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message 1: by John (new)

John Wiswell | 86 comments On the 100th podcast, Tom said some people might not like Hyperion because it was "high concept." It seemed like he was referring to it as something highly complex or difficult to grasp, though I couldn't tell. The term seems to get used so differently that I wanted to take an informal poll.

In marketing, it tends to mean a work that can be described very easily. "Jaws is about a shark that serially attacks Cape Cod." "Jurassic Park is about a theme park of dinosaurs." High concept books.

But friends and family seem to use it for art too complicated. If they felt lost during a novel, they'll say it's "too high concept for me," as though the premise is above their grasp. This perplexes me.

If Tom wants to clarify what he meant about Hyperion, then awesome. But I'm also just curious for how people tend to hear the term used.


message 2: by David Sven (new)

David Sven (Gorro) | 1570 comments I'm not sure simplicity is enough for something to be characterized as "high concept" is it? I think there also needs to be a scenario that explores alternatives to the norm. "Lost" I would see as High concept but "Prison Break" I would not even though I could describe "Prison Break" more simply.
Yeah Jurassic Park would be definitely high concept. But Jaws . . .hmmm maybe in its day.
I think when Tom uses it with Hyperion he is simply meaning the book does not follow typical sci fi format. And each of the stories could be described simply enough. The priests tale is about a parasite that keeps resurrecting its host. The soldiers tale is a love story where two lovers are moving in opposite directions in time - etc.


message 3: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 1890 comments David Sven wrote: "I'm not sure simplicity is enough for something to be characterized as "high concept" is it? I think there also needs to be a scenario that explores alternatives to the norm. "Lost" I would see as ..."

No, that's the exact opposite of high concept. High concept is all about a gimmick that can be explained in a single sentence -- "Snakes on a plane," "Die Hard on a bus," "Lost in space," "Wagon Train to the stars." Lost as executed wasn't high concept, though it was probably pitched as such ("Survivor meets Fantasy Island").


message 4: by David Sven (new)

David Sven (Gorro) | 1570 comments He's probably used it interchangeably with "arty" or "alternative" or "different." At least that's what I thought he meant. Now that I am better educated I too would like to know what he meant even though the question never occurred to me before. Please explain Tom!


message 5: by Ruth (tilltab) (new)

Ruth (tilltab) (till-tab) | 1203 comments Sean wrote: "No, that's the exact opposite of high concept. High concept is all about a gimmick that can be explained in a single sentence -- "Snakes on a plane," "Die Hard on a bus," "Lost in space," "Wagon Train to the stars.""

I disagree. I thought the term 'high concept' was used for things which ask one hypothetical question of a conceptual nature, so in Jurassic Park, the question would be 'what would happen if we brought back dinosaurs?' The story would then have to explore this question to some degree. I think Crime and Punishment fits my idea of high concept, in that the book explores the repercussions of murder.

Of course, having never looked the term up before, I am prepared to be told I am completely wrong! :P


message 6: by Aloha (new)

Aloha | 919 comments What attracted me to Hyperion was the "high concepts", since I like unique approaches. That was last year, when I have not read as much or gotten as much information as I have now. After a few more books and forums under my belt, I did not find the series as good as I thought it was.


message 7: by Aloha (new)

Aloha | 919 comments My response is only to the first post. I'll have to read the rest when I have more time.


message 8: by Rik (new)

Rik | 559 comments To me "high concept" is a book where you have to pay a lot of attention to follow it because of complex characters, world building, and mysteries. Hyperion would fit the bill. So would the Malazan series by Steven Erikson which is easily the hardest to read fantasy series I've ever tried to read.

A low concept book is one where you just follow just a few characters through a series of set pieces and you can kind of shut your brain off and just enjoy. Its like a popcorn movie. An example I'd put here is Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (I've seen others call it high concept). Or something by Clive Cussler or others where its basically just a few characters going from action scene to action scene.

There is nothing wrong with either and enjoyment can be found in either. I'm currently at work listening to what I'd call a low concept book, The Reversal by Michael Connelly, and am enjoying it immensely.

Its all about what your in the mood for and what you enjoy. Some people love high concept artsy movies while other prefer low concept ones where things get blown up a lot. And some like movies in both areas.


message 9: by Tony (new)

Tony My feeling is that Hyperion defies the "high concept" label. Even describing the overarching premise of the novel requires some backtracking or at least a flowchart, though perhaps I am missing something very obvious... posed as "The Canterbury Tales reworked as a sci-fi frame story," it might function as high concept?


message 10: by Sean (last edited May 25, 2012 07:29AM) (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 1890 comments Rik wrote: "To me "high concept" is a book where you have to pay a lot of attention to follow it because of complex characters, world building, and mysteries."

Ruth wrote: "I disagree. I thought the term 'high concept' was used for things which ask one hypothetical question of a conceptual nature, so in Jurassic Park, the question would be 'what would happen if we brought back dinosaurs?'"

No, really, high concept just means a story that can be boiled down to a single, exciting sentence.

A basic source for understanding how the term high concept is used to pitch story ideas in Hollywood is Robert Kosberg’s “The Bottom Line of High Concept” chapter in his book, How To Sell Your Idea to Hollywood. Kosberg credits the idea of high concept to Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. They created the term when they were young executives at ABC in the late sixties working to promote TV Movies.

“Diller and Eisner had to devise a way to grab attention in a TV Guide listing with just one or two lines. That’s how the term high concept originated. To capture an audience, that one sentence had to convey just how exciting, sexy, provocative, and entertaining the movie was going to be for them to watch.”

Because of the limited space a TV program was allocated in TV Guide, an exciting log line had to be created that would interest the reader, “hook them”, and get them to watch your TV program instead of one on another station. The program’s story had to be expressed using only its most exciting parts.

What is the difference between a logline and a high concept? It is best to think of a logline as a humdrum high concept, and a high concept as an exciting logline. Both are one sentence statements about the essence of your story.

Kosberg states that, “The essence of high concept is that it is both brief and provocative. It piques the imagination and promises that big things are going to happen out of an ordinary situation.” A high concept is not limited to any specific genre, but can be used to promote a comedy, drama, action/adventure, horror or fantasy project. It is meant to excite the audience, to tease them into wanting to see more. It is not so much a story design or writing tool as a marketing and selling gimmick.



message 11: by Aloha (new)

Aloha | 919 comments I did a search on the term "high concept" and Sean is correct. Under that definition, I think Tom's description of Hyperion as a "high concept" novel is off the mark. It may have been inspired by certain structure from past work, but it does not have a catchy idea.


message 12: by Aloha (new)

Aloha | 919 comments Some "high concept" ideas from work I know:

Blindness - What is everybody went blind from a virus?
Snake on a Plane - The whole concept is in the title, as a satirical play on the term "high concept."
Gulliver's Travels - A man became stranded on an island inhabited by little people.

Under that definition, I don't think you can describe Hyperion in one catchy sentence.


message 13: by Joe Informatico (new)

Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 775 comments Tony wrote: "posed as "The Canterbury Tales reworked as a sci-fi frame story," it might function as high concept? "

That's what I was thinking too: "Canterbury Tales IN SPACE!". But I also think, like what Sean said about Lost, that Hyperion's easily pitched as a high concept story, but probably wouldn't be executed as one. Just like Star Trek was famously pitched as "Wagon Train to the stars".


message 14: by A.E. (new)

A.E. Marling (AEMarling) | 48 comments "The Canterbury Tales in Space" is certainly high concept. I think Tom was just shooting with buckshot and didn't quite hit at the core of what he was thinking, that the style is alternative enough from standard storytelling to make people lose focus.


message 15: by Aloha (new)

Aloha | 919 comments That was why I was attracted to the series in the first place. I can forgive anything if I like the "high concept." But the story as a whole is not solid, doesn't flow well, and not solidly entertaining. Once the curtain is pulled off the wizard's cubby hole, the magic is gone.


message 16: by Ruth (tilltab) (new)

Ruth (tilltab) (till-tab) | 1203 comments Sean wrote: "Ruth wrote: "I disagree. I thought the term 'high concept' was used for things which ask one hypothetical question of a conceptual nature, so in Jurassic Park, the question would be 'what would happen if we brought back dinosaurs?'"

No, really, high concept just means a story that can be boiled down to a single, exciting sentence."


I guess my definition isn't exactly right, but I still think high concept is more than simply having a plot you can spell out in just a few words. I don't think 'snakes on a plane' really counts, because whilst it is easy to sum up, it doesn't really say anything all that provocative. When I heard the title, my first thought was 'that sounds like a dumb B movie to enjoy watching on dvd with some mates' rather than 'wow, that's a really interesting concept; tell me more'. I think something like 'Eternal Sunset of the Spotless Mind' works, because the concept can be simplified to a few sentences - If you had the ability to erase someone from your memory, would you do it? What would happen if you did? - I think this is the kind of idea that intrigues people yet is simple enough to grasp without having to explain all the ins and outs of the story in detail.


message 17: by John (new)

John Wiswell | 86 comments There seems to be a strong divide here between the two potential meanings of the phrase. Would anyone mind saying from whence they derive their believed definition? I wonder if folks who see it as meaning relation to complex plot or defying norms are interpreting the words or if they got it from common usage in a social circle.


message 18: by David Sven (new)

David Sven (Gorro) | 1570 comments Would this be a high concept thread! A thread about high concept. Or what if the literal meaning of high concept was brought into question in a high concept thread?


message 19: by Ruth (tilltab) (new)

Ruth (tilltab) (till-tab) | 1203 comments John wrote: "I wonder if folks who see it as meaning relation to complex plot or defying norms are interpreting the words or if they got it from common usage in a social circle. "

A little of both, plus things I've seen/read which seem to be classed as 'high concept'. I think high concept suggests a high focus on the concept as oppose, for example, to characters or story. From what I've read, these concepts are usually things to make people question and consider. From reading definitions online after my first post, it seems to be largely related to pitching movies, and thus an idea that seems original and catches the interest of the listener is more 'high concept' than one which simply summarises the gist of the story in very few words.


message 20: by kvon (new)

kvon | 554 comments I think I've been using the phrase all wrong too. Thanks for the correction.


message 21: by Charles (new)

Charles (CAndrews) | 60 comments OED definition: High-concept adj. (especially of a film or television plot) having a striking and easily communicable idea.

However, if I were to define the phrase (having not just looked it up), and I think this is Tom's meaning, it would be: a story written for the purpose of exploring a literary or philosophical concept.

Alternatively, we could be mistaking high-concept for highbrow: adj. often derogatory intellectual or rarefied in taste


message 22: by Ruth (tilltab) (last edited May 29, 2012 06:02AM) (new)

Ruth (tilltab) (till-tab) | 1203 comments Charles wrote: "
Alternatively, we could be mistaking high-concept for highbrow:"


Yes, I think that's probably more what Tom was meaning, since high-concept doesn't really fit Hyperion in any case as it seems to explore various concepts without a clear way to sum it up simply.


SporadicReviews.com (Kevin Bayer) (SporadicReviews) | 335 comments Agreed. I know I've been mistaking "High Concept" for that definition of "High Brow" (or something similar).

The definition given here of High Concept doesn't quite fit with what many of us seem to think it means. I think "Simple Concept" would be a better phrase for that definition, where some of the other examples given would better fit "High Concept."


message 24: by Keith (new)

Keith (Teleport-City) | 260 comments Here in our office, "high LEVEL" is what PR people and project managers use to BS their way through vague, undeveloped ideas and meetings. "Let's keep the conversation at a high level" is code for "I don't really want to think about details."

"High CONCEPT" always meant to me particularly complex, ambitious, and philosophical.

For the record, the day I use the phrases "high level" or "out of the box" is the day I admit complete and total spiritual and professional defeat.


SporadicReviews.com (Kevin Bayer) (SporadicReviews) | 335 comments Keith wrote:"High CONCEPT" always meant to me particularly complex, ambitious, and philosophical.

Yes! That's a perfect summary of how I think we all were using that term!


message 26: by Charles (new)

Charles | 248 comments My definition for "high concept" isn't "elevator pitch" (which was the thesis of the thread) but rather it's a story that revolves a premise/concept (as opposed to character or setting, etc.). For example, a lot of people loved The Matrix movie because of the concept--that there is a virtual world where anything is possible if we only realize it--and its many implications.


SporadicReviews.com (Kevin Bayer) (SporadicReviews) | 335 comments The book I just finished reading included "High Concept" in the Amazon description. Existence, by David Brin. Amazon says:

"Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence."

After reading the book, it fits with what most of us seem to agree we mean when we say "High Concept."

The blurb continues:

"Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”

Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity."



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The Reversal (other topics)
Blindness (other topics)
Gulliver's Travels (other topics)