Idea… concept… premise… story… structure… theme… this is what writing guru James Frye means when he talks about writers bleeding profusely from the forehead.
“Man of Steel” opened this week, to good-but-not-particularly great reviews.
A technical marvel, absolutely. It’s directed by the guy who did “300” (Zack Snyder), and you’ll see the same visual magic in this film.
I know another Superman won’t be this month’s cup of tea for a lot of you. I’m not here to sell it to you. I’m here today to alert you to what it can teach us.
“Man of Steel” religiously follows and clearly demonstrates basic 4-part story structure – the contextual quartiles and the plot points that separate them are screaming to be noticed, as they usually are in action/hero-driven stories – but even better, it presents yet another opportunity to clarify the continuing wrestling match with the notion CONCEPT.
And you thought we’d beaten that dead horse to death. But the horse is still trying to get out of the stall and run.
A Concept is NOT a PREMISE.
More accurately, it is a promise.
Easily eight out of ten of the projects I take in for story coaching, a process in which the writer is asked to define their concept, get this WRONG.
Eight out of ten deliver a PREMISE instead.
The problem with that, and it can be a story-killer, is that half of those don’t have even a hint of something conceptual behind the premise itself.
A premise without a concept is like a superhero story without… the superhero.
Because the superhero IS the concept. The superhero is CONCEPTUAL.
So think of it that way, instead of beating your head against the keyboard trying to understand the difference between concept and premise, or wondering why you should care.
Ask yourself what about your story is CONCEPTUAL in nature. It’s a small twist on a big word, which can open a massive door to clarity.
When you have the answer, then THAT is your concept.
It’s usually easy for high concept stories. If you look closely, the premise without the concept is almost always a simple good vs. evil proposition. But with a killer concept, you can end up with a franchise.
Ask Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games). Those three books… they are all about the concept. There are dozens of other ways she could have spun a story around it, and they probably would have worked just as well.
Ever wonder how a series happens? This is it… same concept, yet another story built upon it.
But not all stories are high concept. But pretty much all good stories DO have something conceptual at their heart. You can submit a perfectly fine story premise to an agent, and it’ll get fired right back at you if there isn’t something conceptual about it that differentiates it from the crowd.
“The Great Gatsby’ – that concept is: “what if you believed you had to become rich to find love, because the love of your life is a gold digger?”
That’s not a premise, because there is no Gatsby or Daisy yet. No plot yet. Just a notion, and a universally compelling one. It’s not a theme, either, because it doesn’t yet say anything. It’s a dramatic proposition.
Thematic, yes… great concepts usually are. The difference is noun vs. adjective. Just as it is between concept and conceptual.
Think about it… The Great Gatsby is built entirely upon – not around – that concept. Only with that conceptual proposition, that compelling energy, driving the premise does Gatsby work.
Which is where Superman comes back into this little lecture.
Because Superman, the entire notion of that character, IS the concept.
The premise of that story is: bad guy chases a young planetary peer to earth to fetch the codex upon which he intends to rebuild his demolished world.
That’s essentially the plot, with a hero, a villain and something at stake.
The concept upon which it depends – the thing that is CONCEPTUAL here, stated as a “what if?” proposition, is: “what if an infant from a dying planet is sent to earth, discovered and raised by humans, and ends up with vast strength and superpowers?
Not a story yet. But very much a compelling notion. Something conceptual.
Notice the two things, the premise and the concept, aren’t the same.
Notice this, too – ALL of the Superman movies have sprung forth from that concept. Each of them with their own dramatic premise, their own story. The same is true for all of the Batman stories, the Miss Marple stories (octogenarian detective… that’s conceptual), pretty much all of the recurring heroic characters in any genre.
It’s also true for the great less-than-high concept stories you can name. They are great, they separate from the crowd, because of the concept, something conceptual, that is driving the premise.
A story without such a conceptual driving force behind it is… already handicapped. It is, inherently, mediocre.
Can you write a story without a concept? Certainly. Will it work? Very possibly. But will it sell?
Take a close look at what does sell, and you’ll find that answer.
What is CONCEPTUAL about the story you are writing?
If it looks more like a premise, with a hero and a plot implied… it may or may not have a concept empowering for it.
Now go fix that.
Find a conceptual centerpiece, a source of driving, compelling energy behind the story, and watch your premise begin to soar… just like a certain caped superhero has for the last 70 years.
Story Coaching update – my fee structure has changed, effective today. Click the links above this post for details. And yes, the program has been enhanced and focused accordingly, with a 7-day turnaround on all submissions, and a 1-day RUSH option.
I’ve been over-delivering, and while the price has gone up, that won’t change.