What is a Big Book?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

A friend of mine did a workshop at the RWA National Conference a couple of weeks ago on the High Concept Premise.   We ended up talking before the workshop about high concept in books and movies, and also about the even more elusive concept of the Big Book.

I was interested to hear that when she polled a number of editors to ask them how they would define a Big Book, while everyone said that the Big Book is the one that everyone is always looking for, no one could give her a specific answer about what exactly it is.   Or even try.   A Big Book is the one all the editors get excited about because they think they can make a ton of money with it.   But what IS that?

I’m used to people being vague about what High Concept is.  And yes, it’s an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing – the idea that is so good that it is painfully obvious, only no one else has thought of it until now.

And as my friend and I were talking, I realized that a Big Book is slightly different from a High Concept book.   They are NOT necessarily interchangeable terms, which is going to make this blog post even more confusing.

But let’s start with High Concept.    This is a Hollywood term.   And very often, it IS what editors mean when they talk about a Big Book.

If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is – AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it – that’s high concept.   (If you need a refresher on the premise line you can read more here:  What’s Your Premise?).

Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.

I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.

I would also add, because MEET THE PARENTS is a good example of this, that you know what the movie is from the title alone.   (In fact, many movie ideas are sold on the title alone.   I had lunch with an A-list screenwriter friend recently who said that the title might be the most important selling point of any film pitch, these days.)

Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” – you’ve got a high-concept premise.

But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:

– They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)

– They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)

– They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK) or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY).

– They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, THE HANGOVER, BLIND DATE, FOUR CHRISTMASES).

– They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)

– They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)

– They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, THE CRYING GAME). And not necessarily a twist at the end – the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love – when they’ve never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn’t pay – which turns out to be her heinous husband’s dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.

– They are about a famous person or event – or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL, 2012, THE HISTORIAN, DA VINCI CODE.

– There’s also just the “Cool!!!” factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?

Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:

JURASSIC PARK – A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.

What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?

Plus, there’s the potential for an amusement park ride.   I’m not kidding.   What made STAR WARS one of the biggest moneymaking franchises of all time?  Action figures.  Light sabers.  Wookie costumes.   Do you think for one single second that Hollywood is not thinking of these things all the time?

FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.

This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.

INDECENT PROPOSAL – A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.

This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!

HARRY POTTER:  A boarding school for wizards?   You don’t even have to say any more about it.   Except that – what kid DOESN’T think that they’re a crown prince/ss wizard or witch trapped in a Muggle family?   (Also, see “amusement park ride” and “action figures”.   Cereal, candy, Halloween costumes… have you seen the EAT PRAY LOVE clothing line, wines, and storage containers at Cost Plus?   I’m just saying…)

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

But with movies, the high concept premise has a couple of incredibly practical considerations.    It suggests a built-in marketing campaign – and it is such a good idea that you could shoot it on a low budget and still have a movie that people would go see.   That doesn’t mean anyone’s GOING to shoot it on a low budget, because we are after all talking about Hollywood.   But you COULD shoot it on a low budget.   It is the idea that is golden.   (Think of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, OPEN WATER – all ultra low budget movies that made mints because the ideas were so compelling and the movies were well enough done to sustain the idea).

A Big Book, however, is almost the opposite.   It’s Big.   Epic.     The HARRY POTTER series, THE HISTORIAN, THE PASSAGE, DA VINCI CODE, THE HUNGER GAMES – these all scream big budget.   Huge setpiece scenes, international or otherworld locations, huge casts.  They have been or all will be made into movies because they are bestsellers and also incredibly cinematic (not to mention in a few cases great books) but without that bestseller thing they are concepts that would give any studio head pause, because of the budget considerations.   But in a book, we have no budget constraints.   We can do the international scope and build a whole other world.   And once that book has proven itself in the book world, Hollywood is more than glad to sweep it up for film or TV production.

So what can we do to start generating more high concept/Big Book ideas for ourselves?

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating – I made my first “screenwriting” money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept, or Big Books.   You’ll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about.  But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.

(Also, I hope the brainstorming we’re going to do here today will help.)

The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.

Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.

So I’m really interested in talking more about this today.   Which books do YOU consider Big Books?   What about High Concept – books or movies?    Let’s throw out some examples and analyze what’s going on to make them such successful premises!


52 thoughts on “What is a Big Book?

  1. JD Rhoades

    Thanks for the trips, Alex. Of course, in STORM SURGE, I had a hurricane that destroyed an entire island, and publishers told me "we really like it, but it's not a Big Book".

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    But Dusty, was the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES on that island?

    I'm being a little facetious, totally inspired by Stephen's great post from yesterday. But in a way, I'm not. That is the kind of note you would get in a Hollywood meeting – idiotic, but a baseline, crude way to raise the STAKES of the story. As we're brainstorming what makes a big book, STAKES tops the list.

    Big stakes are part of a big book.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Part 2 of this comment: Editors (and producers) will often use "It's not a Big Book" as an easy pass on a book/script that they're not over the moon about. It doesn't necessarily mean anything, it's just convenient. But that adds to the overall confusion of what exactly a Big Book is.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, I think EAT PRAY LOVE is one of those topical concepts like FATAL ATTRACTION (only the opposite, meaning uplifting!). It's about a midlife crisis, specifically a spiritual crisis – which one could argue is ALWAYS what a midlife crisis is. The heroine goes off on a fantasy pilgrimage. That's something that is meaningful to a large segment of the population these days. Oprah made many, many, many authors of fiction and nonfiction successful on this very topic about 10 or 15 years ago – I think it's one of those perennial interests (not unlike, um, vampires).

    Now, as I understand it, Elizabeth Gilbert pitched the idea and got a contract for it as a Big Book. While I don't know if they were actually thinking clothing lines and limited edition wines, I'm SURE they were thinking cookbooks. This is one I think is worth researching to see just how designed the marketing was from the beginning.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Also wanted to add that I'd put EAT PRAY LOVE in the same category as JULIE AND JULIA. It's a designed pilgrimage, very self-consciously aware of its own commerciality. Smart, but also I think cynical. Well, why not get paid for your journey to enlightenment? After all, it's the American Way.

    The book that came out of it may be honestly inspiring, though, I haven't read it yet.

  6. Gar Haywood


    This is a great post, and it's reminded me of something I always tell the wife about movies:

    "If there's a tracking scene in it involving <i>multiple, military-grade helicopters</i>, it's a high concept movie."

    As for the "Big Book," here's my criteria:

    – Scale (lean and mean won't work; you couldn't write this thing in fewer than 450 pages)

    – Location, location, location. The plot requires globetrotting, preferably to places we would all like to visit someday.

    – Epic danger. Somebody somewhere is in some serious shit, and the more somebodies, the better.

    And drum roll please, for one of Alex's favorites:

    – A ticking clock. Time is of the essence. If our hero doesn't accomplish X by the midnight hour, KABOOM!!!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gar is right on all counts – for a MALE big book or movie. Female big books have a different list. Actually, looking at Gar's list it occurs to me that female big books often have two or three or nine time periods going on, with plotlines and characters in different centuries or at least different eras. Think about it!

  8. Allison Brennan

    Great post, as usual. I can think of high concept premises, but I get bogged down in the pitching. "Earthquake under San Quentin" was one you liked of mine, and it happens to still be my bestselling title. (Of course, it had a great title and cover, but the premise worked, too.)

    My next book has a good big book premise, too, but because I know the story so well I have a hard time reducing it to a good pitch. It's a vigilante story targeting paroled sex offenders. Who wouldn't want to kill rapists? The first (known) victim was the heroine's rapist, but the book isn't about her (or her family) being a suspect (though of course she is at the beginning), which would have been a good pitch.

  9. Bryon Quertermous

    I'd have to disagree with Gar a bit. While all of those elements are usually present in a Big Book they are not necessary. I think the biggest element of a big book is Big Stakes. Look at one of the biggest books of the last decade, Marcus Sakey's THE BLADE ITSELF. It's got a small cast (three or four main characters at the most), a small setting (one neighborhood in Chicago), and a small story (a guy who used to be a crook is legitimate now but his past is coming back to haunt him). But the reason Marcus got big money and a big push and big movie interest from Ben Affleck is because the stakes in that book are huge. Not on a global intrigue or save the world level, but they are HUGE for those characters.

    Even something like LA REQUIEM which was a Big Book for Crais and the Elvis Cole series. Again, small scope and small location, but it takes two characters many of us know well and blows the stakes up for them and shakes every reader expectation we have for them.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Allison, I still think that "earthquake under San Quentin" is one of the best examples of a high concept idea I've heard in the last few years. You see the whole story right there in four words.

    And I am right there with you on the universality of killing rapists. I've got a script like that myself.

  11. Boyd Morrison

    My film rights agent defines a high concept as one in which the irony of the situation can be expressed in one sentence. So The Firm is high concept because it's about an idealistic young lawyer who gets hired by the worst Mafia law firm in the country. Alex gave some great examples, too.

    Where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fits into all this, I'm not sure. It seems to break a lot of the rules discussed here.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Another vote for Big Stakes from Bryon, thanks!

    Actually, I think Location, Location, Location is just as important in a Big Book, though – male or female.

    And I wouldn't have called BLADE ITSELF a Big Book. Getting big money and a big push is not necessarily indicative of the pure concept of Big Book. But it's interesting that you think so – this is EXACTLY what makes the whole concept so slippery.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Boyd, how nice to see you here!

    THE FIRM is one of the BEST examples of High Concept I know (when I was a reader I got it in galleys and was calling my producer telling her to make an offer from the third page. It doesn't get more high concept than that).

    It seems that DRAGON TATTOO is about the main character. I can't say, though, because I've been warned too many times about the misogyny to read it – just am not interested in going there.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, but on THE FIRM – it's interesting, that statement your agent made about irony. I've never thought about the premise of THE FIRM being about irony. The young lawyer was NOT idealistic – he was after the highest paying job he could find. Part of the appeal of the story was the comeuppance. (Not a huge part, but some). It was a classic "deal with the devil" story – a yuppie cautionary tale.

  15. Eika

    Great. Now I'm wracking my brain and I can't come up with any Big Books I've read that haven't been mentioned. I can think of at least one movie, though: UP.

    At it's core, it's someone who flies away his whole house on balloons. I've been trying to fly just myself (and sometimes a stuffed animal, a lawn chair, or some other random object with me) since I was about four years old. That alone is an awesome idea.

    As far as I can tell, more than half the books on my shelf are Big Books, except few are best sellers. I'll learn, I suppose.

  16. Dudley Forster

    I’m a newbie at all this, but two BIG books (at least I think they are) would be DUNE and HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. DUNE is a classic prophecy filled. The messiah figure must defeat, and thereby destroy the status quo to save his people. The HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is a classic chase tale combined with a high sea adventure.

    I’m not sure if this is a BIG book, but I wonder if it has a high concept. I did this premise as one of the assignments for Alex’s book. “A law student stumbles onto conspiracy to assassinate key Supreme Court justices to assure that an endangered species will not stop an oil baron from access to billions of dollars of oil.” (of course the FIRM comes up while I am posting this.)

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Okay, I can see I'm not going to get any of my own work done today, but I'M the one who started the topic! Serves me right.

    More on BLADE ITSELF – I think the reason the book sold big was not that it was particularly high concept but because it was a very well-written thriller in a subgenre that is always popular – a "white boys from the hood" story about childhood friendships impacting, usually negatively, on adult lives. Dennis Lehane and Lorenzo Carcaterra do this subgenre all the time, and if you'll notice, Ben Affleck is particularly drawn to this theme in the movies he does (the latest one included).

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Elka, forgive me for going into full teacher mode, but this is what this discussion is about. If you pitched a book or film as "Someone flies away his whole house on balloons" I would have NO idea what that story is about. I haven't seen UP so I had to go look on IMDB to see what the story is. Actually I'm still not sure, but whimsical as the idea is, this is a story that is totally dependent on execution. A story that is dependent on execution is not high concept.

    Does that make any sense?

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Dudley, great pitch of THE PELICAN BRIEF! No, I wouldn't say that's a Big Book, except in that it's from a Big Author. It's a GOOD idea without being a BIG idea.

    HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER tapped into our nuclear/Cold War fears, so that elevates it to high concept.

    DUNE – certainly a classic but I can't specifically say why – it's been so long since I've read it that I can't comment on the concept.

  20. Dudley Forster

    Thanks Alex. If you get a chance you should reread Dune, then watch the movie to see Hollywood totally F**k up. As for Larsson, yes one of his main themes is an indictment against men who hate women and some of the scenes are hard to take, but Salander is such a great character just getting to know her is worth reading all three books ( as you can tell I am a Millennium fan).

  21. Boyd Morrison

    Good point, Alex. You're right that The Firm is about a deal with the devil. Maybe the irony is that Mitch McDeere finally got the high-paying job he always aspired to, but he didn't realize the price he'd have to pay to get it.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Boyd, that makes sense. And I can see irony in the character arc, too – that Mitch is desperate to transcend his family background, but actually he's able to save his own soul partly through his love for and loyalty toward his brother.

  23. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent discussion, Alex, and great blog!

    In addition to the points already made, I think we have to also be aware that the nature of the BIG book has changed with the globalization of society via social media, film, TV. For example, I don't think a book like PRINCESS DAISY (which was huge at the time, 1980), would have the same sort of impact now that we have the internet and see all of the dark, trashy glitz and decadence and comeuppance of so many so-called "stars."

    That said, it's interesting to go back and look at some of the big books of the 80s as a way of seeing what editors thought were big books back then, and how much some of them have remained a part of our culture and language about what's "big.:

    http://eightiesclub.tripod.com/id359.htm — List of best selling books of the 80s.

    If you look at things like CONTACT (Would a scientist fake contact with extraterrestrials, fake contact, to perpetrate and hoax and gain glory and more funding for her project?) and THE BOURNE IDENTITY (also 1980), (can an assassin who's been programmed by the government find his way back to his own humanity?), as well as the CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR series (the first of which was a best seller right about that time)… a lot of BIG books tend to ask (and try to answer) the zeitgeist questions of the time: Where are we going? Where did we come from? Will we survive? These books were popular during the Cold War era for the very reason that they asked and tried to answer those questions, and tapped into a universal concern.

    I think it's that universal concern that underlies many successful "Big" books — it taps into the zeitgeist of the era–whatever era. For example, I think one reason that MEN IN BLACK (movie) was so successful was that we'd just had a taste of a Gulf War (1991) and had seen the big corporation-running-of-America, and all sorts of "the public doesn't need to know" attitudes from the government.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fabulous, Toni! "Zeitgeist" is a much better word than "topical". Or maybe they're really two different but related issues. It's so incredibly funny to me that vampires and zombies are part of OUR zeitgeist. What the hell is that about???

    (They were always part of MY zeitgeist, but the whole country/world? It's wild.)

  25. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Alex —

    I think ultimately "topical" and "zeitgeist" are different but completely interwoven. "Topical" is what we know we're talking about. "Zeitgeist" is what we're afraid we're talking about, what's absorbing us on the subconscious level. It's when the latter reaches a tipping point that it becomes topical–and successful in books and movies that address it.

  26. toni mcgee causey

    I think the zombie and the vampire popularity in the zeitgeist is the awareness on a subconscious level that society is busy tearing itself apart, tearing the individual apart, while trying to maintain on the surface the polite fiction that everything is okay, we're addressing the societal problems, we're working on the big issues, so everyone can just go stick their heads in the sand, dears, and quit worrying.

    But then, I am a wee bit cynical.

  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think you're spot on. And I think the vampire/zombie thing is still zeitgeist rather than having tipped into topical. What exactly ARE we talking about? (I also suspect once something is topical, on the scale you're proposing, it's already crested and on its way out.)

    I have a theory on the sudden popularity of teen paranormal, but it will piss some people off.

  28. Cornelia Read

    I think topical is when you're tapping into headlines, zeitgeist is when you're tapping into archetypes/collective unconscious.

    And my favorite high-concept thing lately (or at least the faux trailer I'd most like to see made into a real movie): JANE AUSTEN FIGHT CLUB…


    Women would love it because chicks get to kick ass, men would love it because they'd get to watch chicks kicking each other's asses.

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    OMG, priceless.

    While we're on the subject of topical, though, or zeitgeist, I will buy a round for anyone who can explain to me why Jane Austen is suddenly so popular again.

  30. Cornelia Read

    Because her stuff is about young smart women who are completely oppressed by the patriarchy kicking ass anyway, but subtly? I always think she's got deeply noir underpinnings, but off-stage. Like, even if you DO manage to get married and not starve to death in an old parsonage once your brother finally manages to gamble away the last few shillings you have to your name without your permission, you're probably just die in childbirth or of the syphillis your husband picked up from rent-boys in London.

  31. toni mcgee causey

    Well, my personal pet theory (which I am certain is wrong) is that in this day and age when we are treated daily to the idiocies of things like Brittany going without underwear, the popularity of things like reality shows where they will stoop to anything to win, where every little salacious tidbit isn't mentioned quietly in back rooms, but is splattered on headlines and twitterfeeds and FB pages… people long for a little decorum, where there are finer qualities celebrated.

    I think, also, women have a high skill level to ignore the restrictive nature of that era and pretend it was all romantic.

  32. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Absolutely agreed, Cornelia, and I think it's the same with paranormal. I think that after 8 horrific years of the most patriarchal, paternalistic, militaristic administration in centuries, girl power rose up with a vengeance. Paranormal is all about the feminine, the Other, the homoerotic, the yin, the psychic, the intuitive, the interconnected. And sex.

  33. PK the Bookeemonster

    Dune's high concept: who controls the spice (the substance that is the center of all things to many cultures) = oil (and oh how the movie completely and truly bombed)
    The Stand and The Passage high concept: what if a virus got out of control and the world ended?
    Jane Austen popularity- deep down everyone loves a good romantic story and Austen is safe because it's a classic and not a bodice ripper to be made fun of (for me it's Colin Firth in his wet shirt) (kidding) (sort of)
    The Terminator high concept – what if the computers all turned on us and the world ended? What if you knew that it was going to happen or that it was you who was going to be the one to save it afterward?
    Harry Potter — what if you were a kid and you were prophesied to be the only one to confront the equivalent to Hitler? And no one believed you?

  34. Alafair Burke

    I'm so glad you've raised this. I actually believe the term mean something, but I haven't yet heard a definition from someone in publishing that encompasses MYSTIC RIVER or WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, and both of those books struck me as very, very "big." Some of the attempts here are much more articulate than those I'd heard previously.

  35. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, fabulous examples/analyses. Thanks for the reminder about Dune, too – it's all coming back to me now. Also Colin Firth in the wet shirt – that's high concept all on its own.

  36. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, I think MYSTIC RIVER is a big book not just because Lehane is so brilliant but because of the deliberate fairy tale analogies and themes in the book. That hits us deep in our unconscious.

    WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is on my TBR pile. Maybe someone else can comment?

  37. Dudley Forster

    I should have said this before. I want to thank all you Ratis for letting me jump right into the frey. I am leaning so much, Well except from the food posts. Hmmm, even they could be leaning experiences. Thinking Iron Chief for Authors. All the Rati bloggers in an Iron Chef free for all. On second thought let's just leave the foot posts out.


  38. Debbie

    The appeal of Jane Austin and vampires (Twilight – come on, who are we kidding?): Could it be both explore zeitgeist (entitlement) from opposite sides of the issue? In that Austin deals with the oppressed surviving without rescue (society can continue to indulge themselves it'll work out in the end) vs Meyer the concept that denial of carnal knowledge leads to relational intamacy (self sacrifice is intrinsically rewarding therefore we seek out ways to continue helping others)? As a society are we getting tired of entitlement? I'm thinking about Bill Gates compelling billionaires to give away their fortunes to charity. Gar, 'location, location, location' I'm not so sure. London to undisclosed location by train (Harry Potter( or really – Forks? The big story in these I think is the high concept don't you think? Eika, what are some of those books you have that maybe weren't big sellers but big books and what made them big?
    As for big books, how about Lord of the Rings?

  39. Bryon Quertermous

    The reason Mystic River and What the Dead Know seem like Big Books is because of what came before them. Both Laura and Dennis had made their mark with a series of compressed, limited view, limited option private detective novels, so these books with larger scope, larger location, and larger expectations. And of course Bigger Stakes that are only possible with standalone novels where anyone can die.

  40. billie

    I checked in early this a.m. before you'd posted and then forgot to come back! Great post, great comments. Wish I'd been in the mix earlier in the day!

    Aside on Eat Pray Love – I read the book at the urging of two friends – it was okay – but the movie is BIG for me because I adore Javier Bardem. 🙂

  41. Jane Sevier

    Great post, Alex.

    Since you've pointed out a distinction, could you give a specific example of the kind of female Big Book you describe, please? Most of the comments here–and the discussion in how-to books like Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel–focus on male Big Books.


  42. RhondaL

    I know – I'm late replying to this post. What about THE GODFATHER as a Big Book? The tagline for the first season of "The Sopranos" may have been "Family Redefined," but Puzo did it first.

    He wove all those important family events – like, weddings and christenings – into the activities of the Corleone crime family. Talk about Big Book AND High Concept.

    That was also a book that "everyone" during those times read – like THE FIRM, DA VINCI CODE and even the LEFT BEHIND series (more about LEFT BEHIND in a moment.)

    Come to think of it, LEFT BEHIND might qualify as a Big Book plus High Concept with its subject matching the title – life on earth after the Rapture.

    FWIW, a lot of us underestimate the cultural impact of that series with conservative readers. When I fly, I like to scope out what everyone else at the gate is reading. (E-readers will screw up that fun.) Like, back in the '80s, you'd get to the gate and see four or five people with THE FIRM. But, in the late '90s, once I'd left the northeast and was making a connection to a southern city, I'd see several passengers on each flight carrying a book in the LEFT BEHIND series.

    Even though – and probably because – I grew up in a conservative area, I've been told since I was 5 that the world was ending and I'd better "get right –" etc. So, I wasn't too worried about 2000, and I have my doubts about 2012, too. But a by-product of all that heavy-handed, Chicken Little stuff is an aversion to apocalyptic tales. So, despite its cultural impact, I couldn't get through LEFT BEHIND. But a lot of other people loved it. Different strokes.

    Anyway, Alex, a question, if I may, … you mentioned that a story dependent upon execution for the excitement it generates can't be high concept (or something like that)… could someone "reverse engineer" a story into high concept? Or is that like trying to stuff toothpaste back into the tube?

  43. Eika

    Alex, thanks for the heads-up. (I don't mind full teacher mode; I need it sometimes!) I guess I'll just have to read more high-concept books and watch some of the movies recommended here to get a better feel for things.

  44. toni mcgee causey

    Jane, I think one recent example of what editors thought of as a female "Big" book is THE HELP. It's put out by an imprint at Putnam, and they worked hard getting the press it needed to create the word-of-mouth. They believed in that book and backed it in several ways, including co-op in stores (which means good placement, advertising), along with a big PR push to get it out there and known to the book clubs and reviewers.

  45. becky hutchison

    Great blog, Alex. (I especially like your response to Cornelia relating to the last administration.) How about the first book in the OUTLANDER series as a Big Book for women? When it was first released, it was a different take on time-travel, and the series characters are in two centuries on two continents. It has romance, history, herbal medicine and adventure.

  46. Jane Sevier

    Thanks, Toni. That strategy certainly worked with THE HELP.

    What I was getting at was what distinguishes a female Big Book from a male Big Book.
    I should have phrased my question differently, but thank you for your answer.

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