Some terms are important for writers to understand, but difficult to distinguish. Here are some that are related, but refer to different aspects of a story.
Plot: the sequence of events in a work of fiction.
Plot refers to how the events in a story are related, and how the characters are affected by them. Eventually the events result in a change in the character’s outlook or circumstances, and the conflicts encountered along the way are resolved.
Theme: the main point of a work of literature.
This is sometimes confused with the plot. Both are essential elements, but a theme refers to the idea or concept behind the story rather than the actions that occur. Most stories have more than one theme involved, such as love, greed, and jealousy, and themes can often be expressed as a conflict between two concepts or ideas—for example, good vs. evil.
High Concept: an idea that is so compelling that it will appeal to a large group of people based solely on a pitch of a few words or a couple of sentences.
The appeal of a “high concept” story is in its premise. It should be something people can relate to, but must feel like a new idea. Often it is a story line that’s been told before, but has a twist or hook that gives it a strong commercial appeal. Simply being unique doesn’t qualify; some things are unique but wouldn’t interest a large audience.
When agents ask what a story is about, they are probably hoping to hear the “high concept” pitch. If your story fits their idea of high concept, it may increase your chances of gaining representation and eventual publication.
EDIT AUGUST 8, 2011: Agent Rachelle Gardner shares her view of high concept on her blog today.
What stories would you classify as “high concept?” If you are a writer, can you describe your story’s main theme and plot in a few sentences?