Tuesday, November 12, 2013

High Concept in Middle Grade

Okay, confession time: while I’ve always been a huge lover of middle grade, for many years I never had that much interest in YA. I had nothing against it, of course. It just wasn’t what I was personally interested in reading. But a little over a year ago, my book club, which is usually dedicated to adult literature, decided to start a YA subset, and suddenly I was poring over YA bestsellers like Hunger Games, Divergent, The Fifth Wave, etc., etc. And I have to admit, I love them! Really love them. Yeah, I’m hooked.

Most of the books we end up reading in my YA book club seem to fall into the “high concept” category. I’ve heard “high concept” defined a number of ways, but it all seems to boil down to this: high concept is a story with a hook. Not a quiet, coming-of-age type story, but a story where the premise is key. It can usually be summed up in one sentence in which the often blockbuster nature of the story is evident. For example, I just finished reading the YA time-travel All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill. (Loved it!!) I can easily come up with a summary that conveys the intrigue of the plot in one sentence: Girl in 2013 tries to keep her best friend alive after an attempt on his life, not realizing that an older version of herself from the future is the one trying to kill him.

Reading all this YA lately has me comparing it to the world of middle grade, and I can’t help but notice that the stories often seem “bigger” in YA. I’ve heard many people in the industry describe the difference between middle grade and YA (besides the age of the protagonist) this way: middle grade is closer to home and more inwardly based. The protagonist usually faces conflict that has to do with their everyday lives, such as conflict with their parents, siblings, and friends or problems at school. In YA, on the other hand, external events typically play a much larger role in triggering the internal change experienced by the protagonist. The scope is larger. Often the main character is starting to step outside the world of his or her childhood, and conflicts and consequences are more substantial and wide-reaching.

So lately I’ve found myself wondering: does the “larger” nature of YA lend itself better to high-concept storylines? Certainly we see high concept in middle grade. Look at books like Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter. Nathan Bransford points out that even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is high concept: kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory.

Still, is it me, or does YA often seem a lot more "blockbuster-y" than middle grade? Of course, as I’ve confessed, I’m still pretty new to YA, and these are largely the musings of sleep-deprived mind after midnight. But I’m curious what others think. Does YA lend itself better to high concept than middle grade? And is that good or bad for the world of middle grade?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc


  1. I'm real shaky on the "high concept" idea -- except I was told I had one when I pitched my most recently sold book. So I guess it's where the premise of the story (in my case, a secret day of the week) gets everybody so excited, they don't care who the characters are or what the plot is -- they want to read the manuscript.

    Now, you could still totally wreck a high concept manuscript with lame characters and a cliched plot. But the premise is what hooks in the potential reader in the first place.

    Does that sound like a sort of definition?

    1. Absolutely. If the premise alone is enough to sell me on giving a book a try, I would call that high-concept.

    2. Great definition, Dianne!

  2. A few things:

    1) Cristin is a former co-author of mine over at YA Confidential, and though I have not read All Our Yesterdays (yet), I am very happy for her, so - yay! Congrats, Cristin!

    2) YA, just like MG, is a category (some argue it's also a genre, and I won't necessarily disagree, except to say it's a category first). There are YA books about EVERYTHING. Many of the most commercially successful are high concept, it's true, but many of my personal favorites are not.

    3) That said, I don't think your point is invalid. Can MG be high concept? Of course. Is YA a little better suited for such heavily commercial plot and premise driven works? Probably. It definitely has worked out that way so far.

    Anyway, I read a lot of YA, and while MG is also near to my heart, I probably know a little bit more about YA than MG. I think the big difference is about where we are in our lives during those stages. In the MG years, we are just beginning to assert our independence. We are changing, physically, and are first realizing that our lives actually have autonomy from those of our families. It's an exciting time, and one very rich for engendering certain kinds of stories, often high concept adventures grand in scale, but ... not always.

    In YA, that independence has almost always already been won, at least on some levels, if not all the way to the degree of adulthood. We're through with puberty, and while our brain chemistry may still be changing, we have far more freedom, of travel, of relationships, of what media we choose to consume. YA is all about firsts. First love, first car, first job, first time traveling alone ... and many others.

    I think both are very exciting categories to write in, but I don't think any of this makes you wrong. It's definitely an interesting question to ponder, and I don't know if there is a definitive answer.

    1. Again, some great definitions here, Matt. MG can be high concept too (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson), but there are definitely more stories in YA (cos of independence) that are "high concept." I think the term originates from movieland, so if your book becomes a movie, then it was probably deemed "high concept."

    2. I think you're probably right. The one line logline thing comes from screenwriting too.

  3. High concept is one of those weird things for me--I know it when I read it, but I can't really say definitively what it is. :-)

    But yeah, I suspect I've read more high concept in YA. It seems like those are stories that are plot driven, whereas the middle grade I love is character driven (and not so much high concept).

    Um...what was the question again? :-)

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  5. Thanks for this post, Dawn. I suppose the whole idea of the YA and MG thing is a bit of a construct. I think of MG as books that are fun for the younger YA crowd to read...as well. I'd hope they're fun for everyone! I've had readers consider the Young Inventors Guild books YA and MG and some folks say they're neither! A great book is a great book. In the UK, Harry Potter was first promoted with one cover to children and another cover to adult readers! I now understand 'high concept' but I do think creating all of these titles seem to be more attempts at defining and confining books to a single shelf.

  6. Really interesting post, Dawn! I am loving thinking about some of these questions.

  7. I think high-concept pops up quite a bit in MG fantasy and adventure stories. I think Storybound & Story's End are technically "high concept" because it's the idea that sells it first to readers.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone! It's been fun venturing into the world of YA and exploring the differences between it and middle grade.

    And Matt, how cool that you know Cristin! The next time you speak to her, please tell her how much I enjoyed her book.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!