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?