Monthly Archives: February 2013

“Side Effects” (Deconstruction 1) – The True Concept

Wherein we differentiate a killer concept from its lesser forms.

Welcome to the first installment of this analysis of “Side Effects,” the currently-playing film by Steven Soderbergh.  Look for it as a Best Original Screenplay nominee next year… I’m calling that one now.

The context of these posts will be to create learning by using the film to illustrate the core principles of storytelling excellence – the Six Core Competencies, and the Six Realms of Story Physics that empower them.  I haven’t interviewed the screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns) or the director (Soderbergh), so I can’t speak for them regarding the process of developing the story, including how and where where they started.

But that doesn’t matter here.  For all I know (though I doubt it), they backed into this brilliant premise after years of hit and miss.  What matters is what this story teaches us about how to wield tools – such as Concept – to reach a compelling end result, without years of hit and miss.

The Importance of Concept to This Story

And to YOUR story.

The notion of “concept” has been kicked around on this site over the past two weeks, as well as in over 200 Storyfix posts (for the several folks who answered my recent call for topics with “could you explain more about Concept, please?”… use the search bar to find them, listed in reverse chronological order).  The precise definition of a “story concept” remains imprecise,  as does the minds of many on what it means to a story in development.

The mission of a concept, however, it crystal clear.

In my opinion, it means everything.  In general, and to “Side Effects.”

A properly rendered Concept identifies your CORE STORY, without actually exploring.   It is the end-game of the narrative strategy you are about to put into play.  And thus, it fuels every scene with CONTEXT.  When you watch the film a second time (or after this series), you’ll see that context, often sub-textual, in each story beat, even those that appear before Channing Tatum’s body hits the floor.

That’s the first take away, from this or any other story that works: the narrative unfolds IN CONTEXT TO THE CONCEPT from page 1.  (And yes, I know I’m repeating this… and I will again… this point alone can literally cut decades off your learning curve.)

So what IS the concept of “Side Effects”? 

Let’s play a little game with that, starting with what this concept isn’t.

The point is to recognize when – and how – a statement of story concept comes up short, when it’s not good enough, deep enough, or compelling enough… even though it’s not technically off-topic, per se.  For example: you say The Davinci Code, novel and film, is “about paintings by Leonardo Davinci.”   That’s your tale on the concept.  Are you wrong?  In the context of a writer trying to identify the core conceptual story and USE that as a story development too… that’s absolutely a wrong answer.

I see this ALL THE TIME in the stories sent to me.  Which is why I’m pounding on it here.  Concepts that, a) aren’t really concepts at all, and b) seem to be a discarded and wasted tool, a placeholder, because the core story that follows turns out to be something else entirely.

Usually, that’s dramatic suicide.

The following statements of concept all pertain to “Side Effects.” 

I’ve categorized them as either:

–         NOT so good.

–         Okay, but without a compelling story emerging.

–         Sufficient, you can sniff a story here, but it could be better.

–         Nails it.

That last one is the killer concept.  The one they made the movie from.  The one YOU should shoot for AS SOON AS POSSIBLE in your process (ahead of time if you plan, or if you’re a pantser, as quickly in the drafting sequence as possible, so you can start over on a new draft that will be written from this higher/better context).

Because – and feel free to tattoo this to your forehead – this, when you find it, is WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT!!!!!

Let’s be clear, the core story in “Side Effects” is NOT, at its core, a look at the dark side effects of prescription drugs.  That’s a by-product of what IS the dramatic concept, which, as it turns out, is a murder mystery.  That false start is purposeful and strategic.  Be very clear on this: it’s not there because the writer started down one road and took a dramatic turn elsewhere.

One more thing before we begin.

Let’s review the mission, the purpose, of a killer story concept.  It is much more specific and dramatic than defining a topic, a subject, an arena, a setting or a theme.  It is more specific than “the adventures of” the protagonist (the most common shortcoming of too many non-fucntional concepts).

Concept is, rather, a compelling proposition, a question that demands an answer (even if not stated as a question, it implies one).  It brings something inherently interesting and urgent to the story arena.  It is inherently interesting and fresh.

It promises, even by implication, drama through tension and conflict.  It is about something happening.

It is not necessarily focused on the hero, but rather, about the forthcoming implication of a hero’s quest… something the hero must do or achieve.  A problem or a goal.

It doesn’t go anywhere near trying to answer to the question it poses.  That’s not part of the concept’s job.  That’s YOUR job, via the narrative sequence.

And, it does it all in one sentence, or one efficiently stated question.  It’s always a matter of depth and degree… you get to decide on that count.  But the goal is ALWAYS the identification of the CORE DRAMATIC STORY, rather than just the arena or theme or character.

“A story about a blind orphan” is not a concept.  Yet.  “A story set in Ireland in the 1300s, about a ghost and a descendant” is not a concept.

A compelling question leads to a itch for an answer, which becomes the story itself.  You’ll notice that not all of the preliminary “Side Effects” concepts below have such a question… for the simple reason that the insufficient ones don’t really lead to one, other than… “So what? What the hell happens?”

So let us begin. 

Here is the evolutionary thread for the concept for “Side Effects,” beginning with a few story ideas, technically relevant, that DON’T PROVIDE SUFFICIENTLY ROBUST CONTEXT for a dramatic story.


A story about the dangerous side effects of depression drugs.

A wife kills her husband with the help of her lover.

A story about a shrink and his depressed patient.

A story about a stock market scam.

A story about a broken legal system.

All of these are ideas.  Fodder.  None of them imply conflict, and all could be a documentary on PBS.  None of these are STORIES yet.


“What if a woman on prescription antidepressant drugs kills her husband and blames the side effects of her prescription?”

“What if two lovers conspire to murder the husband of one of them and get rich in the process?”

Why aren’t these good enough, even when combined?  Because a story told from either of these context’s could easily be episodic.  It needs more drama, more layering, the promise of a twist and an emerging hero.


A story about a wife who kills her husband and tries to cover it up with a profitable market scam involving prescription drugs, diverting the blame to her shrink.  (Which can be framed as a question…)

“What if a woman fakes dire side effects to the antidepressants she’s been prescribed, claiming the side effects caused her to blackout and murder her husband while sleep-walking?”

Notice how this covers it, the whole story is in there, conceptually, even while leaving some plot threads out.  That while this is good, but not great.


“What if a wife and her lover conspire to create the illusion that her use of prescription depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him  while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”

Each story point, each twist and shift, that you saw in the movie is birthed FROM this highest hierarchical level of concept.

Why is each succeeding iteration of this concept more effective than the one before it?  Why is the last one the best one?

Easy.  The answer is the point of all of this, so please get it: because these are aspects, nuances and focuses the WRITER MUST UNDERSTAND FROM PAGE ONE of the story being written, in the draft that will ultimately work best.  And, it has taken on a compelling essence that was missing, in specificity and degree, from the earlier iterations.

This is the CORE story.  Not the thematic message about antidepressants.  Not a depressed woman driven to desperation.  This is a MURDER MYSTERY, with THRILLER elements driving it.  The fun of seeing this film is in believing you are experiencing one core story, itself compelling, when it fact it’s something else entirely, and has been since the opening credits.  You were fooled… not by trickery, but by masterful storytelling that immerses the audience in the dramatic experience in a visceral way.

Each scene in the Part 1 SETUP is in context to THIS concept.  The movie even flashes back to show you that context, which remained almost completely cloaked in stealth until… the MID-POINT.

Right on schedule, I might add.

Imagine trying to write this story without knowing, a) the drug thing was all a scam, a setup, from the very beginning; b) that there were two women behind it; c) that the killer’s real doctor (not her lover-doctor) had a sketchy background that might implicate him, and d) that doctor (Jude Law) will set out to correct it, with is own character arc at stake.

That, in fact, JUDE LAW is the hero and protagonist of this story.  Try to wrap your head around not knowing that, as the writer.  Imagine trying to PANTS this thing.

You couldn’t   You could use the organic pantsing as a MEANS OF STORY DISCOVERY, but from that point on you AREN’T making it up as you go along.  Because its all now IN CONTEXT TO SOMETHING.

And that something is the CONCEPT.

You must, at some point, come to KNOW what your CORE STORY is… what your story is REALLY ABOUT in a DRAMATIC context.  Your own original “idea” just might sabotage you if you don’t.

You can’t manipulate your reader to optimize story physics, you can’t execute that narrative strategy, without KNOWING.

And how to you know?  Your CONCEPT tells you.

So DON’T SETTLE on this, the most empowering element of your story development.  “The adventures of…” won’t be good enough.  The arena won’t be enough.  The theme won’t be enough.

DRAMATIC TENSION, emerging from your CONCEPT… is what you need.  It is, in fact, the very thing that will EMPOWER your theme and setting, perhaps where your passion for the story began.  Without this concept, “Side Effects” would have been a linear character profile of a depressed woman, more suited to PBS than a mass audience.

You need to fully understand what your CORE story is ultimately ABOUT,… dramatically (versus thematically)… both internally and externally (to the hero)….  beyond its theme.  Beyond its character arcs and internal struggle.  Beyond it’s plot points.

The concept and the core story it tells are what FACILITATES all of those important things.  The theme and the character arc EMERGE from the core story, they AREN’T the core story.

Which is also to say: you need to know how your story will END before you can write a draft worthy of having FINAL on the cover page.

Your statement of concept may not tell you that, but it will tell you what road to take – the most compelling and rewarding road – to get there.

Click HERE to read Part 2 in this series.

NEXT in this series: evolving the concept into a narrative sequence… what decisions are involved, and where to put those story points, using “Side Effects” as an example.  And… it may not be what you think it is, thus illustrating a very advanced and brilliant storytelling strategy… one YOU can emulate in your own work.

Also, I’ll provide a scene log (sequential scene summary) of the entire film, with major story milestones identified.


Filed under Side Effects Deconstruction

Good to Great: Nail a Better Concept To Empower Your Story

Pop quiz: what is the CONCEPT of your story?

I ask this of all of my story coaching clients, right at the top.  The answers are frustratingly all over the map.  And yet, I believe it is one of the most important things a writer needs to understand about their story.

The problem with both the question and the answer is that the definition and street-level interpretation of “concept” is vague, often imprecise and widely misunderstood.  It’s like trying to answer the questions: what is rich?  What is health?  What is wealth?  What is happiness or friendship or good or evil?

The inherent risk – for both the definition of “concept” AND these other questions – is that a wrong answer can hold you back… or even get you killed.

Some writers don’t understand why we need to even address the question.

As if, in their insular writing world, a concept will somehow emerge from a linear narrative that ends up going in a specific direction that wasn’t ever on the radar.  That can work, that’s just a process… but it’s how a concept is reflected in a final draft that matters.

And if a compelling concept never surfaces, the story will suffer for it.

Let’s say you are writing a story ABOUT Ireland in the 1300.  If THAT and that alone is the depth and extent of your concept… then you risk a story that is low on dramatic tension, character and pace.  You’ll lean toward a historical travelogue.  You’ll likely end up with an “adventures of…” type of story, an epic saga (good luck with that), with a hero going from one thing to the next in this time and place.

That hardly ever works.

To get there, allow me to offer a short case study:

One of my clients recently answered the question (“What is your concept?”) this way:

A young girl moves to Chicago to mend a broken heart and meets an attractive options trader who ends up having ties to the criminal world.

Is that a concept?  Sorta.   Hell, anything is a concept, right?  You could write a story about that.

But… it too easily could end up being “the adventures of our Heroine in Chicago on the arm of this dark dude.”  Without a linear core story.  Without drama or stakes.  A travelogue.  A slice of her life, for better or worse.

While you might argue that, based on the wide breath of the interpretation of the word “concept” in the storytelling context, this IS a concept, I’m fairly certain that it isn’t a good concept.  Or at least, a complete enough concept.

At risk is what story the writer actually tells from it.

Trust me, “The Help” is not “the adventures of three black maids in 1962 Mississippi.  “The Hunger Games” is not “the adventures of a girl in a futurist dystopian world.”  If it was, Katniss might have ended up a hair stylist in the Capitol City… and if you remember those coifs from the film, that would truly be have been a horror story.

Both of those bestsellers had much more compelling and SPECIFIC concepts than an “adventures of…” type of narrative focus.  That works in bio-picks an literary character studies, but rarely in commercial fiction.

Gut check: is that you?  Does your concept lean into an “adventures of…” type of story, versus a SPECIFIC THING THAT HAPPENS AND MUST BE RESOLVED type of story?

The latter is the concept you should be striving to craft.

Back to our example… the responding story from that stated initial concept might have been this: “… they had some adventures, ups and downs… and then they lived happily ever after.”

But even if the author knew that, intended that, it didn’t make it into the concept.  Which IS the core story being told.

Agents want more.  Publishers want more.  Readers want more.  Cool settings and themes are great, but rarely are they the stuff of the CORE DRAMATIC story being told.  This is all about the name of the game here… giving the reading public what they want, through your eyes and words.  A literary win-win.

And that’s the key, right there: the word DRAMATIC.  That’s what was missing from this first pass at a concept.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell, and it is pandemic in its scope: writers are too often, when challenged to describe their concepts, describing “situations” and “locations (time and place),” where “adventures ensue.”

The concept is what your story is ABOUT, at a DRAMATIC level.  It it’s only a situation — you’re in a situation when you drive to the dentist, the traffic sucked, but that doesn’t make it a story worth telling — then the story isn’t there yet.

I’ve seen all of these recently, posing as statements of concept:

A woman who falls in love with her boss.

A spaceship lands on a strange new world that looks a lot like Earth.

A dragon wants to become human, and must win the love of a virgin to make it happen.

A tall cowboy named John travels in time to 1950s Los Angeles and becomes a movie star.

A marriage is in trouble when one spouse begins to have an affair.

All of these are SITUATIONS.  There is little about them that is CONCEPTUAL.

Each of them perhaps implies a story landscape… one in which everything or nothing at all could happen.   But someone reading these statements of concept wouldn’t know which.  Worse yet, the writer may not know.

All of them could end with “… and lived happily ever after.”

All of them need more.  More depth, more specificity, more promise of conflict and stakes.  Which, in each case, would make them more CONCEPTUAL.

Let’s return yet again to the first example…

…. (“A young girl moves to Chicago and meets a hot options trader who ends up having ties to the criminal world.”)  and see what the writer really meant.   Which is a good thing… at least there really was something more in mind.

Too often, there isn’t.

When asked to explain the source of dramatic tension in this story, the answer went like this:

When one of her new lover’s best friends confesses he’s working undercover with the FBI and asks her to wear a wire for him to snag the boyfriend on Federal charges, she must decide which team she wants to play on, and thus, who she really is.

Dripping with dramatic tension.  With stakes.  Theme.  Choices.

This is more than “the adventures of…”  There is a CORE story on the table.  One with DRAMA and STAKES driving it.

Now THAT is a concept.  It opens a door to a hero’s quest that is some combination of problem solving, goal pursuit, the crafting fate, theme… all of it in the midst of danger and consequences.

Combine her first answer with the second, and you have a concept you could successfully pitch:

What if a naïve girl moves to Chicago and meets a sexy options trader with criminal ties, and must decide who she is when a Federal undercover officer posing as her lover’s friend asks her to work with him to incriminate the guy?

Notice, too, how much more effective this is when posed as a “what if?” proposition.

The writer actually had the second answer when offering the clipped, insufficient (because it didn’t so much as touch on the CORE story) answer to the first.   But this writer didn’t understand that THIS WAS CORE STORY…and thus, the heart of the CONCEPT.

Who knows how the narrative might have been formed without that realization.  Because EVERYTHING in a great story connects to the CORE story in some way, however subtle.

That’s the risk.  That’s why we need to know what our concept is, and if it works.

She does now, by the way.

IF she had written about the first stated concept, the story might have unfolded episodically, simply taking us along for the ride as the new romance unfolds.  This then that, then something else… oh what a grand time she’s having in Chicago.  Maybe later she tosses in the undercover BFF, but the story might not have been ABOUT that aspect of things.

Even though, at the end of the day, THAT is the heart of her concept.

Stories always turn out better when the writer understands the CORE STORY… and the core story should be defined by a well-rendered statement of concept.

The core story, and the statement of concept that gets it into play, should never be an after-thought. 

This is storytelling, not a diary or a memoir.  Dramatic tension is key, as is pacing.  Something needs to be at stake.

Rather, a great concept should demonstrate the writer’s grasp of STORY PHYSICS in terms of engaging a reader on a deeper, emotional level.

A final example of a story concept that DOES nail it, just to send you away seeking the right thing:

What if a guy engaged in a murder investigation stumbles across a 2000-year old conspiracy that could topple one of the largest religions in the world, and must survive attempts to silence him before he can discover the true nature of the underlying secret?

Definitely not “the adventures of a guy on assignment in Paris.”

That’s a killer concept.  Even if it offends you to the core.  Maybe because it does.

It’s all just fiction, after all.

The difference between a rejection slip and nearly 100 million copies sold, or somewhere in between… that’s the power of concept.


Where are you with your concept?  Need a second pair of eyes?  Click HERE to see how you can verify that your concept really does lead to a CORE STORY, or if you risk episodic storytelling that doesn’t.







Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)