A Case Study in Concept: A Story on the Brink

One of my favorite story coaching clients is a guy named Kalvin.  He’s prolific, he’s brought me a half dozen story ideas at various stages of development, each offering something tasty with significant upside.

In each case, the process has given him an expanded and illuminated platform to continue to grow his story.  That’s why he keeps coming back… it helps take the guesswork out of what is otherwise a very solitary and essential part of the process.

And it’s ridiculously cheap at any level, especially in context to what is at stake.

Kalvin has consented to the showcasing of one of his story coaching submissions.

In this case, it’s a $35 Kick Start Conceptual Analysis, which isolates his concept, contrasts it to premise, and offers a look at his planned First Plot Point story beat.  All essential and potentially fatal first steps in the journey from idea to finished draft.

In other words, it cuts to the heart of whether the story will work or not.

This one is about vampires.  Conceptual… unless it isn’t.

Kalvin’s Kick-Start Case Study submission– which provides a sneak peek at the $35 Kick-Start Questionnaire itself — is available here (free) for your review (just click the link), complete with my feedback (shown in red, only slightly enhanced for this venue).

You are welcome to look inside this process… AND to offer Kalvin your own feedback.

You don’t have to write a story to determine, to a great extent, how well it will work at its most basic and essential level. And you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to find out.

Even when you think you know, it’s good to really know.

Kalvin and I look forward to your thoughts.  I hope you find this to be of value in your own story development process. Much is clarified here, including the most common story trap I encounter in this work: the lack of a compelling concept underpinning the story’s premise.

Another set of eyes can save you from a year of writing without really knowing.


In addition to this story concept level of analysis, I also offer what I call the $150 Story Coaching Adventure, which goes beyond concept and the FPP to look at all of the major story milestones in context to the premise itself, in effect becoming an “architectural analysis” of your story on multiple levels.  It is my most popular level of story coaching, resulting in a process that is as much a story development tool as it is an evaluative one.  

Because you can’t hide from these questions.  You either nail them, or you don’t.  The goal of the process isn’t just to expose what you don’t know – which is a story-saving opportunity – it’s there to help you better grasp the principles and come up with some ideas that do work, or at least work better.

In fact, this will expose and explore almost exactly the same issues that a review of an entire completed manuscript would uncover… even before you’re written it.  Or at a fraction of the investment if you have.

Check it out HERE.


Filed under Six Core Competencies

14 Responses to A Case Study in Concept: A Story on the Brink

  1. Dave H

    Larry and Kalvin – thanks for this chance to share the review and learning process. On a quick first reading of the questionnaire and feedback I’d note that It does a nice job teasing out the difference between concept and premise. Larry points out that the concept is more like ‘what if vampires were living among us and there’s a secret society…’ than the original character and events description which was more a premise. That’s a crystal clear, helpful example.

    I wondered if it’s generally true that anytime we get down to the level of detail about characters and specific events we have moved out of the realm of ‘concept’ – which is higher abstraction, more general and thematic. I like Larry’s notion of concept as a landscape that invites/propels/connects the elements in a story while being ‘above’ the details of any particular story we might spin.

    I’m looking forward to pulling out some more insights, and seeing what others might find.

  2. I’ve experienced your critique via your analysis sheet and the questions you asked of my story changed everything. What a powerful tool. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks soooo much, Larry! Your blog has improved my writing more than anything. And great job, Kalvin. It’s scary to share your work, but I think your idea sounds awesome. Keep working on it!

  4. Sara Davies

    For Kalvin…my questions are about what the main character has to give up to join the vampire slayers (he is an orphan, and can’t play basketball), so is there an inherent challenge to leaving behind his current life, and if so, what does that look like? Is it just that this is a life-threatening mission or are there other sacrifices involved? What happens that tells him he is putting his life in danger? Is it the abduction of his friend or something else? Does he witness the abduction? Does he see his friend gradually become involved with the bad crowd of vampires? What does it take to become a vampire slayer? Who invites him to become a vampire slayer and why? And what exactly are the obstacles to rescuing his friend (and stopping the werewolf blood drug trade)? Who is he coming up against and why do they want his friend? Are the vampires going after a whole bunch of people, or does his friend have special characteristics that make him a unique target? So right away, I’m curious.

  5. @Sara and all – brilliantly said. These zero in on HERO EMPATHY, our ability and likelihood of ROOTING FOR the hero. Critical story physics, those. This is why concept and character, standing alone, are never/rarely enough. We need to imbue them with story physics that connect to each other, and connect them, for a story to really work well. L.

  6. Robert Jones

    @Larry–I always enjoy seeing specific examples of how SE and SP come into play in other people’s work. Because we are so close to our own, another person’s work can often be enlightening in ways we are blind to in our own work.

    @Kalvin–When Larry talks about core story, and larger problems your hero is to face in terms of goals, I am brought back to my own difficulties, as well as Larry’s comments on my own questionnaire. So as i was reading your Q&A, I kept wondering about the villain, the leader of this vampire gang who wants to deal in werewolf blood. The “Gang” and “Drug-Dealing” ideas sort of skims over the fact that there is an agenda behind this and that agenda is best serving the leader of the vampire pack–his/her goals.

    More questions to throw at you: What does the leader gain from hooking people on this werewolf blood? Does it do more than simply create more vampires? Does the werewolf blood make these new vampires easier for the leader to control? Why did he specifically pick on the friend of the hero? Does the friend serve a purpose other than being just a nosey kid who found out about the vampires and gets involved with the wrong crowd? Because if the vampires want to just turn him, why kidnap him (it would seem there is something more here) instead of just turning him and being done with it?

    How does that something more link the situation to the hero? Why would a group of vampire slayers, who presumably need to be in great physical condition to fight, offer train to a kid with a blown out knee?

    Again, I’m sensing there must be more to this. There has to be if the story is to work. There is a reason the slayers chose this lame kid. He has something they need, that will help in their fight. What is it? And how does it connect to the kidnapping of the friend? Does the friend know something about the hero that will help the vampires destroy the hero? Which probably means the vamps know the hero has some type of potential to hurt them. But why go through the elaborite scheme of kidnapping the friend? Why not just kill the hero and be done with it (to paraphrase Larry’s comments to me)?

    There is a reason the vampires need the friend to get to the hero. There is a reason the slayers need the hero to get to the vamps. And whatever it is will change the hero, his life, his future dreams, possibly the relationship he shared with his best (possibly his “only”) friend, forever. And when you figure out what these things mean, you’ll know what the hero has to give up when he joins the slayers, why they chose a lame duck–and why the vampires made off with his best friend. In other words, you’ll have the basis for your hero.

    Likewise, when you figure out what the leader gains from the kidnapping of the friend, what he gets from this new bread of vampires, how all this effects him personally, matches his goals and world views, then you’ll have your villain.

  7. Robert Jones

    ‘Breed,” but if the vamps want a little “bread” to soak up the excess blood, who am I to argue…LOL!

    And of course, it goes without saying that the goals and views of the hero and leader must have opposing world views and goals. Which, hey, vampires goals and humans, probably not the same…but if you can show some type of personal opposition, that the link between the two are connected on some level, that just strengthens the entire battle above and beyond yet another slayer dusting a gang of vamps.

  8. Kalvin Chinyere

    @Jessica Flory – Thanks! I will continue working on it.

  9. Kalvin Chinyere

    @Sara Davies – Thank you for the questions and comments. The way I have it now. The hero is a heavily recruited star basketball player. The hero and his brother were orphaned when their mother passed away from cancer. He and his brother have foster parents that don’t really care about them. His brother is killed and he is severely injured when they are attacked by a vampire. They thought the vampire was just some guy hassling one of their friends, so they tried to intervene.

    The hero’s brother, best friend, and only family member is dead. And he blames himself. And the doctors tell him that his injuries will prevent him from ever playing basketball at a high level again.

    The challenge in deciding to become a slayer is the fear of death. The vampire killed the hero’s brother and severely injured him. The same vampire is also suspected by the organization as being involved in the murder of the experienced slayer that the organization is recruiting the hero to replace.

    To become a slayer, the hero is given the powers of a vampire and then trained by the organization on how to kill them.

    The hero’s initial plan is to get revenge, but then he learns about the vampires’ plan. His obstacles include navigating the paranormal world, finding the vampires, finding out their plan, defeating the vampires, and stopping their plan.

  10. Kalvin Chinyere

    @Robert Jones – Thank you for your questions and comments. The organization is a group of paranormal slayers. Each of the five primary slayers are given a gift that enhances their human abilities. So, a slayer’s ability is related to their natural physical abilities and their training.

    The organization tries to recruit the hero because of his young age, his natural physical ability, his past willingness to train hard, and the fact that he now has a reason to want to kill vampires.

    The villain is a drug dealer who was turned into a vampire, who has now found a way to change werewolf blood into a new and addictive drug. His motive is profit and he needs a sales force.

  11. Deb

    @Kalvin — The more I read about your WIP, the more interested I get. The one thing that popped into my mind when I read your most recent posts is this: I want the challenge the hero is facing and his fear of death be somehow externalized in the character of the lead vampire–your arch villain. Make him so menacing and memorable that he somehow seems invincible, and then have him challenge your hero at the level of his deepest fears. Sure the villain wants to make a profit and is gathering a sales force, but what’s his deeper motive? Power? Revenge? World annihilation?

    Really looking forward to reading more!

  12. Sara Davies

    @ Kalvin:

    This sounds really cool. It makes perfect sense for the main character to choose to become a vampire slayer. His only family member is dead, he has nowhere to go, and his life is in danger. If I were in his shoes, I’d be signing up right now, no problem. Just hearing about it makes me want to sign up. So, yes to hero empathy.

    @ Deb:

    I appreciate what you’re saying about externalizing the challenges and fears in the person of the bad guy. I keep coming back to this in my own stuff – it is not just the situation against the main character, but the villain as an embodiment of the problems faced by the hero. How everything in a story has to dramatize the struggle, issues, or arguments that define the core dramatic conflict. Great points.

  13. Kalvin this is great and I second the kudos for being brave enough to share with us!

    I love the idea of the lead vampire being an undead drug dealer. It lends itself nicely to a potentially moving theme for your book. I’m picturing something like this:
    What happens to bored, orphaned teenagers? Through a series of life-choices and circumstances, they can
    A. be “good” – pour themselves into sports (or academics or whatever), learning self discipline and becoming heros; or
    B. be “bad” – chase money and superficial reward, becoming thugs and drug dealers.

    Whatever theme emerges as you write, you have a nice contrasting set of good guy/ bad guy. Something I find difficult in my own storytelling. 🙂

  14. Robert Jones

    Kalvin–First of all, you’ve made some great adjustments. I feel the story has the potential to really rock now. I’m excited for you. I’m with Deb on amping things up even more with the villain. You may already have it in mind to make him pretty bad-ass. So all I can do is give you my vision while reading your descriptions above and hope my image can add something to you own.

    I’m thinking this guy was a drug dealer prior to being a vampire. This says a lot about his character already. But now he’s a drug dealer with super powers. I don’t know that these powers would make him any smarter (the fact that he’s still dealing says he hasn’t learned much), but this sure is going to play with his ego.

    He’s a drug dealer who is now immortal, a god in his own mind. He’s playing the same game, but he’s upped that game. And what does a drug dealer do who suddenly becomes a god? He changes the playing field, bending reality to his liking. The werewolf blood being very addictive is part of that. It’s a drug suitable for the gods, making the competition look like a stroll with a can of Red Bull. And this may be taking the story down a slightly different path, or possibly adding another layer, but there’s going to be a huge war the vamp dealer is bringing to town. One in which a lot of innocant humans are going to be mowed down in the crossfire between vampires and drug-lords. And maybe that’s part of his plan. Take out the other drug dealers, mow down the police (at least those he can’t bribe or blackmail). Because this vamp drug dealer plans to expand and hook as many humans as he can on his new drug. Profitable, yes, but why stop there with the humans? What if the addicted humans get rounded up and sold to other vamps because their werewolf infected blood is now a drug that vamps get off on.

    The dealer vamp is now working both sides of the street and collecting from humans and vamps alike. Oh, and maybe those humans wounded in battle during the drug war get pumped full of the drug and taken as prisoners to be sold. Maybe they even preyed on orphans, or anyone in situations that appeared unstable. New foster parents might think the kids just ran away if the disappeared into the night. And killing the brother of the hero in a foiled attempt might make the drug dealer vamp the childhood boogie man of the hero…a nightmare he thought he made up to deal with the horrific conditions surrounding his brother’s death.

    Finding out this creature is real, that might exacerbate some fears. But I do go on. Hopefully some of this is helpful 🙂