Monday 8 October 2012

High on Concept, Low in Execution

Eoin Colfer's famous
pitch for Artemis
Fowl: 'Die Hard
with fairies'.
By Candy Gourlay

High Concept books are easy to sell. They offer something unique before you’ve even opened the cover. MORE

This was how our Jo defined High Concept in her brilliant Concept, Concept, Concept post. Jo also very kindly wrote about High Concept from the point of view of a reader here, in which she revealed:

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 ... Great concept, terrible book. MORE

I was mulling this over the other day while subjecting myself to an afternoon of wall-to-wall Disney Channel in the name of mother-daughter relations.

The programmes were all high concept. Teen BFFs who get dream jobs as background dancers on a TV show, a school for child prodigies, teenagers looking after an unexpected baby sister, the Cinderella story - but with a  talented hip-hop musician in the title role. You could practically hear the writers pitching these ideas.

But with all these great ideas, why did it feel like there was something missing?

Well a spark only stays brilliant if you can keep it shining.

Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) - film director of the fifties and sixties - explains in his book On Film Making that while the ignition of an idea is involuntary, what follows to bring it to fruition is wholly dependent on effort and discipline.

On the one hand, you will need patience and humility to wait for the idea to incubate to its full potential. On the other, you will need skill to turn it into reality.

The proficient hack seizes too soon an idea that expertly renders immature and superficial ideas. The inspired amateur has a brilliant concept that dies through incompetence of expression.

The great ideas will come but for great ideas to stay great when turned into reality, Mackendrick prescribed practice: 'Lots and lots of practice'.

Only when technique becomes 'almost a reflex', and good writing automatic is the imagination 'left free to supply continuous energy ... the energy that fuels inspiration.'

So like in many things, the idea might be the magic spark, but the only thing that will make it reach its full potential is honesty and plain hard work.


  1. Brilliantly timely post, Candy. I've just come up with a glorious high concept - all I need now is to find a decent story!

    1. Thanks - but gee, you were fast on the comment, Jeannette - i was still fixing the typos!

  2. Fantastic post Candy, this is a post I will be sharing with my students to remind them about the hard work ;-) Really useful, thank you

  3. Spot on! Great post, Candy, and so pertinent in this time of high concept stories.

  4. I now have yet another book on my Christmas wish list. You've also triggered some thinking that links this with Steve Hartley's brilliant workshop on character motivation. I feel a blog post coming on but I MUST resist, there's a book to be finished first.

  5. High concept ideas can be very brittle, and they're especially hard to make into a good series. For me, the secret is quickly building up a cast of strong characters - you can then start leaning on them instead of the concept to keep everything moving. Artemis Fowl might have started off as Die Hard with Fairies, but that's not the reason my daughters keep reading and rereading them.

  6. I think 'Die Hard with Fairies' is one of my favourite pitches of all time. It made me want to read the book. And I kept reading because the writing is excellent. So i would agree, the concept draws you in but you need a reason to keep reading.


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