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License my Roving Hands and Let Them Go (or, High Concept and Low Concept) · 11:07pm March 30th

A while ago, Fimfic user Oroboro—the one person whose description I had to edit in the Bronycon blogs, since my editors told me that I came off as Too Horny—hosted the third Sunset Shimmer contest in this very website. It was quite an event, and I wasn’t part of the judging panel, because Oroboro told me I came off as Too Horny (and then winked at me). I’m telling you about this because—listen.

This event was the single most interesting contest this website has ever seen. Not just because it produced good fanfiction, but because it forced the contestants to write interesting stories

So jumping off from that, here’s a thesis:

The day you write the best story you’ve ever written, nobody will fucking read it, unless you lie to them.

And jumping off from that, here’s a blog:

1. How Oroboro Played the Long Game

I said that Oroboro hosted the third Sunset Shimmer contest (and, supposedly, the last). So which were the other two?

So all of these contests were about shipping, about romantic stories, and they all were about Sunset Shimmer. The first one was about Sunset Shimmer starting a relationship. That was the prompt, the idea: at the start of every story, Sunset is single; by the end, she has a lover.

The second contest was then about Sunset Shimmer having a relationship. This is a bit harder than writing about finding love, because I mean. If the story’s about getting a lover,  that’s your entire conflict right there—characters aren’t together, but they want to be together. Bam.

If you’re writing about characters navigating a relationship, though? You gotta be more original. You need something else to happen, some kind of conflict or obstacle for the characters to overcome. So, okay, the second contest? That one was a bit harder. Makes sense.

Then we come to the third contest, and this is the one that matters. Sunset has to end a relationship now.

Logical next step, right? Beginning, middle, end, that’s a trilogy for ya. It’s very elegant, it’s very cute, and holy shit. I’m not being overdramatic when I say this third Sunset Contest was the most interesting event the website has seen [1]. I don’t know if Oroboro planned this? Maybe it was a happy accident, but I’ve no idea. Have you ever looked into Oro’s eyes? Devilish fucking brain in that head, let me tell you.

[1] FanOfMostEverything, I know you’re reading this. I’m sorry. Your contests are also great, they’re just more vanilla. That’s fine, though. I like them that way. I’m sorry. I love you. 

Let’s stop and think about this a second, right. 

How do you write a story about a breakup? We start with a relationship, and then it ends—why is the reader going to read this? What’s the hook? 

If the story is about the characters getting together, fuck it, that’ll get the crowds in. “Sunset and Rarity fall in love with each other” is all the setup you need to make the story work. Shipping is a thing after all. 

 But if the characters are breaking up? I mean—if the readers like the couple, they don’t wanna read this story. If they dislike the couple, why would they read a story about it in the first place? Anti-shipping is a thing, sure, but it’s definitely not mainstream. You’re a bit fucked, aren’t you?

Here’s the harsh reality: breakup stories, by themselves, aren’t sexy. The setup alone doesn’t give you enough elements to make it work. You want to write a breakup? You need more than just the breakup itself. You need pizazz, you need emotions, you need depth. You need to make it interesting.

You need to work your ass off.

So Oroboro gave you hell and went “make it work”. And writers made it work, because we were three contests into this, and like. Fuck being a quitter at this point, right? 

This is why I said this contest produced interesting stories. Because people wrote about this, about this event that usually nobody writes about. And d’you know how you go around writing a breakup story? D’you know what’s the natural, intuitive, correct thing to do?

You write a low concept story.

That’s what this is all about.

2. What the Hell is a Low Concept Story

That’s a good question. What’s a low concept story? The opposite of a high concept story. And what’s that?

This topic is one of those things that are easier to understand than they are to explain, but I’ll try. This is the best primer for low-concept versus high-concept I’ve seen so far:

  • A high concept story is a story that’s interesting no matter which characters you use.
  • A low concept story is a story that’s interesting because of the characters you use.

It’s more intuitive than it sounds, for real. Maybe it’s easier to get if I use an example:

  • High concept story:Vinyl and Octavia need to hug for eight hours, or the building explodes.
  • Low concept story: Fluttershy thinks about her father.

See? If we swap the characters in the first story, it’s still appealing. “Pinkie and Twilight need to hug for eight hours or the building explodes”? Sign me the fuck up. 

And on top of that: the appeal is the same. The attractive bit is that they have to hug, that the building explodes, that this premise sounds fun and silly and sexy and fun. 

Do the characters matter? To you, the writer, they do. Writing Pinkie is not the same as writing Octavia. The plot might change, the structure might change…. They are two different stories, after all. But to the reader? Same exact prompt, same exact appeal. Both work.

Low concept is the opposite. “Fluttershy thinks about her father”? Change the character, and the feeling this description gives is different. The way the reader visualizes what the story is about, what the hook of this particular tale is, changes. 

“Apple Bloom thinks about her father.” “Twilight Sparkle thinks about her father.” “Fluttershy thinks about her daughter,” how’s that for a curveball.

I suppose another way to see it is—high concept is about plot, low concept is about character. High concept stories grab you, they give you a clear hook from the get-go. Low concepts are like, hey, let’s do some fucking introspection. Who’s down for some character study. Gonna make Trixie read Kierkegaard, motherfucker.

So let’s go back to the Sunset contests. Two characters getting together? That can work as a high concept. There’s enough obvious appeal in the setup for you to work with that alone. But a breakup?

Fuck me.

“Sunset ends a relationship” doesn’t work as a setup by itself the same way finding a lover does. And remember: the breakup had to be the focus of the story, the main core of it. You couldn’t just write a frolicking adventure and also Sunset and Cheerilee break up I guess. You had to go there, you had to explore the end of the relationship.

So yeah, people gave it depth. They went, “Hey, let’s see how Sunset reacts to the breakup”.  “Let’s see why they broke up in the first place.” 

You really can’t get more low-concept-y than this contest. This is character study at its finest: here’s an emotionally exhausting experience, here’s a character, go nuts. My name is Oroboro, how you doin’, work your ass off for me. 

As a result, bam! Great stories.

And here you might be thinking, wait, so do you think high concept stuff is garbage or what? Is high concept inherently worse than low concept, is that what you’re hinting at?

Well. On the one hand, as a rule of thumb, one should try to avoid general statements like “all [X] stories are [Y],” because no rule is absolute, there are exceptions to everything if you look hard enough.
On the other hand, y’know.

3. A Low Concept is Always Better than A High Concept

Yeah, I mean. Fuck it. Suck my dick. This is true and we both know it.

High concept is clever. High concept is entertaining to read, it’s easy to sell. It’s the twist at the end of the story, the setup to an impossible murder, the moment where you go “ooooh, I wonder how they’ll get out of this one!” It can be fun and it can keep you reading.

But it’s the characters that makes us fall in love. Whenever people rage about how much they love Crime and Punishment, they sing the praises of Raskolnikov. When Don Quixote has rambling scenes of less witty dialogue, you put up with it, because you want to learn how Alonso Quijano sees the world. [2]

[2] By far my favorite example of this occurrence are mystery stories. They sound high concept-y, right? “Oooh what is the solution to the mystery?” But the best of their kind are sorta low concept, really. The characters matter so much. We don’t want to see the case being solved, we want to see the protagonist solve the case. 

I mean, think about it. The greatest writers don’t write murders, they write detectives. Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie has Hercule Poirot, G.K. Chesterton has Father Brown, Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe. So on, so forth.

Fuck, I don’t have to be a pedant about this. Friendship is Magic would be nothing without the Main Six. The fact that they’re good, well-developed characters, the fact that we care about them, is the main reason why the show was a success. You look me in the eye and say “Oh, yes, the thrilling plot of Ticket Master is really what sold me on the world of Equestria.” Come the fuck on.

Mind you, it’s also true that a character is nothing without a story. In a vacuum, Rarity is just a list of features. It doesn’t matter what your DnD friend tells you—a character sheet is not actually good storytelling. 

It’s when you give her a context, when you see her act and react, that she shines. It’s when you see her face a monster about to kill her, and when talking to it, nonchalantly, “darling” she says. That’s when you go “Oh, she’s pretty great. Oh shit I want to read more about her.”

A good story mixes high and low concept elements; you have a plot, a hook, a setup—but you also have fleshed out characters, you put something for the readers to relate to in there. Someone dying is a plot point; someone reacting to someone dying is literature. A Christmas Carol works both because of the ghosts, and because of Scrooge. It’s a symbiosis.

Final note: there’s a point to be made here—sometimes, short stories can work with plot alone; I’m thinking stuff like Bradbury, stuff like Asimov, like Nathaniel Hawthorne [3]. But as much as I love these guys, that’s still kind of popcorn-y. You love it when you read it, and then you move on, and never think about it again. 

[3] You might be surprised at this, since Nathaniel Hawthorne is mostly known for The Scarlet Letter, which is A) not a short story but a long novel, B) reliant on character, C) widely considered Hawthorne’s best.

Thing is, Hawthorne was a short story writer above everything else; he wrote a lot, motherfucker was a true hermit, he did nothing but write—and he really wrote short stories ninety percent of the time. The Scarlet Letter was supposed to be a short story; his editor just asked him to turn it into a novel. 

And honestly, smarter people than me [3.5] have long argued that Hawthorne’s short stories were better, and more indicative of his style and ideas, than The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote by coming up with a plot and then writing some bland nobody as the character and moving on. Plot was king, here. 

I’m not talking out of my ass, we know this, we have proof of this. We have copies of his diaries, strange letters he wrote to himself, and we can see how he thought of stories in there. It’s all shit like “A serpent inhabits a man’s stomach for twenty years, causing him terrible pain.” High concept as fuck, who gives a shit about the character. 

And he wrote so much! He burned like, over half of what he wrote? And he’s still prolific as hell. Genuine hermit, I tell you.

So yeah, Hawthorne fits the bill just fine. Read a bit on the man, it’s great. He was the descendant of a witch hunter named Justice Hawthorne who burned a lot of women at the stake. Nathaniel was scared that his bloodline might be cursed cause of all the evil his ancestor committed, and that’s like, the least literary (and fucked up) thing about his life. Some Hollywood movie shit going on in there, trust me.

[3.5] “Aragón are you referencing Borges ag—” Yes. Shut up. Yes. 

What if you write a story with no plot whatsoever, though? A story that’s low concept all throughout? Here’s a hot take: those can work.

They definitely work better than high concept alone, that’s for sure. A character can’t exist in a total vacuum, but you can have a very minimalistic, simplistic, basic plot — “Twilight makes a cup of tea and thinks about Celestia” — and character strength alone can carry it. 

Cause, y’know, if you can make it relatable enough—your readers will give a shit. We care about people, we like to see ourselves in others. We want to feel we’re not alone. We remember the stories that make us feel that way.

So, yes. Ideally? You have both high concept and low concept elements in a story. But a perfectly executed low concept story works. A perfectly executed high concept story can be okay.

Hence, the point. Low concept is better than high concept.

Which brings us to the next issue.

4. Low Concept Stories Sound Boring

I want to introduce you to Posh. Posh is one of the best writers in this website. Posh is one of the most underrated writers in this website. These two facts are correlated, and it’s a fucking tragedy.

See, Posh is no stranger to these Sunset contests I keep talking about. If you’ve followed them in any capacity, or if you’ve checked them out while reading this blog, you might have noticed that Posh is the only writer who placed in every single one of them. Three contests, and Posh was among the top entries every single time. Won the first one, came second on the second, came fourth on the third.

This is because Posh is a fucking master of low concept stories. He—here’s his story Arrhythmia, by the way, the fic that placed fourth in this third Sunset contest—knows how to get in the head of his characters. George Orwell wrote that we can only understand happiness as opposed to misery—the man with a toothache will define joy as “the lack of pain”. 

Posh knows this, I think, intuitively: there’s a quiet pain to the simple act of living, there’s exhaustion and horror in mundanity, and it’s because of this that a fun morning with your loved ones can be so fulfilling. This contrast is what Posh writes about. 

And oh my God I’ve dedicated three paragraphs to try to sell you on this man and I’m failing.

Jesus Christ—do you know how you sell a high concept story? You explain the setup. “Applejack and Rarity need to hug for eight hours, or the building explodes.” There. You already know if you’re interested in the story or not. But how the fuck do you sell a low concept story?

I mean, like. Is Arrhythmia good? Yes! Fuck! It’s so good! It’s about Flash Sentry and Sunset Shimmer breaking up, and it’s great! Why is it great? I can’t fucking tell you! 

I mean, I can tell you’ll like it, I can tell that it’ll be worth your time. But, fuck. I can’t go into specifics? To perfectly describe a low concept story and to sell people on it, you need to pretty much write the fucking story there. Just saying “No, listen, no, Flash Sentry is great in this story” is like, okay? That sounds like an opinion? 

And it sounds like an opinion, but I’m not saying “I personally enjoy Flash Sentry,” I mean “The skill in which this character is portrayed, and the way his actions are relatable to anyone with feelings, is impressive from a technical and artistic point”.

But it still sounds like I’m going “Trust me, mate, it’s cool”. 

It’s a goddamn nightmare. Arrhythmia hasn’t broken a hundred likes yet, and that story made me give a shit about Flash Fucking Sentry. Half the reason I wrote this was because I wanted to make people go and read it, to point out its existence, because fuck. People, it’s so good. GAGH.

Low-concept stories sound boring when you describe them. That’s the sad truth. If a story relies solely on character, and it doesn’t use a catchy plot-y hook, the story sounds boring. “Fluttershy thinks about her father”. Fuck it, why should I read about that?

I said before that this third contest forced writers to make low-concept stories. You write a breakup, obviously you’re going to write the characters being sad or some shit. Most people tried to play with this, though, make the story stand out a bit. Maybe it’s also a murder mystery! Maybe it’s also a magical thriller! Oh shit maybe someone died and it wasn’t a breakup?

Posh didn’t do that. Posh is braver than any of us. He heard, oh, you want a story about a breakup? Fine. Here’s a story about a breakup. The plot is the breakup. It’s all low concept. No fucking twist. It’s going to be the best story you read this year, you’re fucking welcome.

It was! It was so fucking good, precisely because it was so pure. That’s what makes it so hard to sell.

The third Sunset contest had the least amount of overall likes and views out of the entire Sunset contest saga. For the longest time, my story was the only one to break through a hundred likes at all. And I believe this is directly related to what I said earlier—you have to make it low-concept to write a story about a breakup, to some degree… and people don’t like reading about breakups in the first place.

The stories were good. The stories were interesting, they were weird and memorable and character-focused. They had a heart, they had humanity, and nobody fucking read them. 

Because, yeah, they sound boring. That’s the nature of the beast. God dammit.

So, this is what the thesis above was referring to. If you keep growing as a writer, if you keep writing better stories and better characters and getting closer to the ideal version of your writing self—who looks like Posh but with different hair—one day you’ll write a good low concept story. You’ll write the best story you’ve ever written, and it’ll be a low concept story.

And nobody will fucking read it.

Which means that— 

5. You should Lie to your Readers

Yeah, screw it. Just lie to them,

Listen, I said this before—the only story that broke a hundred likes in this contest, for the longest time, was mine. Part of this is because I have over 2,000 followers, and if only a fraction of those click on my story out of boredom alone, the numbers will go up. I’m aware of this.

But also, y’know, it wasn’t just that. Good thing about my Fimfiction persona is that ninety percent of my fans only interact with me because they want to see me cry—so I gotta put in the effort, because otherwise my followers will ignore me, because that’s funnier

Which is why I lie to them so fucking much.

Most of my stories are low concept by this point. I dislike writing stuff without a lesson, or a heart, or at least some scene with introspection, with character, with stuff that makes me give a shit. I don’t like stories without that. I find them boring, and vapid.

But like, I don’t tell this to the readers, or to people who haven’t read the story. This is a trick I shamelessly stole from King of Beggars: write a low concept story, but sell it as a high concept story. Just straight up lie to people! Make it look like it’s all about the plot!

For real. This example I’ve been using all through the blog? “Vinyl and Octavia need to hug for eight hours, or the building explodes?” I have written that story! That’s a real story I wrote!

It’s low concept!

It’s low concept as fuck!

I mean, do the characters need to hug for eight hours? Yeah! But that’s not what the story is about. The story’s about character exploration, and the ideas of shame and responsibility and shit. I’ve asked my readers about this and they all go “Oh man, the best things are the characters, I love that scene where Octavia and Celestia sit down and read Kierkegaard”.

But I don’t fucking tell you that, that’s not what the description reads. I just talk about how the building explodes, if they don’t hug for eight hours. ‘Cause that sounds less boring.

See, the trick here is: I’m a coward. I believe in characters as the core of storytelling, but I’m a coward. Posh doesn’t lie because he’s got balls, but me? I’m more weaselly.

But there’s a reason everybody finds weasels cute and charming, and god dammit, I don’t care if Posh is content with just creating art. I believe that good stories should be rewarded, and Arrhythmia deserves more likes. That’s the gist of it. That’s the gist of this blog.

The basic, dirty, practical piece of advice here is: think about characters when writing, but think about plot when writing descriptions. This is harder than it sounds. Sometimes the hidden high concept in your low concept story is obvious; sometimes it’s an active fucking pain to find and you wanna give up altogether.

Easy mode is doing kind of what I do nowadays, which is to come up with a high concept and a low concept for every story I write—so it’s easier to sell them, and easier to make them work. In my case, this takes a lot of effort on the writing stage, but I’m consistently content with the result, and artistically satisfied. Again: technique shamelessly stolen from King of Beggars. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

So yeah. Be a coward. Fuck it, I admire Posh, but y’all should try to be a weasel, it rocks. And go read Arrhythmia, because it’s so fucking good.

6. Every Other Story

I don’t like to say “this is the start of a blog series” whenever I post a blog, because every time I do that, the universe seems to conspire against me to make sure that’s not the case. That said—this is the start of a blog series! Hopefully. If nothing happens in the meantime and prevents me from writing anything else.

The original idea I had, y’see, was to do sort of like a,  not a review? But like, a literary analysis and recommendation for every single story that placed in this third Sunset contest. So Posh’s entry would serve as a jump-off to talk about low and high concepts, King of Beggar’s would be about tone and character, DrugOverlord’s about structure, and Aquaman’s would be about plotting—or something like that, it was a bit vague.

But then I started writing it, and I went oh wow I have too much shit to say here. So, fuck it, one blog per story, only as you saw—it’s less a blog about the story and more like, here’s a cool concept, here’s this story as an example of that thing done right.

Because I did like that contest, a lot. I predicted all the winners (except DrugOverlord! I never read their story so I didn’t think about them; I just said Aqua, Kob, and Posh would place, and then I implied I would too, and also probably Magnetbolt) because the stories were genuinely great, and an example of how to write good romance.

So y’know, fuck it. I’m gonna try and write a blog entry for each one of these stories. And to make it worth your while, I’ll also try to write like, actual advice and shit. Practical stuff. Everybody wins! Go read Arrhythmia.

And see you soon. I’ve no clue what I’ll be tackling next, so wait for that surprise, I guess.

Comments ( 27 )

You can tell I've been reading a lot of Borges lately, huh? The wonders of quarantine.

i made it halfway buck me this should be tagged as a writing guide

Say, have you read Cackling Moron's stuff? After reading this I just can't decide if most of those stories are high or low concept.

To be fair, the deep character work in Pressed For Time is pretty obvious to anyone who notices that it's 90,000 words long. That's nearly two books.

I always figured that High Concept was stuff that happened in real life and Low Concept was stuff that does happen in real life. I mean, Doctor Who had an ostensibly low-concept episode about a bunch of people stuck in a bus not sure if they have to throw one of them out (low-concept) and it was a space bus on a planet made of diamonds and the person they might have to throughout was some kind of telepathic parasite (high as a kite.)

R5h #6 · March 30th · · ·

I'll say the same thing here as I said in my blurb for Posh's story: the fact that it only played fourth is a testament to how goddamn amazing those finalists were, because Arrhythmia was also really really good. I highly recommend it!

Thanks for writing this blog, Aragon, and I look forward to the next ones: this contest definitely could have used more publicity for its winners!

I think I've had these terms backwards (possibly conflated with "high-brow" and "low-brow"?) for my entire life until now? So thanks for that. And also thanks for making me feel bad that I don't read any more ponyfic, I'll get cocky otherwise. This was a good blog.

You know, one of my favorite movie lines ever is from, of all things, Roland Emmerich's 2012. If you haven't seen it, you really don't need to--it's just two hours and forty minutes of actors way more talented than their material screaming at CGI buildings collapsing. If you have, though, there's a part where Woody Harrelson's conspiracy theorist character, while describing his apocalypse-truther video to John Cusack's Gormless White Protagonist character, utters the most perfect distillation I've ever heard of the concept you discuss here:

"First you lure 'em in with humor, then you make 'em think."

Stories can be high-concept or low-concept--Lord of the Rings or the Wikipedia summary of Pride and Prejudice--but high-concept stories are not automatically easier to get an audience to read. Allow me to demonstrate: that aforementioned founding tome of the sword and sorcery genre could be accurately described as "A group of misfits carry a magic ring to a mountain." That's totally, literally what happens in the series, but it's also the most boring possible way of describing it.

So really, the difference you've noted isn't a matter of high-concept versus low-concept stories--it's a matter of marketing, which is only lying if it's done badly. Done well, it's something slightly but crucially different--misdirection.

I'm glad you brought up murder mysteries as an archetypal high-concept concept, because another one of my favorite recent movies--which you absolutely should see if you haven't--is Knives Out. From the trailers and marketing, it seems like a classic genre staple: a rich homeowner dies under mysterious circumstances, and his kooky and dysfunctional family members--played by a star-studded cast--are all prime suspects for our hero detective, Daniel Craig's Louisiana-drawling Benoit Blanc. When you walked into the theater, you expected to see him prowl around the estate, examine clues, interview shifty suspects, and deduce in a moment of climactic brilliance the real culprit of this heinous crime.

Except instead of showing you just that, the movie solves the mystery for you within the first thirty minutes. You're shown exactly what happened, exactly how the victim died, and exactly who was present for it--and then the movie keeps going. Because Knives Out actually isn't a high-concept murder mystery; it's a brilliantly structured low-concept critique of American class politics. But at the same time, it is still a murder mystery, so it's not at all a lie to call it one. As the viewer searching for something to pay $15 to see on the big screen, the marketing just misdirected you into thinking you were going to see something fun, when in actuality you were seeing something that was fun and had something really, really important to say.

In other words: it lured you in with humor, and then it made you think.

A good story doesn't become a bad one just because it's not marketed for mass consumption. In fact, it's actually really hard to do that successfully, which is a big reason why what Rian Johnson did with Knives Out (and with The Last Jedi, and I will die on this hill, thank you) was so incredible. But I do think it's important to make the distinction between bad marketing and good marketing--lying and misdirecting--because, contrary to what your cynical side (and mine) tells you, audiences do actually know what they like, and they know--and remember--when they've been lied to. You just have to show them what they want first, so then you can give them what they need.

I had a bet with Aragon while we were waiting for the results. I bet that Arryhtmia would place first, followed by World Is In Danger, Letter To My Lover, and Zealots, and he essentially bet the opposite order. Now I have to cancel my trip to Spain so that he can't collect on my soul.

Arrythmia was so good and I found myself continually frustrated that I couldn't explain why to people. I mostly just stalked Posh online for a month telling him what a good job he did in writing the characters and cutting his phone lines so he couldn't call 911 on me, so I think he got the message eventually (if not, I'll have pay him another visit once I get new set of wire cutters).

Something I've found myself doing a lot lately ever since I dedicated myself to trying to comment on more stories is just going "the characters were really well written and had great dynamics," and then struggling to say more. I'm really happy to have this blog to point to in order to explain what I mean by that.

3. A Low Concept is Always Better than A High Concept

Eh, most of my favorite stories have both qualities, like you said about mysteries.

Author Interviewer

shit, dude :O

Yaknow, this made me go back and read my reviews for the contest, and I noticed something: Lots of Highly Recommended stories. For all that I groused a ton about how fucking depressing that contest was, the H ratio was 14.5% in the first contest, 17.6% in the second, and 27.6% in the third. And the raw numbers went up every time, too. That third contest produced some brilliant work, and this blog tells me why.

It also tells me that "Fluttershy thinks about her father" is literally all I need to see to want to read a story. Like, if that's the full description, sign me the fuck up. But I get what you're saying: everyone without a couple of English degrees wants assurance that something will happen in the course of these words.

(First off, I can't help but take the constant praises of and pleads to read Arryhtmia as a personal attack, since there's still stories from the FIRST Sunset Shipping Contest I want to read and never got around too I'll get there eventually I swear)

To get to the main point though, when you say that a "Low Concept is Always Better than A High Concept", I'm going to have to disagree on semantics, because I feel the "best" kind of story has a High Concept premise with a Low Concept narrative. A pure Low Concept story has the problem of sounding boring when you try to describe it, a pure High Concept story is gonna be "popcorn-y", as you said (although, I would say I consider the WORLD of a story the same as a character, so a story with a focus on it's world could still be considered Low Concept in a way, but I digress)

One of the best examples of this to me is the "Pony POV" series by Alex Warlorn, a really good series (that's what introduced me to MLP) that not enough people know about (and I still haven't read the last season, it's on my list, if you've SEEN my "to-read" list you'd understand give me a break) The core of the series is all about having big, world altering events, and then showing us how each and every character reacts to it both before and after, and how they grow and change. It has High Concept events and storylines, sure, but they all feel like excuses to give us chapter after chapter of Low Concept character building and interactions. Even it's more High Concept stand alone series', like 6, still revolve almost entirely around Low Concept interactions and world building (which again, I personally consider a kind of character)

What about taking the "Scientifically Proven" best story on this site, The Enchanted Library? Again, a relatively High Concept idea, wouldn't work at all if the Low Concept wasn't so fucking good. Even coming back to your stories, my favorite of them, Crime and Funishment, a story so funny got kicked out of a classroom for laughing too hard (not the only time that happened, don't ask) is great not because of the rather average premise (Pinkie wants to rob a bank, the others disagree, things spiral out of control), but rather because the character interactions were the funniest fucking thing I'd ever read at the time.

My point is this: High Concept and Low Concept have to work together. Taking the example you kept using, "Vinyl and Octavia need to hug for eight hours or the building explodes" doesn't work purely as a High Concept action story, because reason for the readers to care, but at the same time, "Vinyl and Octavia talk and do a romance"... well, I'd still read it because you're fucking hilarious, but as a general rule you probably couldn't fill 90,000 words without some stakes and not get a bit dull.

Unless it's a short-ish more introspective story, a good story needs a High Concept hook to go along with the Low Concept that's the actually interesting bit. You call it lying, but I'd say it's doing the correct thing. At least, that's what I, a guy with no professional knowledge of writing but a fuckton of reading experience on this site says.

As someone whose (still learning) writing always turns out to be vaguely low-concept but unable to sell it as high-concept... thank you for the tips. It's quite encouraging!

I gotta admit, Posh's fic is the one fic from the contest I've been meaning to read and just... haven't yet (hell, this reminds me I need to go back and leave some comments, there were some damn good fics).
I love that you ended up doing this, it sounded like a great concept when I first heard about it, a series of fic analyses.
I do got to read Posh's stuff, and in general this was some interesting ready, vaguely familiar about high concept and low concept, and not sure how I might use it, but your notes on story descriptions was excellent advice. Will keep that in mind.
Hope you're doing good in quarantine

[1] FanOfMostEverything, I know you’re reading this. I’m sorry. Your contests are also great, they’re just more vanilla. That’s fine, though. I like them that way. I’m sorry. I love you.

Apology accepted. The Sunset Shipping contests did put out some incredible stuff. (And vanilla gets a bad rap anyway. Good vanilla is amazing.)

I'd never really understood or even considered "low concept" as a concept until you explained it. I'd always just thought of the divide as plot-oriented or character-oriented writing. And character-oriented does tend to be better. Your readers are human (usually.) They're going to care more about the people than the abstract situation those people find themselves in, because that's how empathy works and hopefully you're writing characters people care about.

It doesn’t matter what your DnD friend tells you—a character sheet is not actually good storytelling.

Speaking as a perennial DM, I can absolutely confirm this. No one else at the table cares about your character's backstory, and at best they'll listen to any world building exposition for a few minutes before getting antsy. The story emerges from the characters' actions and interactions with each other and the world, not their biography or stat line.

We care about people, we like to see ourselves in others. We want to feel we’re not alone.

Right, that. As you can probably tell, I'm writing this comment as I go.

The stories were good. The stories were interesting, they were weird and memorable and character-focused. They had a heart, they had humanity, and nobody fucking read them.

In my case... Well, I just don't like reading sad stories. They're a harder sell for me in general; I'm kind of a wuss when it comes to that sort of thing. Also why I didn't enter this one. I did come up with an idea, but it was a perfunctory little thing that left the characters more befuddled than anything. I got the distinct sense of them looking at the proverbial director's chair and mouthing "What the crap?" Never a good sign.
That said, I've bumped Arrythmia back up to the top of my Read Later list.

i agree with Aquaman: You call it cowardice. I call it marketing. Anything that gets butts in seats eyes on words and ideally doesn't completely misrepresent the story.

Looking forward to the other blogs that aren't so much about the other entries as they are around them. :twilightsmile:

3. A Low Concept is Always Better than A High Concept

Rebuttal time - at least in part - one feels, though perhaps a very personal one.

Now, this is interesting, because it essentially allows me to put phrasing around what I've said for years about Bleakbane's Media Principle:

If your High Concept doesn't interest me, everything else is irrelevant.

I'm not interested Low Concept media unless first passes a High Concept threshold. That threshold might be "ponies," or it might be "starships" or, with significant effort on the part of the show and writers, it might be "it's like CSI But Hilariously In The Turn Of The Ninthteen Century Canada (And Is Also Funny)" or it might be "It Has Some Superheroes That I Like In It," or it might be "Asterix[1]" but if it doesn't meet those critereon? Not even going to get a first glance, let along a second.

Low Concept is to me, nothing more than the garnish on the High Concept meal, not the meal itself, which you seem to hold.

[Aside]As a DM, my quests - which is about as close as I get to writing, save for highly unusual occasions - tend to be very much High Concept and not Low Concept, though until provided with this, I always phrased as "what is being done is more important than who is doing it.[/Aside]

So, you might be able to write a story about "Fluttershy thinks about her father," because you have already used a touch of Acceptably High Concept (Pony Character I Am Aware Of) but "Character I've never heard of Think About Her Father" is almost certainly going to fail.

(I suppose I should note that the entire mentioned contest pretty much failed at that barrier in as much as I was aware it existed, but nothing I recall grabbed me to want to read any of it, unless it was incidental.)

You DID, of course, succesfully get "Vinyl and Octavia need to hug for eight hours, or the building explodes," past that, because it does pass that first barrier (Pony Characters I Am Aware Of) - though it might have been a much harder sell if hadn't been tagged with "comedy" and from a source (you) that already has some level of author power (though even that, without some critereon, is not merit enough by itself; even authors/writers/ect I like have to meet my High Concept criterion first.) So your point about lying to the readers is fair - but.

(And here's my real thrust of arguement.)

Point of fact: my favourite book and arguably favourite piece of media - and unquestioningly the piece that had the most impact on my life and unlife - Spacecraft 2000-2100AD - doesn't even have characters, except by the loosest definition of "thing that stuff is written about." It has MAYBE two or three people mentioned by name in it at all. In terms of influence on me?

Nothing else has even come close; not Pony, not Pokémon, not Transformers not even that first look into Warhammer Fantasy Battle where the wargames/roleplaying club made the foolish, foolish mistake of giving me a unit of skeletons to control (look where THAT ended up). That book spoke to me on the most fundemental of levels. Nothing else, no matter how emotionally powerful, now matter how clever, no matter how well-written, has ever been able to top that. (One might even argue that it did so BECAUSE it was solely High Concept.)

So I, at least, will stand behind that work as proof you can tell a good story without characters.

[1]Tosses salute to the late, great Albert Uderzo wh passes last week.

You forgot your second footnote. Granted, it's presumably about the lich thing and I could just link your relevant blog if I felt like digging for it...


Actually, I just forgot to remove it when I folded what was there into the main text. Fixed!


Oh hey! I've watched 2012 but I didn't remember that quote. I remember a different iteration of the same idea, though, which I've quoted often, and it's in fact advice I've followed in pretty much every story I've written for this website:

If the character makes you laugh at the start, it can make you cry later.

Fun story: this is something that Ryukishi07, writer of the When They Cry visual novels, said in an interview--explained that all his favorite visual novels used humor to make the reader care about the characters, and then when those characters suffered, the reader suffered to. Ryukishi07 said that the biggest motivation of the When They Cry series for him was to see if he could do the same, but with scaring the readers, rather than making them cry. Comedy and horror mixed that way, see?

(Fun fact: this quote is how I befriended Oroboro! I said it in a public chat once when talking about storytelling, and Oro, who's a gigantic nerd, came out of the woodwork going "WHAT HUH WHO QUOTED RYUKISHI07 I LOVE WHEN THEY CRY WHAT." Deadass the only reason we know each other now.)

And regarding the marketing/lying thing -- I agree! What you said was entirely correct. I call it "lying" cause it's more eye-catchy, but I also made a point of saying that you need to find the high-concept in the story to talk about it. Like, don't actually say untrue things, just use misdirection here.

Ironically enough, me calling it "Lying" to make the quote more memorable is in itself a form of marketing. This wasn't planned in the slightest, but dang, that's some cool accidental irony. And I need to watch Knives Out, it's on my to-do list.

You're agreeing with me, not rebutting me, actually.

The point I made in the blog is that yeah, most people will only read stuff when it's high concept -- and that's literally what you said you do. And then you said that one of the requisites you have to read a story is:

(Pony Character I Am Aware Of)

So... yeah. You're aware of the character, remember it, want to read more about it. You read for the high concept, low concept stays with you.

Your comment is literally this very same blog, but from the perspective of the reader. We're making the same point, it's just that you called "Fluttershy is there" a high concept, while I'd call it more of a low concept element. At best we disagree on the semantics.

As a DM, my quests - which is about as close as I get to writing, save for highly unusual occasions - tend to be very much High Concept and not Low Concept, though until provided with this, I always phrased as "what is being done is more important than who is doing it.

If you're a DM, your players are the characters. I don't think DnD is storytelling in the classical sense. It's more like improv? I guess? And that follows its own rules, and I know very little about it. But in this case -- you provide the high concept as the DM, because that's the context that's built for the players to roleplay in. You can't do low concept in that sense, because that'd mean literally telling the players what they say, do, and feel.


Yeah, the fact that this is a pony website and the characters are all ponies make this a bit muddled. Maybe the point of "low concept sounds boring" would've been more obvious if I had used an original, unknown character. "Claire Hamilton thinks about her father." Who the fuck is Claire Hamilton? Read and find out : ).

See? Literally nobody would read that by itself. With some extra elements -- a well-known quality author, some glowing recommendations, gossip and general buzz about how great it is -- then I guess, maybe? But by itself, this is the opposite of appealing, man.

Regarding the reviews: Yeah! That's what I meant. The stories were more interesting, weren't they? Low concept rocks.


No, no, we've talked about this, you remember it wrong. We agreed on the order, I also thought Posh was going to come in first -- it's ust that when the results came out I was the one who went "OH! OH YEAH I GET IT."

This is absolutely me talking out of my ass because I haven't asked the judges about this, but I do think it's like -- you and I put general execution above concept, while the results of the contest go the other way, and rate concept higher than execution. This makes a lot more sense when you realize that the judges read a million stories among them all, and individual biases regarding the style and the way every story is written got averaged out by the fact that there were five judges judgin'.

So, because at a technical level, all the winners were very high quality anyway, concept and plot and idea and message were more important. This is not to say that Posh's story is worse than Aquaman in my eyes at all? But it is certainly less intrincate, and has less moving parts. If you look at it that way, the ranking makes a lot of sense.

Every winner was great, anyway, so I do really think that which one you think is best among them all comes down to individual taste. (It was Posh's, though).

The Enchanted Library is actually a really interesting case study because, according to the associated RCL interview, it was written as a romance fic disguised as an adventure fic, since the audience at the time wanted an adventure fic (high concept) and the author just wanted to write romance (low concept), so the fic turned into a low-concept fic dressed up as high concept for the purposes of marketing. So basically, it exemplifies and takes a step further Aragon's point by not only describing itself as high concept, but wearing the skin of a high concept story and then turning into an exploration of mental health and recovery from trauma.

On a meta-level, the story deliberately rejects its high concept in the resolution of the Book Bringer plot, by having it matter in a very low-concept way rather than the high concept conceit of "collect the books to free Twilight," and time and time again the adventure-y, high concept story arcs all end up just being character explorations and interactions (the Trader's Exchange/Dragon arc comes to mind). Which isn't to say that the plots aren't incredibly well-constructed, but they're built entirely as low-concept stories with the high-concept providing a bit of flavour and marketing to it, overall.

Which is entirely my point. A significant amount of my favorite stories are those kinds of bait and switch "You thought this would be a high stakes adventure, but actually 80% of it is characters in a room talking". What I'm trying to say is that Aragon's point in this blog post, (other than "read Arrythmia) "lie to your readers" isn't a dirty trick, it's how long stories should be done. The best stories are Low Concepts wearing the skin of a High Concept one. Plot out the high concept "set-pieces", then stuff it full of a much character interaction and growth as can fit before it bursts. (This often has the unwanted side effect of increasing the word count so high a sequel is needed, but hey, what can you do)

Seeing what you have to say about DnD world-building from an outsiders perspective is bizarre to me, because while I'm probably not gonna want to listen to the half hour power-point presentation of a player's character (I'll give you 5 minutes), mostly because I don't expect most players to be experts at writing backstories and there a good chance it will end up not remotely relevant, I WOULD totally sit there and read tens of thousands of words of pure world-building. Maybe that's because I consider the world of a story a character in it's own right, and I'm aware I'd probably be the only player at the table who read the bloody thing, but that's the sort of stuff I'm interested in. I'm the kind of person who would have liked the Star Wars Prequels more if they were a series of history books documenting the Fall of the Republic and had MORE world-building and politics. (So what I'm saying is, that if you were ever to write a tens of thousands long "history" text about the past and present of the Oversaturated world, I'd be one of probably a dozen people who would be all over that. And if you HAVE already written that, please tell me because I missed it)


I WOULD totally sit there and read tens of thousands of words of pure world-building.

The key there is that if you're reading kilowords of world building, you aren't actually playing the game, e.g. having your character do cool stuff to get cool stuff. I gave the players of my current campaign a background blurb so they could ground themselves in the world. Beyond that, they neither need nor want an atlas or history of the parts of the world they won't be visiting.

Mind you, I have read tens if not hundreds of thousands of world of RPG world building, but that was for my own fun, not as a DM-appointed homework assignment. (Especially White Wolf games. Incredible worlds, unmanageable rule sets.)

As for the Oversat-marillion, I won't make any promises, but collating the notes couldn't hurt...

I mean, I imagine it more as some kind of guide to the setting that has the intended use of having players flip through it to familiarise themselves with the setting and perhaps a quick check every now and then so that the players know the things the characters would have known all their lives. That almost certainly exists, I don't know, I've never played a tabletop RPG. I imagine if I DID, though, I'd be one of those players who are either extremely annoying or really bloody appreciated by the DM for paying incredibly close attention to the consistency of the world, leading to either "Stop examining everything and checking the guide and just go" or "finally, someone actually paid attention, we can do this cool thing I planned ahead for" from the DM, depending on which aforementioned type. But then again, I've never played one, so maybe I'm completely off base.

(Also, the Oversat-marillion is an amazing name and sort of has to be used for at least something now, even if it is just a blog post with a bunch of notes)

Read more Borges

How dare you say nice things about Posh. I did not authorise this.

Posh, you are forbidden from accepting this praise.

Unfortunately, FoME has a theme for blog post titles, and that doesn't fit.

Posh #27 · May 6th · · ·

It's taken me a while to respond to this blog, I know; I feel bad for that, especially given the high esteem in which you clearly hold me. I'd been wondering why Arrhythmia, a story which I'd rather written off, suddenly got an uptick in views and likes.

It means a great deal that you would sing my praises so publicly. Thank you for your kind words, and your respect. :twilightsmile:

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