What is a high-concept novel and how do I write one?

High-concept fiction is a term currently being used A LOT by publishers and literary agents and for those of you keen to go the traditional publishing route, it’s worth understanding what it is and (if you choose to do so) how to write one.


The definition of high-concept can be vague and most google searches bring up a list of characteristics, usually referring to film. However, the Cambridge English dictionary defines it as:


an interesting and attractive idea that can be explained in a simple way.


Merriam-Webster defines it as something that:


has or exploits elements (such as fast action, glamour, or suspense) that appeal to a wide audience.


I also heard an interesting definition by Alex Michaelides (author of best-selling novel, The Silent Patient) who defined it as:


having two opposites in a related space in one sentence (eg. a member of the paparazzi falls in love with a movie star and they wind up in a cabin, trapped together.


It’s a marketing term rather than a literary term and one of the reasons the industry loves high-concept books is that they are easier to sell.


Ultimately, a high-concept story:

  • is driven by plot

  • can be summed up in a one-liner premise

  • has mass appeal

  • includes some kind of twist or an element that makes it unique


Take the example of Lord of the Flies. There are many books about being stranded on an island but what made this unique, and therefore surprising, is that they were children.


Other examples include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.


I should add here that you don’t have to write a high-concept book to get published but if you are keen to develop an idea and write one, then read on.


4 Tips For Writing High-Concept Fiction

1. Coming up with a premise

  • Brainstorm around the ‘What if…’ question. For example, what if dinosaurs came back to life? (Jurassic Park).

  • Take something from everyday life and twist it. For example, Paul Hawkin’s The Girl On The Train, is about a train commute. The twist is seeing something unusual during that every-day activity.

  • Take two opposite things and put them together to come up with something unique.


2. Map out your plot points

Here, you need to think conflict, conflict, conflict. What are the stakes? They need to be high in order to get that drama that appeals to a wide audience.

3. Identify your characters

High-concept is more about action and drama as opposed to the inner mind and back-story of your character so bear this in mind when developing characters who can carry off your plot.


4. Use skillful story-telling

Your premise alone won’t be enough to convince publishers to invest in you. You need to showcase your writing skill to deliver the story in a memorable and impactful way. That includes developed characters, good pacing, and a distinct authorial voice all of which I teach in my digital course, Kick Start Your Book With Karen.


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