Yesterday, I watched Part 2 to Diane Callahan’s three-part series on writing better YA fantasy (posted here on her YouTube channel). In the video, she claims that YA fantasies have vivid world building, strong narrative voices, and high concept premises. As that’s a lot to unpack, I decided this post will only deal with her assertion that YA fantasy novels have high concept premises.
So, what exactly is a high concept premise? According to Callahan, high concept premises are story premises that have (1) mass appeal, (2) dramatic stakes, (3) familiar elements that can be visualized, and (4) a twist on a familiar trope. The last three elements can be forged into a single, one-line statement, which in effect would constitute the premise of the novel. Callahan then presents us with five such examples of high concept fiction to illustrate what she means:
- The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book: “A boy with dyslexia and ADHD learns he’s the son of Poseidon and must find Zeus’ stolen thunderbolt to prevent war between gods.”
- Six of Crows: “Six criminals carry out a heist to steal an imprisoned scientist from a heavily guarded fortress.”
- These Broken Stars: “A luxury spaceliner crashes on a deserted island. The sole survivors are the daughter of the richest man in the universe and a young war hero. They must work together to cross the wild terrain in search of rescue.”
- One of Us Is Lying: “Five high school students walk into detention, and only four walk out alive. All of them have secrets they are trying to hide, and all are murder suspects.”
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: “A girl keeps a box of unsent love letters to her crushes, but when someone mails her letters, all those crushes confront her about her feelings for them.”
A strange thing about Callahan’s analysis is how almost all the examples, with the exception of Six of Crows, fall outside the subgenre YA fantasy. One is middle grade, one is science fiction, one is a mystery, and the last is a contemporary romance. This left me scratching my head, and I still don’t know why she choose to illustrate her point in this way. But even if I set that aside, I think there is an even bigger problem- namely, that only two of the five novels she discusses actually seem high concept. Sadly, Callahan doesn’t explain just what makes these novels high concept- not even by her own odd definition of the term.
So let me try.
It’s easy to see how Percy Jackson (in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief) finding out he’s a demigod is a fun premise. Not only does the character learn he’s special, he also enters the fantastic if familiar world of Greek Myth. That said, I wondered if the premise was all that different from, Harry, you’re a wizard? If a high concept is a part of a publishing trend, at what point does a high concept premise cease to be high concept premise? Shouldn’t uniqueness count for something? And does uniqueness really matter if the premise’s appeal to a mass audience is so obvious?
Of the remaining examples, the only other book that seems high concept is One of Us Is Lying. Sure, on the surface it’s just a lock-room mystery, but I immediately started wondering how a kid in after school detention could commit a murder, especially if there are three other witnesses present (Blackmail?). You can even observe a twist on a familiar theme: The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie. It’s not quite high concept, but close?
By contrast, the other three books seem run-of-the-mill. The premise of These Broken Stars seems like an 80s spoiled rich girl/ scrappy young man bickering lovers romance movie I’ve seen a million times. Whether or not the book is like that, I have no idea. All I can say is “Let the Schwartz be with you!”
Then there is Six of Crows, which, by its premise, seems like a typical team mission story. Based on the bland description Callahan gives, I can’t see what makes this particular premise high concept. A similar novel, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, is also a heist fantasy novel. Its high concept premise, however, lies in its world building as the story is set in a secondary world in which the fantasy big bad, someone like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, has won and the good guys have lost. Thus, Mistborn has a trope twist and a familiar (genre) element.
Finally, there is Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The novel’s use of a gimmick as framing structure for the book does make it interesting. It may be cliché too- I wouldn’t know since I’m not widely read when it comes to romance. That said, I immediately thought of Nicholas Sparks’ romance novel Message in a Bottle, which, while different, is similar in that it also uses a letter as a plot device. Thus, there is a familiar (genre) element in Jenny Han’s book, but is there a major trope twist?
Interestingly, when I consider which books felt high concept to me, I realized that the two I choose simply reflected my own reading biases. When I was a kid, I did nothing but read and re-read and then read again books of Greek and Norse myth. Even dry stuff like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I still own my yellowed copy). If the Percy Jackson books had been around when I was a middle grade student, I’m sure I’d have read them to death. Similarly, One of Us Is Lying’s appeal stems from my love of mystery and crime fiction.
I wondered then if the other three books are in fact also high concept, and if I just don’t get their appeal. It’s still an open question. All I can conclude is that there is nothing that will appeal to everyone. Furthermore, it’s difficult to see how any of the discussed books transcend genre. I can’t imagine science fiction readers rushing out to read These Broken Stars just on the premise alone. If the book is executed well- the romance is subordinated to the science fiction element- I can imagine word of mouth bringing it to a science fiction audience’s attention- that is if it’s a good science fiction novel. Otherwise, it just comes off as romance in a space setting. After reading reviews on Goodreads, my impression is that this is very much the case.
The final thing I gleaned from this exercise is that much of what people deem “high concept” is not all that unique. In fact, all five books have literary or film antecedents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jane Smiley in her wonderful book, Thirteen Ways at Looking at the Novel, observes that writers are continually influencing each other, not only across time but across oceans and cultures. Premises move from place to place, mind to mind, and they alter. I think writers interested in creating works of YA fantasies shouldn’t agonize if their books are not high concept- which requires books be premise driven, suited for a wide audience, unique, and immediately intriguing (see here). A high bar indeed! So, let go of such anxieties as books that truly fit that criteria are rare.
While a real high concept premise will get you noticed by agents, so will books that twist familiar genre specific tropes (most of which will have little interest to a general audience). And dramatic stakes will always be welcomed by readers- dramatic stakes seem to occur naturally whenever a book is written! And lovers of genre will always adore familiar elements. Indeed, the smartest thing a budding YA writer can do is read popular adult fiction and think, how can I twist this established premise so that it centers teenagers and their lives. After that, everything else will just come.