Most communication rests on storytelling. Even a mundane task, like explaining that there’s a traffic delay, or telling your audience tomorrow’s weather, is a kind of story. If you have to ask a question to gain compliance (an answer), persuasion science tells us it’s better for you to give a reason why you’re asking the question. That gives a story behind your question that people can relate to or at least respect. Not all stories are created equal, however. Maybe your story can suck if you’re just asking someone for the time, but what if you want to make something of it? This is where the idea of a high concept comes in.
What is a High Concept?
The “high concept” idea is usually attributed to Barry Diller and Michael Eisner (the future Jekyll and Hyde CEO of Disney) at Paramount Pictures in the 1970s. Robert Greene goes over it in his cautionary chapter on Eisner in The Laws of Human Nature.
A film had to begin with a great concept, one that was original, easy to summarize, and dramatic (pg. 292).
To be memorable, you should be able to summarize a story (in whatever medium you tell it) in one sentence, one which will invite audiences to stick around. If you can’t easily summarize what you’re doing in a compelling sentence, it might mean that your underlying concept is weak. If your concept is weak, your story probably won’t get over with audiences.
For example, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress might be summarized as so:
What if a ragtag, ill-prepared lunar penal colony tried to get its independence from earth with the help of a childish supercomputer?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time could have a similar question:
What if a silent hero woke up after a seven-year slumber, only to discover he had to go back and forth in time to correct the terrible mistake he made as child?
A lot of high concept stories are pitched in a “what if?” style. However, it need not be that way.
Homer’s Iliad might be summarized like this:
Insulted by his king, Greece’s greatest warrior withdraws from the army during intense fighting in an attempt to regain his honor, unaware that the gods will make him and everyone else pay a high price for this.
And we can sum up the Odyssey in a different way:
Greece’s most cunning warrior finally makes his way home after 20 years of war and seafaring, only to find hundreds of men harassing his wife and depleting his property.
It’s important that your concept impacts the plot of your story, rather than just the characters or setting. With The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, we know there will be a revolt involving a lunar penal colony. With Ocarina of Time, we know that the hero has made some kind of terrible mistake that he needs to travel through time to correct. In the Iliad, we know that Greece’s greatest warrior was dishonored and will pay some kind of price to recover his honor. With the Odyssey, we know our protagonist has been away from home for a long time and that when he returns, his troubles are still not over.
It’s also important to know that a high concept story needs to have originality. In Homer’s time, those sentences would have been considered high concept. In ours, they would not be, as they’d be considered generic and derivative. The plot would need to change in some way. For example…
Planet X’s most cunning warrior finally returns home after 20 years of warfare in one of the galaxy’s outer spiral arms, only to find that his home is under siege, and that his old enemy, one of the parasitic aliens he battled against, has taken control of his wife’s mind.
See? That’s something closer to a high concept. Did that give you a story idea? It sounds interesting to explore, doesn’t it?
Your Story Question
Related to the high concept idea is the notion of your story question. You should be able to to get the entirety of your story across in one question that audiences will want to know the answer to, relating to the success or failure of your protagonist/s. For example, if we had to put the Iliad in one question, it would be like this:
Will Greece’s greatest warrior recover the honor he feels he has lost, and if so, at what price?
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would ask:
Will a ragtag group of rebels, assisted by a childish supercomputer, free the moon from earth?
The Odyssey would ask:
Will Greece’s most cunning warrior survive the war, the sea, and his own homecoming, to regain his queen and kingdom?
And finally, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would ask:
Will the hero be able to successfully navigate time to correct the terrible mistake he made as a child?
Why is a High Concept Important?
Not all successful stories are “high concept” stories. Still, the high concept idea, and formulating a good story question, are useful tools because they force you to sharpen your writing. A few years ago, during one of my early freelance projects, I edited a large book about fiction writing. Editing that book made me realize that The Red War was not ready for prime time.
All of the pieces were there. The plot was there, the characters and the way they changed were there, but there was a certain weakness in the seams of the execution. I had that lingering feeling for a while, which researching the industry confirmed, but I was able to piece together why by doing that project.
Namely, I found that I couldn’t articulate my concept in one sentence or ask a short and succinct story question. This forced me to sharpen my setting and characters. It made me realize that I had too many diversions and moving parts and that I needed to shift focus to where it mattered.
Now I can summarize the concept of The Red War like so:
What if a posthuman planetary empire attempted to assert its hegemony over off-world settlements with very different values?
As for my story question?
Can three unlikely and reluctant leaders save their world from being absorbed into an off-world, posthuman, political hivemind?
There’s also The Red War’s sequel (one of the ideas behind a high concept is that it lends itself to being a series). The sequel’s concept might be described like this:
What if a new, young religious leader comes to power in a politically vital region, marries his homeland’s religion with an aggressive and expansionist techno-theological doctrine, and seeks further power abroad?
And the sequel’s story question reads like so:
Can a jaded warrior return from exile to resume his masculine station, find his post-war identity, and save what he sacrificed for in the process?
Because The Red War’s sequel is more straightforward, I’m toying with actually releasing it as a serial on my Patreon first. I’m just concerned with potential spoilers, which I’d try to keep to a minimum (but some must still be made). Would you like to see that? Let me know in the comments or an email.
Those sentences and questions seem easy to write when you read them, but they aren’t. I spent hours on them and I’m still not sure they’re the final versions. That’s the point. Writing those statements and story questions force you to sharpen your ideas and prevent you from meandering with irrelevant content.
Even if you’re not writing something like a screenplay or novel, these ideas will help you in your presentation. What story do you want to tell? How can you make it short and succinct to keep your focus and your audience’s attention? What question should you ask that your readers will want to figure out an answer to? This is good business writing. Failing to take heed of these considerations will make your pitch, presentation, and attempt at persuasion worse.
For a good introduction to persuasion, read Stumped.