean Girls (Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver)
#3 Make a combination that is surprising or unexpected. Put two things together that don’t normally go together. Take the familiar and make it unfamiliar. Maybe by placing the story in a different setting or time period. Maybe by subverting reader expectations. Try to come up with a premise that can be described succinctly that would make YOU excited to read it.
For example: Lord of the Flies, except with girls at an island boarding school, and set during a magical pandemic (Wilder Girls by Rory Power)
#4 Brainstorm unique ways to tell your story. Sometimes the storytelling structure itself can be high concept.
For example: Write a thriller/mystery novel like it’s the transcript of a true-crime serial podcast (Sadie by Courtney Summers)
#5 Take a look at your story ideas (if you’re like me you probably have a list of them that you’ve jotted down over the years) and think if there’s any way to tweak the ideas to make them more high concept. Can you set the story in a more unexpected setting or time period? Can you switch the gender or age of a character? For more ideas on brainstorming, see my post How to Write Better Novels with One Key Step.
What if my book is so unique there’s nothing to compare it to?
That’s awesome! You still might be able to find comp titles, however — books in the same genre that have the same tone as yours, perhaps. Or, you can describe your book in a high concept way without using comp titles at all. For example, the following high concept description contains no comp titles: “Two boys must defeat hundreds of evil witches, despite having been turned into mice.” (The Witches by Roald Dahl).
At the end of the day, write what you want to write, whether it’s high concept or not. But you may have an easier time getting published (or getting your novel made into a movie) if you go for high concept. And if you can describe what you’re written in a high concept way, go for it! You will be more likely to hear back from agent and editors, and more likely to get readers when your book is published.
What about you? Are you writing something high concept? Can you think of any other high concept books, YA or otherwise?