Kelly Mortimer

Kelly Mortimer of Mortimer Literary Agency represents clients in both the ABA and the CBA. Kelly gives each client personal attention, including editing. She’s in the top 10 of the Publisher’s Marketplace Top 100 Dealmakers - Romance Category, a two-time nominee for the American Christian Fiction Writers “Agent of the Year” Award, and her agency is Romance Writers of America recognized. Kelly is also President and CEO of Underdog Press.

Everyone’s High on “High Concept”

Take a simple idea and give it a twist, but keep the story familiar...

Don’t the words high concept sound wacko? But what do they mean to you as a writer?

High Concept: a striking, easily reducible narrative which also offers a high degree of marketability

Translation, please? First, it should be “that,” not “which,” but I’ll save the grammar lesson for another column. High Concept is a simple concept, but different people describe it in different ways. Generally, take an idea, juice it up, and get the point across in a sentence or two, tops. (Being a full-blooded Italian with bipolar disorder, I have no hope of ever aspiring to get my myriad thoughts down to a scant few words. See?)

This isn’t a new term. By now, most of ya know the movie industry invented high concept in the ’70s to describe Spielberg and Lucas films. If you didn’t know that:

(1) you were too busy playin’ with your pacifier in the ’70s
(2) you were too busy disco dancing in the ’70s
(3) you're in your ’70s and forgot you knew what high concept meant

A high-concept story is one most individuals will love, making it easier to sell; and the meat of the plot understood in a single line (maybe two), making it easier to sell (note our micro-mini attention spans.). Add the two together, and you have what publishing houses love: something that’s easier to sell.

The phrase high concept differs in meaning, depending on usage. As a noun, high concept is your “elevator pitch.” Ya got thirty seconds to impress me; let’s have it. Simple, concise, quick. What’s your plot in twenty words or less. Easy enough.

But the agent in me begs for the adjective: a high-concept manuscript. Descriptions of high concept range from mine, “A read that will span age groups, genres, the Grand Canyon . . .” (okay, so I’m exaggerating—but didn’t Evel Knievel’s son try it?), to Randy Ingermanson’s, “The higher the stakes, the higher the concept.” Let’s start with Randy’s.

High concept can mean life or death, as in the following examples. Germ by Robert Liparulo (Thomas Nelson, 2007). Logline: If you breathe, it will find you… Since most of us are breathing (although I wonder about a few editors to whom I submitted about a year ago and still haven’t answered), this story packs a wallop. Goose bumps time. If you combine the simple four-letter-word title with the

clarity of the seven-word logline, how fast will the train arrive in Pittsburgh? (Oh, sorry—mind jog back to those old “story problem” days. Talk about scary!) Description: Someone has engineered a germ that kills people who have certain DNA strands. Mr. Liparulo has a high-concept idea. We all know about germs, and the stakes are astronomical. No cure. Nada. It’s over. Imagine the panic. Wal-Mart would run out of antibacterial hand sanitizer faster than you can say “Liparulo” three times.

Fantasies also work well as high concept stories. In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Macmillan, 1955), we’re in another world, but still a do-or-die scenario. The climactic winner-take-all battle pits the forces of good against the forces of e-ville. (I know that’s not how ya spell it, but that’s how the villains pronounce it.) The publishing world didn’t use the term high concept back in the ’50s, but the concept was there (no pun intended—for once.)

Or go the route that may be less exciting but still high concept. Take a simple idea and give it a twist, but keep the story familiar enough that normal people (strike two—I ain’t normal) will instantly recognize it. Same rule goes about the short spiel.

Why search out this type of manuscript to quote when I can take the easy route, and use a couple of mine (just in case there are any editors out there—never mind . . .): A fourteenth-century Lucy Ricardo searches for her Ricky and finds him at the battle of Crecy. And the follow-up: The Jerry Maguire of the fourteenth century finds the perfect woman, but he can’t commit.

So churn out that high-concept manuscript in whatever form suits you, and dream up a great title and logline. If ya do it right, the reader can guess what the content of your novel will be (and not because they’ve already read it in a hundred other books, but nice try), and those who market your book will be in Heaven (but will come back to Earth to plan your publicity campaign. Anything for a buck. Sorry.).

There you have it. Any way you define high concept, if ya got it, and you can write, you probably have a winner. (I’ll give ya even odds.)

Perils Of