5 Ingredients for Crafting a Big Book

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This workshop was given by Virna DePaul during RWA’s 2010 conference.  So what’s a high concept novel?  It’s one where the risks are high (think end of the world), and which can be summed up in one sentence.  Think ‘bomb on a bus’ (Speed) or ‘dealing with in-laws’ (Meet the Parents).  Ms. DePaul discusses the 5 qualities every high-concept novel needs:

  • It Should be Relatable

Your reader should be able to identify with the theme of the story or with the characters.  Maybe it’s about something we have all experienced (like divorce, or an affair), or something we’d like to experience (like love at first sight, or true love).

  • It Should be Recognizable

It should relate to a current trend (like steampunk), or something that hits a nerve in society  (like a post-apocalyptic world).

  • It Should Have a Twist

There should be some twist that makes your story different.  Think Sixth Sense.   

  • It Should be Layered

This goes to your worldbuilding.  Make sure your world is rich in depth.  What are the politics of your world?  What are its rules? 

  • It Should be Expandable

Is your story series-worthy, that is, does it have potential to be expanded into a series?

So what do you think?  What other qualities should a high-concept novel have?  Do you have a favorite high-concept novel that you just can’t stop re-reading?

Next week I’ll be discussing some of the things I’ve learned about fostering your writing career. 



4 thoughts on “5 Ingredients for Crafting a Big Book

    Katalina Leon said:
    October 22, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Wonderful post Rosalie.
    XXOO Kat

    claudia alexander said:
    October 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I saw this when it was originally posted online at the RWA national site, and have been pondering it ever since. I think my idea of a high concept book is different from what is discussed here. And, in fact, to the degree that these 5 points become a ‘formula’ or template, to that degree, readers will be turned off. Readers are pretty good at seeing into the template.

    To me, high concept books are so well done that they have a certain timeless quality, and it is only the vehicle that fits into a certain timeframe. Take ‘Speed’ – that’s a movie that will become dated and be a symbol of only a certain point in our culture. It was ‘popular.’ Whereas Lord of the Rings is a classic – a high concept book into which readers of differing generations have superimposed all sort of interpretations.

    Other favorite high concept books:
    1. Any Jane Austen, but lets take Pride and Prejudice
    2. Connie Willis – The Doomsday Book (about the black plaque)
    3. JK Rowling – Harry Potter
    4. James Elroy – LA Confidential

    when I look at these books, what makes them stand out is (a) the world-building. You can read them in any age, and have the visceral experience of being in the world that is being written about. That immersive experience is part of what makes a great Big Book. (b) timeless themes, not trends. (c) not twists (cheap gotchas) but embedded story questions that use the plot in unexpected ways. Narrative misdirection. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the way the 6th book ended wasn’t just thrown in there to create a tear-jerking end, it contributed to the whole story question in a way that illuminated the story question.

    The only thing on the list that I agree with is ‘layerable.’ But it’s clear that I am not talking about the same sort of concept! LOL

      rosalielario responded:
      October 22, 2010 at 11:27 am

      Claudia, I think it’s impossible to try to assign specific qualities to great books. Sure, many of them might have some or all of these qualities, but does every high concept book need them? Probably not. To me, a high-concept novel or series is monumental in some way. It has themes that resonate in our culture. A prime example is the Harry Potter series, especially toward the end of the series when we learn that things aren’t always what they seem (Severus Snape). This series had so many complex layers, and for that reason it’s truly memorable.

        claudia alexander said:
        October 25, 2010 at 9:10 am

        (smiles) – so it sounds like you don’t agree either, with Verna DePaul’s thesis that there are 5 components to a truly big book!

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