Thursday, January 8, 2009

High Concept and Realistic Fiction...is it even possible?

Let me start by saying I'm no worshiper of high concept. I'd much rather write a good book than just a hooky book. It's just that when something is this hard to wrap your mind around, well, it's kinda like a rubix cube. It obsesses me.

And as a teacher, I see the appeal. I'm a salesperson of literature every day. I take the class to the library. The true readers (with the exception of a few who think I'm a genius) run off because they know what they want and where it is. The reluctant ones, we play a guessing games. What kinda stuff do you like? What movies do you like? You like sci-fi? funny stuff? realistic stuff? fantasy? sports? And then we start perusing the shelves.

In English-teacher-salesperson mode, high concept works for me. If I were to pull a book off the shelf and say, "this is beautifully written," they would either run away, or put it back as soon as I walk away. But a good concept, well, makes them really look at the book. Snappy cover art is helpful at this point. :)

So, since I am the bottom rung salesperson, just trying to get these picky customers to check out books that have already been purchased, I can see the high concept pitch working on up the ladder of sales and marketing.

Alas, I have never writtten anything high concept. And I don't know if I ever will. By definition (unless I'm wrong and I've twisted this rubix cube a few times too many), in a high concept book everything, even subplots, ties back in to that concept.

I don't think you can really do that in a contemporary realistic book. In a speculative book you can create a situation that everything revolves around. But I think modern life is just too complex and just too messy. In another conversation, Donut suggested Freak Show as a high concept book in which everything tied into the drag queen mc wanting to be prom queen. But honestly, I don't think he came up with that plan until halfway through the book, after his classmates put him in the hospital.

Maybe it works for Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. It does seem that everything does get tied in with the pants. Maybe it works with Audrey, Wait! the whole situation is related to the song about her getting so huge. Maybe my point is moot (like talking to a cow). I don't know. The rubix cube is spinning around again. I'm the kid who took theirs apart with a steak knife and then stuck it back together again.

One more blog, later this week, and I'll do a drawing for a hardcover (cause that's all there is) copy of Handcuffs. Sent from me to you.

8 comments:

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Okay, I'm going to politely disagree. I'll say it's *easier* to have a high-concept spec fic book. But I don't think that a realistic high concept book is impossible. We just normally see realistic high-concept in movies or in books with movie tie-ins.

Like . . . earlier, when I mentioned PAY IT FORWARD. Middle grade kid comes up with a project for school that ends up changing the world. Very high concept. Also totally realistic, if told in a somewhat stylized way.

It seems to me like high-concept realistic is the standard for Hollywood, but not so much for books. I think about movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, where a reporter does a piece on how to do just that by trying out the methods on a real live boyfriend, and Ransom, with Mel Gibson, that kidnapping one, and a million-gillion thrillers out there with clever concepts.

Now I'm wondering why we don't see more books like this? Is it because it's such a glossy, stylized version of life that it's hard to sustain for 350 pages?

althrasher said...

I don't think everything in high concept books ties back to the concept. To me, high concept is just something interesting aspect of the plot that hooks you, like a lot of Micheal Chriton books.

As far as everything connecting to the concept, I just finished HANDCUFFS so it's fresh in my mind. Everything in the book tied back to the main idea it centered around--the symbols and subplots all went back to obsession. So I think you see that kind of connection through a book that isn't as high conept.

bethany said...

well, then, is the question in the definition of high concept? Because I don't think Handcuffs is high concept at all. I think Greedy, my current manuscript is a bit MORE high concept that Handcuffs, but not totally.

althrasher said...

No, I don't think Handcuffs if HC either. My point was that everything connects and ties into the main idea, much more so than I think a lot of HC does. Sorry if I wasn't clear :P

hannah said...

I wouldn't say Handcuffs is high concept...but I'm going to use Break as an example again. Easy to sum up--and summing up doesn't include all the subplots; my high-concept one-sentence hook doesn't go into Jonah's messed up family or Charlotte or any of that--and definitely not speculative.

bethany said...

But if it was speculative it COULD all tie in together. So you think everything does tie up in Handcuffs and that tying up is not necessary to high concept?

I'm looking at books where every aspect is controlled by the high concept idea- city of ember- everything revolves around the not having light, right?

Maybe I have just over thought the whole thing and I should just give away a book.

This might be the longest week of mhy life...culminating in a reading abd book signing on Sunday.

Leila said...

To be honest, I’m actually having a really hard time with the entire idea of ‘high concept’.

I work in a bookshop selling children’s books and YA and almost my entire working life is about summing books up in a sentence or two for customers. Sure, some books are easier to sum up than others, but in my experience most books can be, if you're determined and you know them well enough. Most customers will listen to a concept, and many will even be interested in it and curious about it, if you’ve matched the right book to the right customer. But most of the time, what they are really interested in, more than anything else, is whether I think the book is any good. And no concept, no matter how flash, can tell you that.

I think emphasising concept is unproductive; a book being carried by idea and idea alone is an incredibly shallow way to sell books. It’s not enough to come up with a good ‘what if’. It’s about what you do with that ‘what if’ that matters. Sure, some concepts are naturally intriguing, but what matters in the end is how well the writer executed them. And that leads us into character and prose and literary merit, or at least entertainment value.

It also seems like the idea of ‘high concept’ can all too easily turn into another stick to beat us speculative fiction writers with. I mean, a lot of speculative fiction relies on a relatively simple premise. It’s difficult to write about magic without finding some straightforward way of defining it and how it functions in the world of a novel. Otherwise both you and your reader end up mutually headachey. No matter how complicated the magic gets, the way it actually works in the context of the story is almost always something that’s fairly easy to explain quickly. You know, there’s that whole famous example with wizards and witches existing secretly alongside regular people and being sent to a special boarding school to learn magic.

And even the idea behind Harry Potter only goes to show that it’s not about who came up with the most stylish sounding and original idea: as many critics pointed out, the idea of a school for wizards and witches had been done numerous times before Rowling ever went there.

In the end, no matter how flash your engine is, it’s the driver, not the car. Once you’re inside the world of a novel, it’s irrelevant how pretty the synopsis sounds. In the end, it’s about the writing.

And yes. A lot of readers do care about that, and they care about it a great deal. As do us people who sell them their books :-)

Sebastian Weitzeil said...
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