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High Concept: How to Discover a Blockbuster

Thinking of great high concept is hard – otherwise everyone would do it!

Even though it’s difficult, it’s not impossible, and I’ve got some tricks to help you generate blockbuster high concept plot ideas.

Great Plot Ideas: The Paradox

When you think of your favourite novels, what you’ll notice is that they have plot ideas that are paradoxical, because they are both obvious AND unusual (or at least they were when the author first wrote them). That’s because they’re ‘high concept’ plot ideas.

Discovering Blockbuster Spy Novel Plot Ideas

What is a High Concept?

High concept plot ideas are ones whose themes and appeal are:

  • Original
  • Obvious
  • Easily communicated

A high concept explains your novel that makes the attraction obvious. As soon as people hear the high concept, they can decide whether the story is for them.

People sometimes attribute the invention of the term ‘High Concept’ to Michael Eisner, who was a creative executive at Paramount Studios and then CEO of Disney. He used high concept ideas to produce some of the most popular movies ever, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Lion King.

Why You Need a High Concept Plot Idea

First, a high concept idea helps you understand what your story is really about, what the essence of your novel or movie is. That focus will help you write it.

Second, it will make your story easier to sell. If you’re going to sell your work to an agent or publisher, your concept has to grab them, or they’ll move on to the next submission without even reading it. Concepts that are difficult to explain or understand are hard to get published.

How to Find High Concept Plot Ideas

The best way to generate high concept plot ideas that are obvious but also unusual is to take something familiar and add a twist. Then the reader will see the obvious (the familiar story) and the unusual (the twist) The reader will understand that you’ve found a new and imaginative ways to tell classic stories.

Here are five ways to generate high concept plot ideas for a novel:

  1. Put two authors together
  2. Put two books or movies together
  3. Take an author, book, or movie and put it in a new setting or show it from a new point of view
  4. Tap into the Zeitgeist
  5. Ask “What if?”

Two Authors Write a Book Together

Authors often describe their work as a cross between two other authors.

Two Books or Movies together

A good way of coming up with off-the-wall plot ideas is to cross two seemingly disparate novels or movies with each other and see what happens.

Author, Book or Movie in a new setting

This is a great way to find an obvious but also unusual idea. People have written so many stories that it’s impossible to come up with a fundamentally new idea, but moving the story to a new setting, or telling it from a new point of view can breathe new life into it.

Tap into the Zeitgeist

What’s in the news? What’s fashionable? What’s everyone talking about? What are people excited or angry about? What are the issues people care about? What’s important right now?

That’s the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

Consider how many bestselling novels and blockbuster movies are about the issues of the time. Of course, more people are going to be more interested in a story that’s about things they’re already excited about. So the potential audience is bigger, which is exactly what we’re looking for.

So, what kind of story does today’s zeitgeist suggest?

What If?

This is where you let your imagination take over. Consider anything, history or current events perhaps, and ask yourself “what if all is not as it seems?” What if it’s a cover story? Read conspiracy theories on the internet. Some of them are incredibly imaginative. Get paranoid!

For example, what if:

  • Aliens secretly rule the world?
  • Wikileaks is run by the Chinese Secret Service?
  • The United Nations really is plotting to subjugate the USA?

These Ideas are Crazy!

Well, yes, they are, but that’s the point. Look at it this way: it’s brainstorming. Turn your inner critic off and just write those crazy ideas down – the crazier the better. Anyone can come up with an obvious idea!

Of course, what these crazy ideas show is that unusual ideas aren’t that hard to come up with either. The problem is that most of them are not obviously appealing. Here’s one:

What if swans are actually alien spies?

That’s unusual, but it’s not a concept that has obvious appeal. A talented writer could make it work, maybe as a comedy, but probably few people will want to read it, however good it is.

A lot of the plot ideas you come up with are likely to be like that. They would go in the Cult (unusual, but not obvious) box on the diagram. Maybe you can make them work—who knows?

But the best thing is to keep brainstorming and putting crazy ideas together until one clicks and you think “actually that one might go places”.

I’d read that!

Now you need to make sure you can explain the concept as simply as possible, so that the attraction is obvious. The aim is to tell people what your high concept is and they will say “I’d read that” with no more explanation.

So, make your high concept as short and simple as possible; imagine every word reduces your chance of success by 10%.

How High Concept Plot Ideas Sold My Novel

I know it’s possible to use high concept to sell your novel because it happened to me.

When I was defining the High Concept that became A Kill in the Morning, I started off with:

A British spy goes to Germany for revenge and discovers a doomsday weapon.

Thirteen words. If each word cut my chance of success by 10% I would never sell my novel.

So I analysed the idea. Here were some things I thought as I analysed:

  • Who cares that the spy is British, I could definitely delete that bit.
  • Goes to Germany. Not exactly gripping.
  • Revenge. Okay, that’s not bad—people like revenge thrillers.
  • Discovers a doomsday weapon—what’s unusual about that in an espionage thriller?

So maybe:

A spy seeks revenge against the Nazis.

Well, it’s shorter, but it seems Formulaic (obvious but not unusual) and it’s still seven words (chance of success 30%).

Eventually, I got it down to

James Bond versus the Nazis.

This works. It’s a “movie in a new setting” high concept and it’s only five words. When you read it you don’t know what the plot will be exactly, but you can have a pretty good guess about the kinds of things that will happen.

Because it references James Bond, there will probably be over-the-top action, a ‘Bond girl’ and an evil villain. That’s the obvious bit. The twist is the Nazis. How would a James Bond style hero fight the Nazis? That’s the unusual.

When I was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett Award I went to the prize-giving and tried my high concept on several publishing industry veterans. They all said “I’d read that.” My high concept idea worked! And now Penguin Random House, the biggest publishers in the world, have published A Kill in the Morning.

You can read the opening, for free by clicking here or on the cover:

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

What’s Next After Finding a High Concept?

So you’ve discovered:

  • Why you need a high concept story idea.
  • The keys to brainstorming that idea.
  • How to hone the idea so it’s easily communicated.

And hopefully, if you’ve followed the process, then you’ve found your own high concept plot idea.

The next thing you’ll need is a logline, generated using my Killogator Logline Formula.

Once you’ve got your high concept and your logline nailed down, you’ll be well on your way to producing the Irresistible Elevator Pitch that you’ll need if you want to get your novel published!

Good luck!

Need Help?

If you’d like help with developing your high concept, then please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.