What exactly is a 'high concept' novel?
I was asked last week what a ‘high concept’ novel actually is. My thriller, Liberation Square, was published in April and gained quite a lot of attention because of the unfamiliar world in which it’s set: a Soviet-occupied London with a wall down the middle, separating the Communist block from the American-occupied democratic sector.
Anyway, after a bit of drumming my fingers on the table, I decided that a high concept is a single sentence about the book that says nothing about the storyline but makes someone want to buy it.
So in the case of Liberation Square, it’s the division of Britain into Soviet and democratic regions. The political murder mystery at the heart of the story comes after that.
There are essentially two types of high-concept novel: Setting and Form.
Setting includes the alternative history sub-genre. Robert Harris’s Nazi-Britain Fatherland, is perhaps the best known, but then Noel Coward wrote a Nazi-Britain play way back in 1946.
This history sub-genre extends through The Handmaid’s Tale and even to Daphne Du Maurier’s 1972 novel Rule Britannia, in which Britain leaves the EU.
Or you could try something such as Susanna Clarke’s fine Jonathan Strange and Mr Norris, in which magic is real and practical in nineteenth-century England.
"High concept is a single sentence about the book that says nothing about the storyline but makes someone want to buy it."
Robinson Crusoe was high-concept in its time – a man stuck alone on an island with just his thoughts, until someone else appears - although we’re quite used to such plots now.
Then there’s concept in form: Laura Barnett’s recent The Versions of Us gives alternative endings to the same story. It’s high-concept - if not a new one: think Sliding Doors or The French Lieutenant’s Woman. You could say that One Day, the hit romantic black comedy from David Nicholls, is high concept, giving snapshots of one couple on the same day each year.
They’re all good examples, all sold well. And do you see something they all have in common? At no point have I mentioned any of the book's storylines, but even so - there were probably one or two that you thought you might like to read.
So how do you find your own high concept? Well, the best way is to read others and be inspired to find your own take or spin.
"Conduct research as if you’re writing a historical novel or anything set in a world you don’t naturally inhabit."
If you like high concept settings, you might read Fatherland and think to yourself: ‘Yes, but what if the War was still ongoing in the 1960s? What would happen then?’ And the answer would be: nuclear war and British government stuck in an underground bunker. So perhaps your novel will have a killer on the loose down there. Or two people attempting to maintain an affair as their spouses watch. Or someone desperate to put on a comedy show to keep up spirits...
The main thing is the storyline has to be a product of the concept setting as much as possible.
You also need to consider how the concept affects character. What attracted me to writing about a Communist autocratic Britain is what that does to people’s behaviour and psychology: it makes people suspicious, paranoid, ready to leap to the wrong conclusion. It’s ripe territory for a thriller writer.
When you have your concept you need to do your research just as if you’re writing a historical novel or anything set in a world you don’t naturally inhabit. I spent a lot of time reading about Eastern Europe, watching films from the era, and talking to people who had lived in East Berlin. High concepts take more work than low-concepts because they’re ‘strange’ for the writer as well as the reader.
"The storyline has to be a product of the concept setting as much as possible."
This rule of matching the story to the concept is weaker if you’re going for a high-concept format, i.e. multiple possible endings, but still you want to exploit your concept as much as possible. So you want endings as divergent as is plausible within the context of the story. Again the secret is to read as many examples within that genre as you can - because whatever you come up with, someone else has written it before. So read theirs. Read related books too. And steal as many ideas as you can. It’s the way to get better.
Gareth Rubin is the author of Liberation Square. It was published by Penguin in hardback in April and in paperback on 22 August. It was selected as one of the Telegraph’s best thrillers of the year, described as ‘far more than an intellectual exercise – it is a gripping story, with heart’.