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High Concept Fiction: Learn to Identify and Write High Concept Stories

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 11, 2020 • 2 min read

High-concept novels frequently enjoy dedicated fan bases, and high concept movies have been some of the best performers in Hollywood. There is a wide audience for high concept projects, which is why it’s worth unpacking what makes a story high concept.



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What Is High Concept Fiction?

A high concept story is one with a clear, easily-communicable premise. It typically involves a premise that is easy to pitch and driven by a straightforward plot. This is in contrast to low concept stories, which tend to be more character-driven with less of an obvious narrative hook.

Many forms of high concept ideas enjoy great commercial appeal, particularly in the horror, fantasy, thriller, and sci-fi genres. Bestsellers by authors like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Margaret Atwood, and Harry Turtledove exemplify the ways high concept ideas can find a mass audience.

Examples of High Concept Fiction

The definition of high concept fiction comes down to a story’s premise or logline. If you were making a high concept pitch to a literary agent or film producer, you might find yourself using phrases like “Imagine a world where…” or “It’s a cross between…” For instance:

“Imagine a world where instead of using money, people trade years off their lives.”

“This film would be a cross between Pulp Fiction and Sense and Sensibility.”

“It’s like West Side Story, but instead of the Jets and the Sharks, its biological humans versus lab-created androids.”

Hollywood abounds with blockbuster high concept films, as screenwriters search for the next unique idea that will create a legitimately novel cinematic world. High concept films include Groundhog Day, Freaky Friday, Get Out, The Truman Show, and Inception. High concept novels include: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

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3 Tips for Writing High Concept Fiction

If you want to try your hand at high concept novel writing or screenwriting, here are some important tips to keep in mind:

  1. Create a high concept premise that is easy to explain. If you’re going for mass appeal, you need to be able to explain your concept in no more than three sentences. If you find you’re unable to do that, simplify your concept.
  2. Build on known archetypes. When you’re working on your first book, think of ways to upend familiar tropes and genre conventions, aiming for something that feels familiar yet fresh. If you write a high concept book that’s only a few degrees removed from a bestseller like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, a literary agent will know how to pitch and market your story.
  3. Flesh out your high concept premise with skillful storytelling. You can have the most riveting high-stakes premise in the world, but if your novel or screenplay doesn’t have character development, vivid worldbuilding, and clear storytelling, it will fall flat. A great premise is key to telling a high concept story, but at the end of the day, a premise is simply a few sentences. Actually developing that premise into a complete novel, short story, or movie will take a lot of work. And the end product needs to contain the same components that you’d find in great literary fiction—from a nuanced main character to a propulsive storyline to cogent narration full of artful rhetoric.


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