H is for… High Concept

H is for High Concept.

Well yes, it’s also for “Huh?”

I confess that when I first encountered the term I had entirely the wrong concept.  I now know that the term originates in the world of film, and is most simply defined as a story idea that can be encapsulated pithily in a way that instantly indicates the idea’s marketability. In a few words, the universality and the originality of the story are obvious.

Does this apply to anyone other than a marketing specialist? Yes. How?

As James Bonnet points out in this excellent article from Script for Sale.com, Conquering the High Concept, it truly makes the writer — of novel, screenplay, or even picture book —  grapple with what the story is about. If the theme can’t be boiled down to a succinct, universal and appealing statement, perhaps the book or movie itself won’t have enough universal appeal, either. Perhaps there is more work to do in the revision stage.

Also, everyone these days is pressed for time — especially agents, editors, producers, the people who have a real say in whether a writer’s project ever gets to an audience. Having an “elevator pitch” is essential. A “high concept pitch” takes the elevator pitch to the nth degree of conciseness and appeal, and is more likely to hook the person one is pitching to, whether that pitch takes place in an actual elevator, in a query letter, a screenplay proposal, or some other venue. (NOT the restroom at a writers’ conference. That is the epitome of bad form, and will not earn you the flush of success.)

Is your concept ready to be pitched? Or do you need to aim Higher?


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23 thoughts on “H is for… High Concept”

  1. I remember asking Emma Walton Hamilton to expand on this in one of her Q and A’s, Beth, and I really appreciate the reminder from you, today. It is a great test for every single one of our manuscripts!

    1. I remember your question and Emma’s answer, Joanna — it’s what opened the door to understanding the term for me. Thank you!

  2. This is a very important point regarding novel writing, especially when writers are interested in attending conferences to pitch to agents. Have that high concept together and presentable is a big deal, otherwise one will ramble on and on and on and that doesn’t bode well for impressing potential agents or publishers with your spectacular idea.

    I’ve worked on a 35 word pitch for the current WiP that I have out with betas. I’ve gotten some helpful feedback on it and am working to tighten and make it better.

  3. Because of my personality I always aim higher, try to make the pitch intriguing and have three different ones, depending on who I speak with and who my audience is. Is that too much?

    1. Thanks, Marta, for this input. Very interesting that you have three pitches — how do you categorize them? What audiences are you aiming for with each one?

  4. I was just thinking how High Concept is similar to a pitch, which is something that I need to practice! It never occurred to me that if you can’t boil it down to a high concept, that you don’t have a well designed story or plot. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Beth!

    1. You’re welcome, Jarm. Now let’s see if I can practice what I preach!

      (and let’s see if I can post this comment — it timed out last time I tried!)

    1. In most ways, High Concept is just another way to say pitch. But a pitch can be for anything.

      I think that High Concept means that the book or script you’re pitching is written to show a universal theme, that means something everyone will identify with, even if it’s about something very specific. It’s something that will appeal to a lot of people, and will really influence their life. At the same time, it can be expressed in very few words that make you really want to read the book or see the movie.

      To me, making sure your book or your pitch is “high concept” means you’ve really worked on it, and it’s definitely going to catch a reader’s eye, or an agent’s or editor’s ear.

      Maybe some other people will suggest things in the comments, too.

      1. Thanks for answering my question! You mean like the difference between saying my book is about “a super hero vs. an evil villain” (pitch) and my book is about “good vs. evil” (high concept – more “universal”)?

        1. I *think* so. It’s kind of a tricky concept to understand, I admit. I’m hoping someone else will chime in and help us with our definition!

  5. I wondered where you were going to go with the High Concept — had forgotten Emma’s mentioning it. But, it certainly makes a lot of sense. I always like to read the summary inside the cover of each book I read to see how tight and interesting it is. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. I needed this today. I’m headed to a conference next week and hadn’t planned on pitching, but realized I’m going to be around book people so I need to fine tune.

    1. Stacy, I’m glad this was of help — always good to have your pitch(es) tuned up and ready. You never know at a conference when you might have that golden opportunity.

  7. Phew. Just reading about this makes my heart & belly do flip flops. You would think as I writer I would be better with the possibility of being rejected (over and over) but ohhhh…. man.


    Great stuff, Beth. Helpful to many and occasionally frightful for others. And I mean frightful in a growth oriented way!

    1. Thanks, Julie. “Frightful in a growth oriented way” made me chuckle. But I hear you. It’s a scary process every time one pitches or submits.

      Glad to have you visit!

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