The Fatal Flaw of High Concept Stories

This past weekend, I read Divergent. It was at the recommendation of a friend, because I wasn’t impressed with the movie. Upon reading, I was pleasantly surprised by Veronica Roth’s writing style and I found the world-building smoother than in the movie. But something bothered me about it, as has bothered me about the last few books I’ve read – a high concept that never delivers on its potential.

High concept fiction is all the rage right now and I blame Lost. People older than me could blame Twin Peaks, but I believe Lost is what brought deep mythology and perpetual puzzles to a mainstream audience. Everyone is still clamoring to copy that formula. Much like the abstract era or the postmodern era or the neoclassical era, mainstream art is now in the M. Night Shamalyan Plot Twist era. Everyone wants to read or watch stories which promise original starting concepts, twist endings, huge cliffhangers, and sudden deaths.

Often, such shocking revelations and bizarre world-building relies on mystery. Mystery isn’t new – Agatha Christie and other writers clamped onto human curiosity long ago. But instead of mystery being its own niche, mystery has now infected all genres to outrageous degrees. Who is the killer? Is it all a dream? Is he a clone? What is the monster? Why did the world end? Does this book actually take place in the past?

I like intrigue, but not the way most writers handle it. Lost itself failed on its own formula. For many series-long questions, there was no payout. There rarely can be. If you open up huge questions that have everyone speculating for YEARS, then the actual canonical answer will probably disappoint. People will say “I wish it ended like that guy on that forum said it would” or “*my* answer makes way more sense!” And that’s if you get an answer at all – half the time, high concept only works with smoke and mirrors, where they omit answers “on purpose” in order to cover up plot holes.

I’m not saying all threads must be tightened. Ambiguity can be good. But Cobb’s top spinning at the end of Inception is only fine because “Is this all a dream?” wasn’t a question you asked yourself for the entire movie. Instead, the damning question bad high concept stories pose is “What does it all mean?” That is a tremendous question that summarizes a whole novel – it should not come down to one twist.

What does this have to do with Divergent? Well, the characters are fine and there are no particularly burning questions propelling the reader through the novel. It’s not The Maze Runner, which works entirely off the manipulation of “What the heck is going on? I have to keep reading to find out!” So for that, Divergent is barely guilty of the high concept sins I’ve spoken about. But it still leaves its world so thinly sketched that the reader is left asking many questions about the origins and the villain’s motivation. And of course, those answers are promised in the sequels.

I…don’t like this. Basically, the only reason I’m reading the sequel is to get some more clarity. I want to find out if Veronica Roth has new ideas to bring to the universe she’s written. I don’t really care enough about Tris and her friends. I don’t really care about the message of the book. Divergent, like so many others, is nothing more than a carrot hanging at the end of a treadmill. From a marketing point of view, I guess it works. I’m still reading her book. But if I get my answers in book 2, who knows if I’ll bother reading book 3? And I certainly won’t bother recommending this series to friends as it currently stands.

And this wouldn’t be so bad if such stories truly used mind-blowing revelations that change how you see the world. Gone Girl is a rare and fantastic example of one that does because the twist was just the beginning. The twist was used as an artistic tool to cleverly manipulate the reader into making fun of themselves, or to manipulate the reader into realizing their own prejudices. Yes, I plowed through the first 100 pages looking for an answer. And once I got there, I kept reading because the answer was so interesting.

Don’t use mystery to bait and switch your readers, my friends. It will leave a bad taste in their mouths. You can be ambiguous and you can plant seeds for future installments, but neither of these things should be the biggest, most crucial thread of the entire book. Unless you’re doing postmodernism, ambiguity should not be the point of your book. There is nothing more unsatisfying to me than huge questions that are answered with a handwave – or never answered at all.

Especially when that question is “Why is this happening?”

What do you think, folks? Have you ever been let down when a story failed to work on concept alone? Or do you think overwhelming ambiguity and/or unexpected plot twists are usually a good thing?

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11 thoughts on “The Fatal Flaw of High Concept Stories

  1. Yah, that high concept stuff is really trendy. I can’t get into that too much.

    I will say this… I did really enjoy the second book of the Divergent series, but you won’t get much answered, just more questions. I guess that’s a great well to sell more books…

    • I keep getting drawn into the high concept stuff because I like it on premise, but it’s always so dissapointing for the reasons I stated. So many books start with interesting questions that are rarely met with interesting answers. They either fall back on cliches, they don’t mesh with the established universe, or they use huge plotholes.

      Bah. I’m still probably going to keep reading because the movie looks interesting. I do like Tris and Four’s relationship – Divergent has one of the better YA romances out there, although I enjoy it more in the movies than I do in the books. But you’re totally right – nowadays I think publishers just encourage open-endedness to sell more books. And by the time you’re three books deep with questions, not many answers are going to be good enough to satisfy the reader.

  2. I haven’t read or seen ‘Divergent’, but I watched the entire series of ‘Lost.’ What you said here is very true of that show: “they omit answers ‘on purpose’ in order to cover up plot holes.” There were some episodes that showed something monumental happening (like a couple being buried alive), and then no follow-up was given. Very frustrating. But I guess I still liked the show and characters enough to keep watching.

    • I did enjoy Lost and can’t speak too poorly of it. As you said, it did have good characters to support itself and keep viewers interested. Unfortunately, knock offs are rarely as good as the original. A lot of people remember Lost for premise alone, like premise was it’s secret magic. Nah, the magic was the combination of good production value with something no one had ever seen before. At the time, Lost was extremely original.

      I’m more interested in seeing a story with new stuff to say than in one that tricks me into reading about worn territory.

  3. I think the concept of telling an actual story is getting lost in cliffhangers and how much damage can we do to the characters to get reader reaction/ “feels”.

    • I agree with this so much. And I blame Steven Moffat for some of that! (I kid…slightly). The popular mode of storytelling these days is “let’s put this poor character through the worst suffering imaginable and maybe we’ll kill them at the end too.” Nah. I want to see characters who actually succeed in their goals. There’s a place for stories like Gone Girl where the characters do not succeed, but it has to be executed well. I don’t want “oh, I’ll kill off the main character at the end for some dumb contrived reason JUST because they won’t be expecting that!”

  4. Yes I can see what you mean. It’s relatively easy to come up with an ‘interesting idea’ … but much harder to create a convincing and satisfying resolution.

    Also putting too much store in a plot twist is dangerous – again, twists are easy to come up with, but writing a good one depends on achieving the crucial balance between one that’s credible and fits the plot, makes perfect sense in retrospect (so the clues were there and it was possible to fit them together), but wasn’t so obvious that most people wouldn’t already have worked it out. And I think that’s so hard for a writer simply because they already know what’s happening, so how can they step back and judge it objectively?

    I was disappointed by Before I Go to Sleep (the book – haven’t seen the movie) partly for this reason. To me, the resolution had no credibility, and that spoiled what had been an interesting idea (though actually there were other things I didn’t like about the book as well).

    • Lack of credibility is probably the biggest problem I have with these twists. You’re totally right – a good twist has to be planted subtly. It has to be earned. The ending of Edge of Tomorrow bummed me out so bad because it wasn’t earned. It wasn’t really a twist, but it still didn’t mesh with the established rules of their universe.

      I also really hate stories that introduce a high concept to draw you in and then never explain it. The Forgotten, Premonition, The Leftovers. “What if this crazy thing happened? We’re gonna draw you in with that but never explain it because we’d rather focus on everything boring. And halfway through the series, when the audience demands answers, we’re gonna pull them out our butt and no one will be satisfied!”

  5. It is a great marketing strategy for an author, but if it’s not executed to the reader’s liking, the next series could fail. It’s a risk but if done right can reap many benefits. I enjoy reading these books but if it has too many plot holes to the point where nothing makes sense and I’m just working too hard to understand, I usually put the book down. I’m here to read a story not work to understand the moral/twists.

    I remember watching Saw and loved the first two plot twists but after that, they really lost me and I just had no interest anymore.

  6. Personally, I just consider it lazy writing. Much like most ‘conspiracy’ movies. “If I spend a bunch of time hinting at things going on in the background, I never have to develop an actual plot, or you know, decide what’s going on the background.”

    I have two counterpoints to offer: the first being Japanimation, which overwhelmingly uses the concept of Chinese minimalism in story-telling. If you look at any Chinese water-color, you’ll find a sharply-defined subject, surrounded by a background which gradually fades from view (to be filled in by the viewer’s imagination). The Japanese often use a similar technique in story-telling, with stories that seem to drift off at the point of an intermission. But the stories UP TO THAT POINT are clear and enthralling.

    My second counter is Babylon 5. If you’ve ever watched that show all the way through, you know that it was FULL of intrigue–it was very rarely just “this week on Babylon 5”. There was almost always something going on behind the scenes, and often something going on behind THAT. But it wasn’t just vague hints–viewers were able to understand the forces which were motivating the conflict, because the writers had fully realized them BEFORE they set about writing, filming and broadcasting the episodes.

    IMNSHO

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