Monday, July 27, 2009

Got High Concept?

High Concept. These were the buzz words at this year's RWA conference, with at least two workshops dedicated to the topic. High Concept taglines have long been a screenwriting technique used to define and sell scipts to Hollywood and beyond. And since novelists have long used screenwriting techniques...

"So what's your story about?"

This is the first question every person asks when they find out you've written a novel. It's also the first question a literary agent or editor will ask during a pitch session. Okay, so they may not come right out and ask it, but since the purpose of a pitch is to talk up your story, the implied question is pretty obvious.

The problem with pitching, and often querying, is the tendency to ramble. It's easy to do- you have five minutes (or one page, if you're querying) to tell the person sitting in front of you all about the novel that you've poured blood, sweat, and tears into- and you don't want to leave a thing out. That's when things go from bad to worse. That's when you start to ramble; that's when the agent's/editor's eyes glaze over.

Think about how many pitches an agent/editor has to sit through at any given conference, or how many queries they receive on any given day. My eyes would glaze over, too. A high concept tagline takes the whole of your story's plot, and trims it down to it's most vital being- all in one sentence. Yep, one sentence.

Hollywood screenwriter, Blake Snyder dedicates the entire first chapter of his beloved screenwriting technique book, Save The Cat, to the importance of having a great tagline. He offers a few up as examples:

A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend - Pretty Woman

A newly married couple must spend Christmas day at each of their four divorced parent's homes - 4 Christmases

According to Mr. Sydner, a brilliant tagline contains four important aspects: 1) irony 2) a mental picture 3) audience 4) an attention grabbing title. The irony part piqued my interest, because it is often the "off center" plot lines that grab my attention in the first place- whether it be in a movie trailer or on a book jacket.

Multi published author, Lori Wilde (whose workshop I attended at RWA) offers another key component of the high concept tagline: make it universal. One of the main reasons we are drawn into a novel or movie is that we recognize something about the character's plight that we can relate to.

Ms. Wilde shows the universal theme of spousal betrayal in this high concept tagline from the movie Double Jeopardy: When a young wife discovers the husband she's convicted of murdering isn't dead, she escapes custody to track him down and kill him.

In one sentence, a high concept tagline will not only answer the question "so what's your story about?", it will keep you on track throughout the writing process. I've heard from many authors who tack their taglines to their computer screens to use as a tow-rope so their story doesn't drift too far away from the original idea as they go along. I'm a plotter, so this idea appeals to my sense of structure. But I can see how the "tagline as reminder" approach could be advantageous to even the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, if for nothing else then to make you aware of each new path your story has taken.

Although I've written the meat of a query for my current WIP (I always write what I think of as cover copy that evolves as my novel does), I've never honed it down to one sentence. Mostly because I'm chicken. I'll put some thought into it tonight, and post tomorrow.

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