CHARACTERS, CRIMES,
AND CRIMINAL TACTICS

Writing the High-Concept Novel by DiAnn Mills

Launching our books doesn’t have to be a formidable task. Instead, consider the it a challenge we can meet head-on with a plan that works.

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” — Orson Scott

Every writer wants to hear their story premise is a high concept novel. Agents and editors battle to secure that coveted, marketable, reader-captivating story; although stats say roughly only 5 percent of submissions fall into that category. A high concept novel has mass appeal and is easy to pitch. Think the WOW factor.

The following helps the writer move toward a high-concept novel.

Story Idea

A story idea is like trekking into an unexplored wilderness. The hike is rough, dangerous, and filled with obstacles. Sometimes we question our sanity and the value of spending hours venturing toward an exciting destination.

A writer’s idea is valuable, but what does a writer do with something that exists only in the mind? The mental image attracts us, lures us to consider an incredible story, and we long to move forward.

Ideas are everywhere. All we need to do is look around us. Every breath is someone’s story, a gem to develop from a writer’s unique perspective. Oh, the possibilities to generate our next novel:

  • Dreams
  • Fears
  • Scripts
  • Blog posts
  • Movies
  • Nightmares
  • Devotions
  • Memories
  • Poetry
  • TV shows
  • Conversations
  • Nonfiction books
  • Documentaries
  • Genealogy
  • Media headlines
  • Family history
  • Magazine articles
  • And the list goes on

Observe people and situations in different settings for additional ideas. Seeing others in action stirs our artistic expression. My favorite people-watching places include malls, zoos, airports, restaurants, and recreational spots.

A writer takes an idea and moves forward with a concept, much like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Concept

“A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story.” Larry Brooks

A concept is the foundation of our story. Alone, the statement means nothing, but the writer uses concept to build a premise.

Premise

How does a writer take a raw concept and shape it into a polished premise?

“Premise is NOT concept. But it can be fueled by whatever is conceptual about the story (stated separately within a pitch as the story’s concept). Premise is the summarized description of a story. And when that story is considered fresh and powerful, premise emerges from a conceptual landscape.” — Larry Brooks

Idea example: A female FBI Special Agent resigns because of a tragedy.

Concept example: A female FBI Special Agent blames her career for the cause of a tragic death and resigns.

What can a writer do with that? 

Premise example: A female FBI Special Agent blames her career for the cause of a tragic, family death and resigns. She returns to teaching college freshman creative writing. An assignment for her students to write the first fifty pages of a novel reveals the source of her nightmare sits in her class.

Should a writer settle for the first premise that enters their mind? Not if they want a story that exceeds an agent, editor, or reader’s expectations.

With a strong premise, a writer examines the many possibilities that can arise from one sentence. An idea, concept, and premise add to the development of the story. But in a high concept novel, the premise becomes the pitch and drives the story forward. The premise relays a simple idea, genre, originality, and distinctive qualities. The spin or twist must be unprecedented.

Writer, if the plotline of your story is complicated or the pitch takes longer than three sentences, it’s not high concept. Look at the following guidelines:

  • The short premise steps beyond unique, distinct, and amazing to unparalleled. Each word packs a punch, increasing the desire for more of the adventure.
  • The protagonist hits the top of the likability chart.
  • The story appeals to a wide audience. Readers create a buzz that translates into book sales. No matter the genre, readers flock to read the story.
  • The external and internal conflict applies to many readers. They identify with the struggles and more easily envision the adventure.
  • The characters’ emotions play a critical role and easily engage the reader.
  • The plot often takes something ordinary and adds an ingenious/clever slant or twist that isn’t easily answered.
  • The goal for the protagonist looks unattainable.
  • The novel is well written. Period.

Not all the above have to be in place for a high concept novel, but more of these traits increase the likelihood.

I’ve listed some high-concept novels that cover many genres, but it’s not an exhaustive list. I encourage you to study these books and movies to dissect how and why these flew to the top of the bestseller and movie lists.

  • Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
  • Star Wars – George Lucas
  • Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  • The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  • Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  • Harry Potter – J. K. Rowling
  • The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis

For many high concept novels, the setting is key. When an antagonistic setting is pitted against the character, the resulting conflict forces the character to change and grow.

While all the plots have been written, a story idea takes its originality from the writer’s personality, values, imagination, and life experiences. Much like a well-developed character looks at the world from a distinct point of view, a story takes life from the one who fashions it.

Where does a writer find the idea and concept that meets the specifications for a high concept novel? Are you willing to explore the following?

  1. Expand your mind by getting alone. Turn off the noise and leave technology behind. Where do your thoughts take you?
  2. Research Greek, Roman, and Celtic mythology. Can you take one of those story worlds and create a contemporary novel?
  3. Visualize your novel as a film. Will it easily translate to the screen?
  4. Explore scientific phenomena. Is there an incident or discovery that piques your interest?
  5. How can you make the seemingly impossible credible?
  6. Read a chapter in Proverbs. Now flip the life lesson.
  7. Spend time with children. Free your imagination to mirror their minds and creativity.
  8. What if everything you believe as truth is a lie? How could you expose it in a believable manner?
  9. What personality types irritate you? How could you learn to like a person with those traits?
  10. Create a new race of people. What are their values, appearance, culture, homes, jobs, etc., that is radically different from yours?
  11. Rewrite the ending of a fairy tale. How would you change the plot?
  12. What disturbs you? What would it take for that incident/happening to affect you positively?
  13. This is perhaps the hardest … What is an original idea?

Not every novel will be termed high concept, but a wise writer seeks to create a powerful story that resonates with a wide audience.

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She is a storyteller and creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is the director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Retreats: Marketing, Speakers, Nonfiction and Novelist with social media specialist Edie Melson where she continues her passion for helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.

Connect with DiAnn here: www.diannmills.com