Monday, February 16, 2009

High Concept and High Voltage

Say you have a nifty invention. It's useful; it's elegantly-designed; there's a need for it. You put it on the market and of course it sells well.

However, you start getting complaints about poor quality; your customers find the product breaks after an unfairly short period of time.

A little research shows you the problem isn't the device's construction; it's how people are using it. Something about human nature is causing your customers to handle the device in a way that damages it.

Here's an example: Consider a standard electrical plug. You know yanking a plug out of the wall by its cord will damage the wires, and yet it's easier to do that than to pinch the plug and waggle it out the way you're supposed to. Human nature prompts us to do what's easiest, which in this case damages wires.

So when human nature is the problem, how do you solve that problem?

I think everyone's default solution is to try to educate people on how to behave. That's certainly how the matter of electrical plugs was handled; we got taught as wee sprouts not to yank them out of the wall by the cord.

There's a second way to solve these kinds of problems, however. It costs more, but it works better. Instead of trying to change human nature, you can change the product.

Here's the electrical plug attached to El Husbando's Margarita Pimp blender.

I think this is brilliant! They made it easier to pull the plug out the correct way than to yank on its cord. Human nature now works in the appliance's favour.

It's been said that genius is being able to look at something everyone has seen, and see that which no one has seen. I think somebody showed a bit of genius in coming up with this plug design.

McKoala (what's that clicking noise...?) recently said the idea for my WIP was "high concept", which is probably much higher praise than it deserves, especially in its current condition. (No really, do you hear claws?) To me, high concept novels are ones where the author looked at stories that were already popular, then came up with a perfect, brilliant twist to make their book fresh without making it inaccessible.

In other words, "high concept" means building a better mousetrap (or plug). It's the thing that prompts people to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" because it's so obvious in hindsight.

The person who designed that plug probably didn't need to work very hard at it. Once the question was framed ("How do I change things so the wires don't break?"), the solution was obvious.

For writers, the question is, "How do I write a story that resonates with people?"

Before you can answer that, I think you need to look at a category of stories that are enduringly popular and really analyze why they are appealing. Once you understand that, coming up with a fresh twist on what already works becomes a heck of a lot easier.

And who says being a genius is all that tough, anyway?

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