High concept pitches (and a mug)

Film people—producers, agents, managers—come by our offices quite often and when they do, we all sit around the conference table and listen to them tell us what they’re looking for this season.  Lately, an interesting trend has surfaced.  In our last several meetings, a Hollywood person has told us that all they need is a title.  Often, they use Sh** My Dad Says or Go the F*** to Sleep as examples of titles that they can use to build a tv show or movie around.  The first time I heard it, I thought, “Well, dang, that’s taking the high concept thing in a tragic direction.”  I mean, it’s one thing to pitch someone the contents of a book by saying, “This story is Transformers meets Annie Hall,” but you’ll have to read the manuscript (or at least the coverage) to find out how that unholy pairing is possible.  It’s quite another to have the title be both the pitch and the content.

You might think I’m about to launch into a screed about  Hollywood’s ongoing jihad against our collective intellect, but you would be wrong.  The title-as-high-concept trend does intrigue me.  In fact, it has made me think about how much more entertaining query letters for books would be if, instead of a boring synopsis, authors included a succinct, pithy, immediately graspable description of their book.

Wikipedia tells us that “High concept narratives are typically characterised by an over-arching ‘what if?’ scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events.” I confess, I’m a sucker for “’what if?’ scenarios.”   If nothing else, it’s a fun parlor game to try to sum up your favorite books this way—e.g., “What if a sparkly vampire and a sullen high school girl fell in love?”

There’s also the Transformers meets Annie Hall approach, as mentioned above.

And, then there’s the title-as-high-concept. Snakes on a Plane anyone?

Applying any of these devices to commercial fiction is one thing but how about to literary fiction?  Are literary novels high-concept proof?  Can you guys send in your high-concept tag lines, either for your own work or published books that we’re all familiar with?  There’s a DGLM mug for the best high-concept pitch I get….

18 Responses to High concept pitches (and a mug)

  1. It’s not necessarily a book, but it was popular: Avatar, or as I like to think of it, “Dances with Aliens.”

  2. Dave’s response reminded me of a smilar one, same movie: Dances with Smurfs :-)

  3. Tamara says:

    That’s what I love about Better Book Titles (http://betterbooktitles.com/) – it does that. :-)

  4. Redleg says:

    My friend described one of my novels as, “zombie Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade.” My tagline would be, “A walking corpse vows to solve the mystery of his own murder.”

  5. Dale Basye says:

    “A man’s undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction to plump little cakes converge as he deep-dives into the treacherous quicksand of memory. It’s Inception meets Some Period Drama (one of the really successful ones).”
    — Remembrance of Things Past

    “An unstoppable urge pushes humanity to the edge as we discover something dark inside ourselves, forcing its way to the surface: changing everything.”
    — Everybody Poops

    “It’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies only without the zombies.”
    —Pride and Prejudice

    “This book has it all: excitement, romance, sex, hilarity, tears, and zygotes.”
    —The Dictionary

  6. Silver James says:

    I’m a genre writer, so no literary high concepts here, but from my own titles…

    Title: Season of the Witch (or X-Files investigates Narnia).

    Title: Shadow Dance (or Dances with Ghosts — why is Dances with Wolves so popular as a hook? LOL)

  7. High-concept literary fiction can be tricky. Can you imagine Elkin’s elevator pitch for Magic Kingdom (“a man devastated by the loss of his son raises money to bring a group of terminally ill children to Disneyland”) versus the actual book?

  8. My current work in progress is something I can only call an earnest endeavor to merge literary romantic fiction and steampunk.

    In broad terms: Jane Eyre meets Jules Verne with a side order of Frankenstein.

    Specifically: Orphaned teen with broken heart (literally) meets brooding, clock-making medical genius.


  9. Pamela says:

    What if a white woman, raised in the privileged south, collaborates with the town’s black maids to reveal the racist ways of her friends and neighbors in a shocking exposé?

    What if a young girl, who was murdered by a pedophile, watches from heaven as her family grieves and ultimately catches her killer?

    What if an old man reads a love story to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife about love lost and love recaptured, only for her to eventually remember the story is their own?

  10. RamseyH says:

    One of my favorite high-concept titles ever: The Hunt for Red October.

    You don’t have to know the first thing about the book – “hunt” tells us it’s suspenseful, “Red October” tells us we’re looking for some kind of ship/sub, and “Red” tells us it’s Cold War Russian. Love it.

  11. Melissa says:

    Oh, fun! Here’s my tag line:

    A young woman hiding her unplanned pregnancy deals with her failed love affairs by searching for her birth mother in hopes of coming to terms with being abandoned, only to find out her birth mother is pregnant as well.

  12. Partner says:

    The elephant’s gaze swivels from the seductively gracious equestrian to her husband, the evil head trainer. Suddenly, she spits out her lemonade and snips, “Can we please talk about the hunky veterinary student in the room?”

  13. Colin says:

    How about my current WIP?:

    A Teenage Alien in Victorian London.

  14. Larissa says:

    The novel I’m currently querying is a YA titled THAT SUCCS and my critique partner calls it “A coming-of-age succubus story.” :)

  15. MS says:

    What if the stepmother wasn’t really wicked at all?

    What if she was a widow fighting an uphill battle, trying to do the best for her family in an uncaring society, low on money, past her prime and burdened with an ungrateful, spoiled, disrespectful stepdaughter?

    (Miriam, if you happen to know Sharon Stone and Lindsey Lohan’s agents that would be great, lol!)

  16. Sharon says:

    This isn’t very high concept, but I could not resist this post.

    When a fashionable and self-absorbed young woman with a heart of gold (think Cher from Clueless) finds out that her father is going to be starring in a reality show, she’s ecstatic…that is until she learns that it will be on the road with his fellow truck drivers. Will this stop our heroine? No! She surreptitiously manages to get herself on the trip to some isolated part of the world. Let’s say Greenland. Or Maine! In order to get by, she’ll have to depend on her father, his crew, a tube of lipgloss, and a pair of red heels that she brings along(just in case). Who knows? She just might find a little romance on this adventure.

    Think Ice Road Truckers meets Private Benjamin meets Legally Blonde.

    Oh! And there’s an old dog, named Sam.


    ABC Family, are you reading this???

  17. Stephanie P says:

    The novel I’m querying:
    “Haunted by the burning of his native city, Smyrna, and the ruins of an extinguished pantheon, Vasili revisits the events and secrets that have shaped his life as Greece is besieged by the Second World War.”
    -Memories of Myrrh

  18. Dee Phelps says:

    How about, “THE DISAPPOINTMENT ROOM”? Imagine a woman so wicked and selfish that she affects the lives of eight generations of her family.

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