Quick story to encapsulate the mindset – complete with barriers and old tapes and other priorities – of the writer who struggles with the notion of concept.
Concept, of course, is the presence of something conceptual within a story.
It’s not the story itself, but rather, the landscape for one. A framework. A compelling notion or proposition. It can be thematic (as it was in “The Help), it can be an issue of character (as is the case in any successful series). It can even simply be a fascinating moment in history, provided you don’t settle for that and launch a dramatic question within it.
Concept is one of the Six Core Competencies that I write about . Because it’s always there, yet not always something that is leveraged in the story… particularly in rejected stories.
Make a note of that. One of the things that gets stories published is the presence of something compellingly conceptual at its heart.
In all cases, in all genres…
… the presence of something conceptual that becomes the context for the story… is something that fuels the story with interest even before, and always in context to, plot and character.
Thing is, concept has a different role, and a different nature, from genre to genre.
If you write in one genre only, then you need to understand the nature and role of concept in your genre.
If you write in multiple genres, then you are a like a general practitioner in medicine, you need to become the master of several conceptual disciplines, each of them unique.
This is the thing missing from the conversation about concept…
… and why it confuses so many. (Click HERE for a previous Storyfix post on this). I experienced this first-hand this fall when I was teaching a full-weekend workshop to three dozen very passionate and accomplished romance authors.
I realized that I was the source of one writer’s confusion. As a guy who makes his living writing and teaching this stuff, that was an alarming feeling.
Romance is one of the genres in which concept is always challenging and often confusing. Because the genre itself is a concept, and from that writers make the mistake of not seeking a deeper level of conceptual framework for their stories.
Also, many writers use the work of their favorite romance authors as a model. And those may not rely on concept as heavily as this implies they should. Don’t be fooled, though. They can get by on premise alone. Their name IS the concept.
For us, though, we need to break in with something stronger than just another day in the love business.
Here’s how it went down.
I was doing my thing about concept, using it as the stage upon which the rest of craft shows itself. A story doesn’t solely depend on skill and structure to work, the raw material of the story itself – the inherent conceptual grist of it – is a huge factor.
A boring, normal, slice of life story, well told, will still be boring. Unless that life is interesting… which by definition makes it conceptual. But a meaty conceptual framework… now that’s something to work with.
So there I was, doing my whole concept dance, giving examples, defining and comparing and contrasting, asking for their concepts and analyzing as a group, and I’d used my favorite case study for concept, which is all the stories about Superman.
Ten films, hundreds of comic books, a major television franchise. Each one of them, every single movie and comic and episode, with its own premise. But each of them was framed by – arising from a landscape defined by – the CONCEPT itself. The conceptual notion was was and is Superman.
That seemed to work.
(Quick note here: if you’re not aware that concept and premise are different things, then I hope you’ll dive deeper on this site for that; the difference is huge, and the very thing that might be hindering your progress, or better, empowering your success.)
On the second day, though, as we were diving into their own stories across all of the elements and criteria, one woman’s hand went up. I’d noticed her body language over the course of the workshop – squirming is telling, and facial ticks speak volumes – so I sort of knew that was coming.
Her voice was shaky, her tone challenging. “I write romances. They’re love stories about real people in the real world. I don’t write about superheroes or murders or conspiracies or paranormal powers or schemes or whatever the hell you mean by something “conceptual.”
She held up both hands to show sarcastic quotation marks with her fingers.
“So I don’t really know what this has to do with me. Or with any of us.”
If you’ve ever been in that moment, when someone calls you out in front of a group, when they have a legit point (one that illustrates some combination of my own failure to clarify and her resistance because she was stuck in the limiting belief of a narrow paradigm), you know what that was like for me.
Could have heard a dangling participle drop in that room.
You see, romance is a great playing field for concept.
Concept within a romance, or a mystery (perhaps the second most challenging genre within which to leverage concept… in both cases as differentiated from premise) is one of best ways to elevate a story from a very crowded field.
But you have to dig for it.
One of the writers in the room was having huge success – as in, hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the past few months – with her latest romance, and I used that story as an example. (Click HERE to have a look.)
Her story had a killer concept. Killer, in the sense that it fit perfectly within the romance genre. It didn’t rely on paranormal powers or superheroes at all, and yet it was the very thing that made the novel work.
In her story a recently single woman buys an old house, concurrent with meeting a handsome stranger in town. As she begins to remodel, she finds an old journal hidden beneath the floorboards, telling a story – a love story – from half a century ago. It had war and tragedy in it, too.
Boom. There’s a concept. No capes or ghosts in sight.
The hero (heroine, in the context of the romance trade, where they still differentiate gender in this regard) became fascinated by this. As a means of her own healing, she wanted to track down the author and return the journals to him, and in doing so her path crosses not only with that of the handsome stranger, but with an entire family dynamic that links to the journals themselves.
That is conceptual. It is a compelling notion, standing alone before we meet anyone (because the house and the journals were there), and it fuels the plot itself. It is a catalyst for the story.
I hit them this simple example, too:
You have a love story. Do you have a concept yet, simply by being a love story? Yes… and it is as vanilla and pedestrian and less-than-compelling as can be, because so far it is exactly like every other incoming romance manuscript in this regard. Two people, falling in love… somehow.
So what would make this conceptual, yet keep it within the mainstream romance genre? Many answers raise their hand here.
A love story in a nunnery. A love story among White House staffers. A love story in the military. A love story told in flashback in the presence of present-day dementia (one Nicholas Sparks used that one to great effect). A love story with amnesia. With a violent ex lover lurking. With a criminal past in play. A love story in a real world in the presence of conceptual pressures… like office politics, legal issues, racial issues, sexual preference issues… the field is wide and long.
It could be as easy as giving your players conceptual careers — jobs that are interesting and vicarious, work that is fascinating and meaningful. Or hobbies… maybe one is a skydiver and the other is terrified of heights.
A love story among brain surgeons, for example. Or lawyers. Or teachers. Or bank robbers. Anything that creates a compelling arena for your otherwise “real world” love story.
Nobody is suggesting you cast your romance with superheroes or spin them around conspiracies (ironically, there are sub-genres of romance that do just that, and each of them has its own expectations, limits and opportunities where concept is concerned). The opportunity, rather, is to infuse your setting, your story ambiance, and your characters with something that is conceptual in nature, as defined by imbuing it with something that is compelling as a stage upon which your otherwise “real and normal” love story will unfold.
All effective fiction requires conflict.
Romances are not a diary of “what happened” as the sole narrative spine. By definition, there are problems that must be conquered, perhaps villains to defeat, and things to overcome… all of it presenting conflict and obstacles to the two lovers ending up together.
The source of conflict is your opportunity to become conceptual.
Really, in romance this should be obvious. Because if the HEA (Happily Ever After) is a non-negotiable trope of the genre, then we already know how it will end – there’s no suspense on that count – they’ll be together somehow. It is the “somehow” of that where the conflict resides, and is the opportunity for the writer to bring something conceptual to the exposition.
Later that day this writer cornered me in the courtyard outside the meeting room. I couldn’t read her, but her face wasn’t as red, so I was encouraged.
She got it. Said she really thought about it, and realized that there wasn’t a gap in the conversation after all, nor was there an exception where romance novels are concerned.
Conflict is universal to fiction (literary writers, shelve your exception to this and go with me here, for the rest of us this in always true). When the source or genealogy of that conflict is conceptual, the story is already elevated to a place where your characters and your plot will be richer, more emotionally resonance, and perhaps most of all, more vicarious for the reader.
And romance is, if nothing else, a genre that totally depends on the vicarious ride it provides to the reader.
What is conceptual about your story?
Can you describe your concept without having to introduce a hero or a plot? Is your concept a framework or a landscape for a story, standing alone as something compelling?
The acid test is when you pitch your concept just this way.
No premise. No heroine, hero of plot.
If the listener says, “Wow, that’s really interesting, I’d like to hear a story told from that idea,” then you have something conceptual in play.
That’s what everyone, for decades now, has said in response to the concept that underpins every Superman story. Without that cape and those super powers, there is no franchise.
That’s what we said when presented with the concept of Harry Potter: what if there was a school for paranormally gifted children, to teach them how to become better and more powerful witches and wizards?
Yeah, that worked. All of the Potter books had their own separate premise, but all of them sprang from this one single concept.
In romance and in mysteries, you need to bring something conceptual to the setting or the character. It’s harder, because there are boundaries. But reality is full of conceptual hooks, and the enlightened writer will benefit from brainstorming your story basis in this regard.
That’s why Concept is one of the Six Core Competencies.
And why you are missing a huge opportunity if you take the conceptual level of your story for granted.
Would you like another set of eyes – professional eyes – to evaluate your concept? Be among the first to experience my newest story coaching service:
The Quick-Check Concept Analysis, priced at $49.
All I need is your genre, your statement of concept, and a brief look at where you want to go with this relative to premise. By keeping it all under 50 words (the concept alone should be one sentence), we can see how conceptual your story landscape will be.
Well over half of the writers I work with get this wrong, either by skipping concept altogether or making it totally redundant with premise. My evaluation will tell you what’s strong, and what’s missing, relative to your conceptual intentions.
A list of criteria to evaluate your concept is included, along with links to tutorials on the subject.
Pay via Paypal, or ask me to bill you. Turnaround within 72 hours.
(Note: this is a more focused, abbreviated program than the one I’ve been doing, with target criteria shown to assess your answer. It’s new, and will be rolled out officially in January. But it’s available now, in this new format.)