Saturday, 1 September 2012

Concept, concept, concept - A marketing dream, a reader's minefield

Concept in fiction has always been the Thing To Do, and recent children's book offerings are no different.

Boy finds out he's a wizard.
Young girl finds out she can read characters out of books.
Girl meets vampire.
Girl then meets werewolf.
Girl battles against other vampires with help of her vampire and werewolves, enters into an abusive relationship and nearly sacrifices herself in the process.

You get the idea.

Apologies - I seem to have burned every copy of Twilight in my house... Weird.

But these are all fantasy books (apologies to anyone still waiting for their letter from Hogwarts), and so a high-concept idea is both expected and necessary, and part of enjoying a good fantasy is that you accept the concept for what it is and read on. These stories demand a concept.

What is somewhat disturbing is the recent proliferation of high-concept in realistic fiction. I recently read a book I had been looking forward to for ages, only to find that it had obviously been published and sold based on its concept alone - a combination of the writing and editing made the book unreadable. Great concept, terrible book. I won't name names here, but in my mind, countless recent books fall into this category. Sometimes the concept has failed by page ten, sometimes it's only when you get to the halfway point that it starts to flag.

Code Name Verity and Room - two examples of great concepts that create great books

Forcing a high concept idea onto a good story has got to be the easiest way to ruin it. Don't get me wrong - a good concept can take a story from alright to fantastic in zero to sixty. Take Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, for example. Concept: girl has agreed to write down everything she knows about the British Intelligence effort after being captured in Nazi-occupied France. The majority of the book is written from her perspective as she is handed piece of paper after piece of paper to write it down on. Difficult to pull off, perhaps, but in this case it's handled with incredible skill, and personally I didn't question it once. Recent successes in publishing for adults Room by Emma Donoghue (mother and son who live their lives within the confines of a locked room) and Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (woman whose memory resets every time she falls asleep) are other good examples.

The trouble comes when a high concept isn't necessary. If it isn't necessary, then all it does is force a story to behave. It locks everything within tramlines, cutting off any ability to wander, explore and, ultimately, amaze. You know where the book is going, because there is only one place it could ever go - the other end of the line. No disruptions, no surprises. Concepts are only good when they allow a story to be told that couldn't be otherwise. Code Name Verity wouldn't work if the reader was allowed to see everything - it only works if we are forced to look through the window provided to us by the concept. Same goes for Room and Before I Go To Sleep.

Melvin Burgess, Phil Earle, Keith Gray and Dave Cousins - no concept necessary!

So what's wrong with a straightforwardly-told story, if that's all the story needs? Why does everything need to have its concept? It might sell one book, but it won't have people coming back for books two, three and four. I'm not sure if the trend is one carried by writers or publishers, but the best books I've read in the last couple of years have been low-tech - no high concept, no story being forced to stay within the tramlines.

Stories should allow the reader to explore - how can they do that if they aren't exploring anything themselves?


12 comments:

  1. Great post. The trouble is that, these days, high concept attracts publisher interest because it's easier to do the two sentence pitch to a publisher/agent if you have a flashy concept. None of my books have high concepts...I think!

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  2. Thanks Joe! I agree - sometimes it feels like everything is so concept-centric that it becomes the dominating factor, whereas I'd much prefer to read a really well-written, good story!

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  3. Fantastic post Jo and something I agree with totally. Thank you for putting it out there!

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    1. Thanks! Totally gutting when you pick something up and think "this sounds good" and then that's all it is - something that sounds good...

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  4. Great post, Jo. I think high concept books (like the films that spawned this trend) work very well when the concept is almost beside the point. The Truman Show springs to mind...so many ideas, so much integrity and inventiveness, filmed and performed so expertly...who cares that the concept was so high that, like Truman's world, it could be seen from space. Like your "no-concept" choices, too!

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    1. Thanks Jane! You're right - The Truman Show is one of the best high-concept films I've seen, because you forget the concept almost immediately, because it's not what is important. Wish I'd thought of that one...!

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  5. Well, I've done high concept and I agree it's very hard work making it stretch across a whole book (but kind of fun if you can pull it off). So now I'm down to, ooh, medium concept I'd say.

    I have to admit that when I see one of those high concept YA books where THE ONE GROUP have to battle THE OTHER GROUP for control of THE DYSTOPIAN FUTURE PLACE I lose interest even before I read the first page! I must have high concept lag or something.

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    1. Yes, those books are starting to get a little old - I wonder if an idea is still thought of as High Concept if it is an old and much-published one? For example, I'm sure "Girl falls in love with vampire" was still High Concept when Twilight was first published - would it still be High Concept if I were to write one now?

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  6. Fantastic post and I agree when done well it is SO good but it has to be done carefully.

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    1. Thanks! I am curious how much people think about the concept as they're writing, or if it really just comes in at the planning stage?

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  7. Brilliant Jo, really reassuring and puts high concept into perspective for me. Thank you.

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