Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bransford Explains High Concept

Nathan Bransford explains one of the most often confused narrative terms -- high concept. Excerpts:
If high concept were a person it would be a teenager because it's often totally misunderstood. If high concept were a tool it would be a sledgehammer. If high concept were a okay I'll stop now.

So what does high concept mean?

High concept means that a novel/movie/TV show's plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.

Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept.

Wizard school? High concept.

There's this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.
Read the whole thing. I'd add that high concept also elicits the most sneers from critics and highbrow readers. (Bransford alludes to that Samuel L. Jackson movie whose title we will not mention here.) Often that's for good reason: High concept can come off feeling pretty, well, low. It doesn't have to, though. Such shorthand may help we genre writers get a handle on plot and setting, but if we're doing our job, we're ultimately writing about universal human experience, weighty things of life that transcend any easy categorization.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think one problem with "High Concept" is that in some senses it is a distraction from the texture and complexity of a book. Which doesn't mean the book has no texture and complexity, just that's not what people mention.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies may be the greatest high concept idea; it invites both literary nerds and horror fans; it promised a then-unheard-of conjunction of nearly-dead high culture propriety with low-culture blood and gore. Harry Potter's School for Wizards was okay, but pales in comparison. But Harry Potter, whatever its faults, gave the reader the stuff he didn't explicitly know he wanted--beneath the quirky spells and whimsy was an endearing wit and a lovable cast of characters that demonstrate the perfect mix of stereotype and unexpected humanity (even if they're villains.)

When most literary snobs look at genre fiction, I think they assume "high concept" dominates a book--as it does in P&P&Z. But if a book is *only* high concept, it will be remembered at best as a source for other stories. (I've been told that both Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Undead are far better than P&P&Z.) Success in genre fiction always involves a thorough knowledge of the cliches, and an ability to somehow go beyond them to surprise the reader.

C. N. Nevets said...

Ironically, I have previously thought of Nathan Bransford as a high concept blogger.

Loren Eaton said...


Which doesn't mean the book has no texture and complexity, just that's not what people mention.

This is right on the money. The Passage is a great example: Most people shy away from a story described as "vampire apocalypse," but not from one that "deals with love and loss." Ironically, the book is about both.

Loren Eaton said...


You know what, I think you're right!