Of all the workshops I attended at the National Conference this year, for the Romance Writers of America (RWA15), I was the most excited about the “Conquering High Concept” workshop. It was a panel including Avon Books Senior Editor, May Chen, and best-selling historical authors Sophie Jordan and Sarah McLean.
The workshop was presented more as a discussion and Q & A, which was entertaining to watch and really displayed the creative genius of these three individuals, as they played off of one another’s totally “whacky” and “bonkers” ideas. Sarah McLean was particularly animated, which is probably why attendees were spilling out of the door during her subsequent workshop, “Mastering the Art of Great Conflict,” the next morning.
I have a few criticisms, however. While you certainly felt as if you were in the room with great genius, you left feeling as though you’d been window shopping for an hour; able to see the precious knowledge beyond the glass, but still unable to grasp it.
There was a lot of discussion about why high concept works and what it does, but not necessarily about what it is, or how to identify it. There was also a lot of comparing “high concept” to “tropes” but not a lot of clarifying the difference between the two.
Still, I had a successful pitch session with an agent after taking the workshop. And what better measure of success could there be? Here’s the gist of what I learned (and figured out on my own).
What is a high concept pitch?
In a nutshell, a high concept pitch slams 1-3 archetypes together, in an unusual way. As Sarah McClean said, “It’s the most obvious solution that no one has ever come up with.” Here’s what high concept does and why it works:
- High concept stimulates your most raw, natural self…
- By tapping into popularly held concepts and ideas…
- And then mashing these ideas together, with a twist…
- Thus, embedding conflict in the story premise.
Trueblood: “Vampires exist, and everyone knows it.”
Why does it work? Because vampires are typically understood to be these mysterious and dangerous creatures lurking in the dark, behind the scenes, but what if they were out in the open, in every day life?
Game of Thrones: “Five Kings, one throne, winter is coming.”
Why does it work? With the implication of kings competing, we already know this is headed somewhere majestic, epic, and catastrophic. The concept of winter alludes to not only impending, uncontrollable doom, but the anticipation of it.
Sarah McLean also offered the high concept for her newest book: “Celebrity gossip in the 1820’s; think Solange Knowles punching Jay-Z, in a Regency.”
Why does it work? All criticisms aside, this pitch is pretty genius. It plays on our obsession with celebrity but puts us into a different time period, which could have hilarious and highly conflictual results.
Though this was not clearly stated in the workshop, it appeared through the progression of Q & A, that high concept—while it is not a trope—has a close relationship with tropes.
What are tropes?
Tropes are story telling devices and conventions that can apply to characterization, plot structure, motifs, setting, and many more. Go to tvtropes.org and you will find hundreds of them. It’s worth it, because tropes are helpful in framing your high concept pitch.
A few examples of tropes offered in the workshop were:
- Lovers to friends
- Enemies to lovers
- Secret baby
- Marriage of convenience
- Love at first sight
The panel also offered a template for how to structure your high concept pitch:
“(State the trope); think (commonly understood female archetype or character) meets (commonly understood male archetype or character), except/in/but… (add weird twist).”
This was perhaps the most useful tool, for me. By the end of the panel discussion, I had developed a high concept pitch for my paranormal manuscript that I happened to be pitching the next day:
“An enemies to lovers story; think Russell Crowe in the Gladiator meets Kate Beckinsdale in Underworld, except…she’s a dragon.”
Why does it work? We already know the entire progression of the story arch and both characters’ major conflicts. The hero will be an honorable, salt-of-the-earth, warrior out for revenge on the heroine. And the heroine will be a misunderstood, self sacrificing, bad-ass with a heart of gold on a mission to protect her people. The twist is on the paranormal element, which is a digression from the original vampire trope, but it stays close enough so we have a not-too vague concept of the setting and external conflicts for this story.
When I shared the above with the panel, May Chen gave me the thumbs up, stating, “Is that YA? Cuz I could sell the shit out of that.”
Unfortunately, it’s not YA, but the agent I pitched to on Friday, felt it was still worth a read, and asked me to pitch a second manuscript as well (fingers crossed she likes them).
All in all, I would say RWA15’s “Conquering High Concept” workshop–while a little meandering–was informative and extremely helpful. And if I’ve learned anything from my RWA15 experience, pitching high concept works!