Writing terminology doesn’t always work for me. I lie. Writing terminology rarely works for me. Tell me I need a rising action and a black moment and my brain starts to develop a fuzz. Tell me I need tension and conflict and whatever’s in my belly starts to curdle. So I take these terms, these THINGS that are necessary to fiction, and I figure out what they mean and assign new names for them, the way my kids assigned words or phrases to things when they were little, words that made sense to them. To all of us. Sprinkle cheese. Fishy crackers. Pick me down.
RISING ACTION – I think of this as the character’s TO-DO LIST. What he or she has to do to get where her or she needs to go, in order of intensity and importance.
BLACK MOMENT – Yes, this is the worst thing that happens to the character. Seems pretty self-explanatory, but for me, the term “black moment” doesn’t resonate. I think of this ROCK BOTTOM.
TENSION – We know we need it but what does it mean? To me it means WORRY. I have to make the reader worry about the character even if she isn’t worried about herself.
CONFLICT – Oh, I hate conflict. I hate having it and I hate writing about it. It’s my nemesis, this conflict thing, so I think of it as a KNOT that needs untangling. First I tie the knot, then I work over time to untie it. If there’s no knot that needs untangling, why would a reader continue? If there’s a knot but no untangling over time? I wouldn’t like that either!
Perhaps this sounds complicated, but for me, having the words that make sense to me make it possible for me to write novels.
But, I think that in today’s publishing climate, the most difficult term to understand is HIGH CONCEPT. We know we need one, but what is it? Some say it’s being able to describe your book in one sentence. C’mon, anyone can do that but it doesn’t make it high concept. To have a high concept idea you have to know what that is. Then, you have to see if your story has one. If it doesn’t, you have to see if it can.
To me, high concept is THE MOMENT. What’s the moment in the book the rises to the top of your thoughts? It’s not a sweeping generalization, it’s as specific as can be. (The rest can float around it.) HIGH CONCEPT isn’t about the big picture, it’s about an moment that is active and understandable and vivid.
THE GLASS WIVES — A divorced mom takes in her ex-husband’s young widow and baby after he dies.
THE GOOD NEIGHBOR — A single mom invents a boyfriend and then is hired to be a relationship expert.
LEFT TO CHANCE — A woman returns to her hometown to photograph her dead best friend’s husband’s second wedding.
THE LAST BATHING BEAUTY — Just kidding! I’ve only begun writing this, as you know, so I can’t even go there! I cannot yet boil down the jumble of ideas to a single MOMENT.
Yes, these MOMENTS are oversimplified but you have to start somewhere. You have to have something to say that makes someone UNDERSTAND when really, they don’t have much information at all. There’s so much more to each of these stories, but at their core, this is what they’re about. These are the palpable moments that are the heartbeat of these stories, the purpose that runs through it. It’s not the theme of the story and it’s not the whole story — it’s a bit that sparks thought and imagination and curiosity. It’s what sets up the need for more. It needn’t be clever, it needs to be direct. It shouldn’t be vague, it has to be specific.
All of those other elements can and should be present in a pitch, back cover copy, a synopsis. But to pinpoint your high concept you need to hone in on A MOMENT. I also can think of it as a hook, but I tend to think of the hook as the first page or first scene (and we’ve talked about that, remember?).
Do all books have a high concept? Today, most commercial fiction does. It has to in order to compete with the gazillions of books out there.
So, what’s yours? Share your high concept for your book, books, or works-in-progress in the comments. Do you have a different though on what high concept is to you? Let us know.
As with any writing advice, your mileage may vary!
Last but not least, in honor of my trip to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt homestead and presidential library in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson River Valley (not the Hyde Park in Chicago or London), I’m kicking off May’s NEW DEAL FOR EDITING. In April, I critiqued a slurry of first-fifty-pages for $100. (And shh! Don’t tell anyone, but if you email and ask me to extend that old deal, I’m likely to do so, but that’s just between us.)
THE NEW DEAL for May: OPENING PAGES – 10 line-edited and critiqued pages – $40.
Just email me at amysuenathan at gmail dot com to be added to the editing queue so we can work on YOUR first scene or chapter and find out if you’ve set expectations and hooked your reader (me)!