Tag Archives: high concept stories

How to Make High Concept Stories Unpredictable

16 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

Dina Guidubaldi’s story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

It sometimes seems like the fabulists are taking over the literary world: George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Manuel Gonzales, and Amelia Gray, to name a few. When we talk about these writers’ stories, we tend to focus on the fantastic: on the slightly fantastic (something’s a bit amiss or weird) and incredibly fantastic (zombies at the workplace). But I wonder if that focus is misplaced. Maybe the fantastic elements of these stories simply reflect something about the culture and world they’re written within. From a craft and critical perspective, it might be better to focus on something else: many of these stories use high-concept story plots—plots that contain elements that make them easy to summarize, like, say, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Here’s one more writer to add to the fabulist canon: Dina Guidubaldi. Her collection How Gone We Got is as good as anything by the writers mentioned above, and her story “What I Wouldn’t Do” offers a great lesson in how to use a high concept plot and avoid the trap of it becoming predictable. You can read the story online at Superstition Review.

How the Story Works

When I use the term high concept, I’m not referring to any particular genre. The term simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title: CivilWarLand in Bad DeclineThe Faery HandbagJurassic Park, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The opposite of high concept is low concept, meaning stories that can’t be easily distilled because they’re about character or world development. They might have catchy titles (Freedom) but are still fairly difficult to summarize (Franzen’s thoughts about America); there just isn’t the same immediate recognition about what the story is about.

The problem with high concept stories is that the story may not be as interesting as its title. After the premise is introduced, the story is basically the same thing over and over again (Snakes on a Plane, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses). The trick, then, is finding a way to keep the conceit going in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Guidubaldi does in “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

The high concept plot is stated succinctly in the story’s first line: “I wanted to love you better so I bought you a city.”

The rest of the first paragraph establishes the tone of the story:

It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

At this point, many readers will have a pretty good idea where this story is headed. The relationship will either grow or it will end (the basic plot lines for all love stories). As the relationship grows or falls apart, the conceit of the story (the city built for the lover) will also grow or fall apart. Once we read those details that move in either direction, we’re going to think, either consciously or not, “Aha.” Then, we may get bored; we know what will happen next. Guidubaldi follows one of these paths but what she does so well is include details that leap out of the conceit and surprise us in some way.

Here is a good example:

When the narrator’s beloved begins to chafe at all that is being built for her and around her, the narrator says this:

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world.

Personally, I think that line is really funny. I laughed out loud when I read it, and the sheer humor of it surprised me, in part because it reflects an awareness in the narrator of what he’s doing. He’s aware of the story’s high concept and its metaphoric qualities.

In another moment, the fairy-tale nature of the story’s conceit (the city build for the woman) is lowered into the grit of real life:

All bundled up, we went out into the city in a sleigh led by horses that I’d had surgically implanted to be unicorns. The one on the left had developed an abscess around the horn and it smelled bad, so I switched you seats.

And, then, a few lines later: “The horse with the inflamed horn scratched it off on a tree and your answer got lost among the resultant blood and gauze.”

Finally, the characters are allowed to sound like real people and not elements that simply arrived with the conceit like the Fisher Price farmer that comes with the plastic barn. For instance, the narrator tries to paint koi to cover up the fungus that is growing on them, and this dialogue ensues:

Jesus, you said, layering thin slices of cucumber on your eyes as if you were a salad now, too. Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.

I stared at the tiny eyedropper, at the tainted fish, at my reflection in the murk. This is what I need to do, I said. The fish looked nervously skyward.

I suspect that plenty of real people, including, perhaps, the ones reading this, have spoken those lines or had those lines spoken to them. The conceit, in all of its fantastic absurdity, has been brought into the familiar realm of our real lives. As a result, the story continually makes the reader pause to laugh or cringe, and it’s those moments that make it succeed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add surprises to a high-concept story using “What I Wouldn’t Do” by Dina Guidubaldi as a model:

  1. Make the story and characters aware of the conceit. If a characters aren’t aware of the conceit, the reader may eventually become impatient with them. For instance, Manuel Gonzales has a story, “Life on Capra II,” about characters who are actually characters in a video game. At a certain point, one of them figures this out. If he didn’t, the story would be simply thin allegory, and we’d think, “Yeah, yeah, I get it” and thumb to the end to see how many pages are left. But when the characters gets it, too, then we wonder what will happen. So, make your characters aware of everything that you, the writer, are aware of. You can do this by simply rereading a passage that you’ve written and asking yourself, “What do I know?” Does your character know that, too? If not, how will that knowledge change how he or she feels or acts? In “What I Wouldn’t Do,” the narrator understands that the world he’s building is oppressive, and so his voice gains a kind of knowing irony.
  2. Lower the conceit into the grit of the real world. This is particularly important for sci-fi and fantasy novels. Think about the original Jurassic Park novel. These are freaking dinosaurs we’re talking about. If they escape their pens, why won’t they eat everyone in the world? The answer that Crichton invented is basic but important: the dinosaurs are on an island. (The latter movies are terrible because the dinosaurs reach the mainland and so the story becomes implausible.) Guidubaldi adds a basic biological detail to her unicorns: they get abscesses. So, take a look around your house or workplace: the places and bodies around you. Choose one or two details that you see and add them to your story, to a particular passage. What difference does it make?
  3. Bring the conceit into the realm of real human interactions. This is the same idea as the previous step, except your focusing on relationships and interactions. Take a look around you. How can you build a conversation or kind of conversation into your story. Guidubaldi does this when the narrator is making the woman feel especially claustrophobic. She says, “Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.” She’s expressing her irritation in the mundane language of the real-life routine of a relationship. In other words, she’s expressing what she feels without referring to the conceit around her. So, take a look at the dialogue you’ve written. Does it refer to the conceit (zombies, dinosaurs, theme park)? If so, can you remove the reference so that the dialogue only refers to the emotions and feelings at hand?

Good luck.

How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

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