On Story Ideas and “High Concept” vs “Non-High Concept”

When I read interviews by authors, especially children’s authors, I’m always intrigued by their answers to this question (or some variation of it): What were your favorite books growing up?

Usually these authors can rattle off a few titles that had profound impact on them as young writers. Some say they knew they wanted to be a writer after having read some of these books, that after reading The End and closing the cover, they felt a calling to write.

I never had that moment.

I’ve often wondered why, when I think back to my early reading years, my most loved books failed to clue me in on my desire to become a writer. I didn’t know it then. For as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with stories, but it took me years to realize I wanted to write them. I don’t think I viewed writing as something someone actually does as a profession, despite growing up with a mom who was aspiring to become a published author and signed her first book contract when I was in middle school.

Sure, I can rattle off a list of books that made an impact as a young reader and have stuck with me all these years: Charlotte’s Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Ramona series, A Wrinkle in Time, Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, The Giver, and Bridge to Terabithia to name just a few. But none of them made me think: “I want to do that. I want to write stories.”

The one story that played a role in uncovering the writer in me is one that was never a book at all. I don’t even know if the words were ever written down, but as a little girl I requested it night after night (at least that’s my recollection). It was a story invented by my mom about a little girl named Emma and the ghost that inhabited her attic. I can’t recall the specific plot points or the climax (if there was one), but I know now that I was drawn to Emma’s character, to the ghost (who provided comic relief as I recall), and what I can now pinpoint as the atmospheric quality of the story. Coincidental or not, character and atmosphere* are two aspects of novels that draw me in now as an adult reader, followed closely by theme. It follows, then, that my story ideas usually begin with a strong character or a rich atmosphere or a theme I want to explore, not so much plot (and therein lies my greatest obstacle as a writer).

*Atmosphere: (the feeling, emotion, or mood a writer conveys to a reader through the description of setting and/or objects and/or interiority of character)

Confession: I haven’t posted a writing update in a while because I’ve been unable to commit to one story. I’ve been story hopping. At first I told myself that there are worse problems than having too many ideas. I just needed to flesh out the ideas a little more and then I would decide which one I wanted to take the plunge with. The two story ideas that have been in the lead for most of the time are “high concept” ideas.

What does “high concept” even mean? It means that the premise of an idea can be summed up in one sentence and includes an attention grabbing hook that generates inherent appeal. It is pitch-driven whereas non-high concept ideas are execution driven. Execution driven works are more elusive on the core idea, more character-driven, and you have to invest yourself in them in order to appreciate them.

High-concept: A 14-year-old victim narrates her own murder and the events that lead to discovering her killer. (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Non-high concept: A 16-year-old boy narrates a couple of days following his expulsion from prep school. (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)

As for the two high concept ideas I’ve been playing around with: One is historical fiction, the other is contemporary. Both are Young Adult. Both offer suspense and intrigue and mystery. I have a pretty clear understanding of both protagonists and their supporting casts as well as the basic forward motion of both plots. I don’t know the endings to either one, but I almost prefer it that way. So these are the two stories that I’ve most been focusing on.

Except.

Except there’s this idea that I’ve had for a while now — one that is murkier in plot details, the “high concept” idea yet to be uncovered (if it’s there at all). What this idea has is a protagonist I can’t shake. I know a bit of her story, and she always comes to me cloaked in a nearly palpable atmospheric setting.

When I think of the two former story ideas, I know that they will work. It’s only (haha) a matter of asking the right questions, figuring out some key details, doing some research, and of course, sitting down to execute said ideas. And I’m excited by them enough to want to see them through.

But this third idea? It’s the one that sets my pulse racing, and even as I try to stay away from it, to categorize it under the “later” file, it creeps into my thoughts as I focus on one of the others.

And here’s where I get to the point of the post where I wonder, What is the point of this post? It’s this: During the month of October, I managed to write inches within two story ideas when I wanted to — and should have — written miles within one. And now NaNoWriMo is in full swing and here I sit, still unable to commit to one. Of course, if I dig a little deeper, fear is at the heart of my indecision. Fear of failure, fear of not meeting my arbitrary deadline, fear of “wasting” time on something that might never be anything more than a stack of papers and wasted ink, fear of discovering that my inner bully was right all along — that I really can’t do this.

I have to find a way to squash the fear.

What are you afraid of as a writer? Do you have an inner bully? Have you ever been pulled by multiple story ideas simultaneously? Do you find questions at the end of blog posts annoying?

Helpful links:

How to Develop a Story Idea into a Book

Brainstorming Your Story Ideas

Generating Story Ideas and Overcoming Writer’s Block

Neil Gaiman — Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

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4 thoughts on “On Story Ideas and “High Concept” vs “Non-High Concept”

  1. Maurice A. Barry says:

    You raise some big questions there but I’m particularly drawn to the idea that you opened with. I’ve lived a busy life and have tried to stuff as much experience into it as I can and, truly, I can state that there’s been no one single overriding influence, whether positive or negative. It seems that the values and directions are, at least in my case, the sum total of a very large number of factors which have been affirmed quite a few times. That said, I can easily name my biggest inner bully/demon: Procrastination! In a busy life it’s easy to duck the jobs I don’t WANT to do by substituting one of the many ones I’d rather do. Not a good long term strategy I assure you 🙂 It’s something I have to come to terms with each and every day.

  2. jenvanhut says:

    Plot. I struggle with this also and think that is why I primarily write poetry and nonfiction. I think comparison paralyzed me and also a drive for excellence. If I’m not sure I can do something with excellence, I often don’t try. I love how your most remembered stories are from your mother. It reminds that even though I have competing desires I want to be Wades favorite storyteller most of all. Thanks for sharing so much of your process!

  3. belindambrock says:

    You described my dilemma in confronting my notebook ( and notes on various scraps of paper) of story ideas: fear and indecision. It felt good, as it always does, to know I’m not alone, but I have no real good solution for either of us. thanks, Lara.

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