A Clearer Understanding of ‘Concept’

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.

A premise.

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.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

42 Responses to A Clearer Understanding of ‘Concept’

  1. Martha

    “Concept” shouldn’t be a difficult concept to understand, but for some reason, it eluded me — that is, the difference between concept and premise. But you finally nailed it for me here, Larry. By jove, I think I got it.

  2. I had Martha’s experience as well. Dang, Larry, you got the mojo, man.

  3. Just wanted to emphasize a quote in case others didn’t notice it. It’s on how a book series comes about. Took a while but it didn’t escape Steve ^_^

    “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.”

    Last sentence is key. Grazie, Larry.

  4. Oh, my gosh! Thank you for the concept behind THE GREAT GATSBY. Although I love the book, I had always thought its concept was something squishy and nebulous like “What if you were an incurable romantic?” *yawn* The more precise concept you stated has depth and kick. It makes us go “hmmmm.” It’s what lifts this book above other “romantic” books. Your statement of it also lifted my knowledge about concept.

    Please keep including examples like these in your explanations. They’re truly enlightening. You’re the greatest!

  5. This just in: “…cup of tea…” or not. Someone got something right in “Iron Man.”

    “Man of Steel” breaks all time June opening box office record http://ow.ly/m55g3

  6. Well. Everyone except me.

  7. Mike Lawrence

    You can walk the concept behind Superman back one more step: What if the world is going to end and one family finds a way to send the last of their kind anywhere in the universe?

    This could lead to an entirely different premise upon which one could build a story akin to The Man Who Fell To Earth, for example. Or a story about an alien with telepathic powers who grows up to rule the world through hypnosis. Or a story about a man who sees Earth following the same path of destruction as his home world (according to the encyclopedia Dad put in the ship, you see) and vows not to let mankind meet the same fate. Or…

  8. Robert Jones

    So it looks like my own concept fell short. If I had said, What would happen if the worlds greatest detective…and left out the name entirely, it would’ve been more “conceptual.”

    Ah, well, better upstanding come late than to never have possessed it in the first place.

  9. Keep it coming, Larry. I feel like I’m on the fringes of getting it.

    I think part of my challenge is that my current work in progress doesn’t have a strong concept, and that’s where I’ve disconnected. If I work on finding or creating a better concept, the premise and the idea will come together better.

    I used to think I was good at this stuff. I feel like a rank amateur these days.

  10. Robert Jones

    @Joel–if I’m understanding this correctly, your concept is a generic blue print without character names, personalities, etc…

    Just a man, woman, or being from a far away galaxy, facing a situation that is incredible, scary, dramatic. It is the barebones underpinnings where those teeth, or whatever it is about the story that intrigues exists.

    Once you add specific character names and trait to fill your stage, it them becomes territory for the exploration of details…and therefore becomes a new country called “Premise.”

  11. So, follow-up question: is a concept then almost always prefaced by the words “What if?” I know that phrase can be used in a number of ways, but having thought about it with both hands for a time now, that seems to me to be a good way to think about it. Please disabuse me of the notion if not true.

  12. @Linby — fair and good question. “What if” is a great tool to ELEVATE a concept. A concept is a proposition, it “proposes” and IMPOSES a presumed truth (within our fiction) that sets the stage for the story. In that sense, it doesn’t have to be a “what if?” question at all, but it’s amazing, on a consistent basis, how phrasing it that way drives you deeper into the compelling aspect of the proposition.

    Example: here’s a concept… “the choice between familiy and love drives two lovers apart, and then mad.” Universal, thematic without BEING the theme, per se, and a stage for a story.

    Now, adding the “what if?”” What if two lovers driven to brink by their feuding families decide that death is the only solution?” Hmmm, still a concept… but now the story has teeth. It’s a story you might recognize, written by a guy named Bill… can you name the writer?

  13. Daniel

    Are there any new concepts?
    My Drama teacher told me one that Shakespeare had written every book that could be and everyone else was just changing the story. Or said another way there are no new concepts love, death, bad vs good ect. have all been done and done what changes is how the writer makes these core concepts conceptual and then following on from that the premise.
    Did I get that right?

  14. Jolie


    As a Panster in reform, the solidifying of a workable concept has been a challenge. I believe I grasp how a concept drives everything we do as writers. But it’s the nailing down of a solid, tension filled concept like the one you referenced for Gatsby that’s my hiccup. I write romance and it’s a battle to create tension when a lot of it is internal instead of relying on villains, gimmicks or other external sources of crises. Can you please explore the romance genre some more in the future?


  15. @Daniel — with great respect toward your drama teacher… those “concepts” you mention are really more “theme” than concept. A concept is a proposition, a promise, and in that sense, there are infinite possiblities. He/she is right about the themes being universal and eternal, but how many conceptual spins on, for example, “love hurts” can you come up with. Dozens, within minutes: vampire stories, divorce stories, abandonment stories, adultery stories… each of those is a category of infinite conceptual opportunity. Same theme, many conceptual approaches to it, and many possible stories for each concept.

    @Jolie — I hear you, romance is underserved here. I’ve spoken at several romance workshops, and they’re at once wonderful and challenging, because the genre has its own spins (not my strong suit… though in real life, romance IS my strong suit, so go figure). My goal is to deconstruct more stories from that genre to show how the principles are applied there, which they certainly are. Thanks for the nudge – L.

  16. “A premise without a concept is like a superhero story without… the superhero.” Great line! Really nailed the explanation. Thanks, Larry!

  17. Brian Wethington

    FINALLY. I have been circling around this one since I read Story Engineering and signed up for the full coaching, but for some reason this post was the one that pushed me over the edge. I’ve been reworking my premise and trying to force it into being a concept for a few weeks (without really realizing it), and now I see the flaw. Contradicting @Robert Jones above (sorry, just a good example and something I was trying to do as well), just stripping plot and names out isn’t what turns a premise into a concept. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen that way, depending on your story, but I don’t think that is how it works.

    The funny thing is that I had the CONCEPT all along, I just couldn’t figure out how to work it into what was actually the PREMISE. Once I realized this, the concept jumped out at me.

  18. Dave H

    At the risk of flogging the horse that I think Larry has pretty well resucitated, let me test a lens on concept and premise that *seems* to be working for me. Is ‘level of abstraction’ a reasonable way to think about the difference?
    In a simple abstraction tree, like:
    Beverage (high)
    Beer (mid)
    Sam Adams, Budweiser, Michelob (low)

    Things higher up are core generalizations or ‘concepts’ – each of which can ‘parent’ multiple, more specific’ instances below. The concept of ‘Beverage’ could spawn Beer, Wine, Water, etc. Each on takes the core properties of the parent (concept) and ‘does something more specific and concrete’ with it.

    There’s some clarity in this, but also some muddiness, because what’s ‘high’ or ‘low’ abstraction can be relative. Sam Adams could be viewed as a concept, that parents more specific instances like Boston Lager, Octoberfest, etc. It’s also a bit muddy because things in the tree seem to be alike (except when you are focused on their difference in abstraction).
    I’m thinking that could be part of what’s happening when Larry says “Give me Concept” — and I give a more specific instance, a child or premise that’s ‘kind of the same thing’… but lower in abstraction than what he was asking for. Things that aren’t in an abstraction relationship are a lot easier to distinguish; beer vs. wine, or beer vs. bottle, cap, and label. That’s why I’m thinking that Concept and Premise might be tangling up.

    Anyway – I realize all the above could either be already painfully obvious or way off the mark – but I’m interested see how it lands with this great group.

  19. @Dave H – interesting abstraction, nicely done. Leads me to this:

    We are always dealing on three initial levels — idea, leading to concept, leading to premise… sometimes the latter two dance a bit and one leads back to the other (i.e., pulling a concept out of a story idea in the form of a premise, which leads back to a better concept, which returns the favor by strengthening the premise – back and forth, that’s how it dances). Let me express this using your model:

    Beverage equals story IDEA.
    Idea: Create a beverage. Write a love story.
    That’s all you have at this point.; intention. A vision for a goal that appeals to you, because you are thirsty.

    Beer equals concept.
    A beverage that is a carbonated recipe using hops.
    Write a love story about forbidden connections between partners from different social groups.

    Brand or craft/beer equals premise. A specific expansion and application of the concept.
    Beer premise: a seasonal berry flavored beer with an extra high alcohol content, give it a cool name.
    Story premise: The son of a rich family falls in love with the daughter of a richer family who hates the boy’s family because they are “different,’ and it leads them toward a dark path toward an ill-fated death pact.

    So if your idea to write a love story results in a boy-meets-girl episodic linear thing, and you sense it needs more (or if you don’t, but use this as a checkpoint), you may have skipped the concept… so look for something CONCEPTUAL that COULD drive that premise.

    And here it is: add the “forbidden” angle, driven by a social or racial or political pressure or belief system. This is compelling, it becomes that “conceptual” layer that energizes your love story premise. Which makes it a different and BETTER love story premise, because the concept itself — as it always does — PROMISES conflict, it becomes a stage upon which your premise/story can emerge and perform, even before a character or a specific “plot” has materialized.

    Beverage, beer, Michelobe. Yes.
    Idea, concept, premise… bestseller. Big Yes.

    See the different layers? Question is… who cares? It becomes a tool when, for example, someone has a premise ready to go, but realizes it needs more depth and resonance, there is no conceptual core to it. That’s what I was writing about in this post, the search for something conceptual.

  20. Dave H

    Larry – your response clarifies it even further for me.
    I think you are saying a premise is a ‘middle of an abstraction tree’ thing… sometimes requiring a conceptual ‘parent’ — a higher abstraction compelling notion from which the premise could have reasonably been hatched. Some premises are general enough that they could spawn multiple ‘more detailed, lower abstraction’ stories.
    As an added test — would something like this play OK (or not?)

    High abstraction: Deception gone wrong, leading to payback for the perpetrator(s)
    Mid: A a husband’s staged kidnapping of his wife (for the ransom) gets bungled – forcing him through ‘hell’
    Low: (specific example) Fargo.

    Concepts would be toward the top of the tree, premises the middle or bottom – BUT it can be a little muddy and relative – all depending where I jump in, and what I’m thinking is the ‘highest level’ that makes sense.

    OK – enough from me — thanks again for the feedback, though.


  21. @Dave H – good stuff, very helpful. It’s good to keep in mind, though, the imprise, non-linear nature of this model as a story development tool.

    For example, the highest abstraction is intention (I want to write a novel), and right below that is idea. Idea leads to concept, which leads to premise… but not always in that order. The back and forth is where we add layers and depth. The idea, before concept, could arrive like this: I want to write a story about my wife being kidnapped. That smacks of both concept and premise, but it doesn’t have wings as either. So no matter which of those you pound on next, it can send you back to the other to strengthen it. They can grow in tandem. A cool premise can lead you to a strong concept, and (more often) vice versa.

    That’s the point of this. This whole discussion can seem rhetorical, until you see this as a powerful story building and strengthening tool, based on simply covering the inherent bases, which are always there, whether we use them, or ignore them. Better to harness story physics rather than fight them off, right?

  22. MikeR

    I sometimes wonder if a more-precise word than “concept” could somehow be chosen, or if “Freud’s concept of the superego” (as my ever-helpful Apple Dictionary thesaurus just suggested) mid shed any better light on this somewhat nebulous … uhh … concept. (Honest, I didn’t plan that sentence that way.) 🙂

    “A premise” could be anywhere. Ditto a “plot.” Doing that much is like a baseball game (the pinch-points are the shortstops). Good for popcorn and beer. Doing a baseball game WITH a concept is: “Field of Dreams,” or “42” (which BTW was shot at a historical local stadium), or “The Natural.” Something’s going on here, that’s more than about rooting for the pitcher. 😉

    Concept, to me, is, instead:

    – “why” did you decide to put a baseball game there?
    – why did you decide to put “a baseball game” there?
    – why did you decide to put a “baseball” game there?
    – why did you decide to put a baseball game “there?”
    – “why? why? why?”
    – “so what?”

    You first had some concept, and now you wanted to convey something about your particular “take” on that concept to me. To do that, you devised a premise, a plot, a story, to convey it in an engaging and dramatic way. The concept both guided your selection of what story to tell me, and shaped the way in which the story flowed. “It surrounds us. It penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

    They say we all have a concept for our own personal lives, and that we embody it and push for it every day. (Sometimes self-destructively.) So I can “feel” that “these are really real people” when I see them doing the same. Your storytelling decisions don’t feel capricious and arbitrary … they have a certain continuity to them.

  23. Robert Jones

    @Brian W.–Feel free to contradict. I may learn something from the process. Although I tend to look at a group dynamic as ideas bouncing back and fourth, picking up momentum until they become something larger than whatever they started out as. Or clearer. Which I am all for–especially since a part of my brain is still circling the entire concept definition. I couldn’t go very far with my thoughts last night, however, because I was mobile and didn’t have a full sized keyboard. Which means it’s a pain in the butt and my usual amount of typos will just escalate to the point where they’ll look downright silly.

    Today, I am happy to elucidate. Although Dave H. and Larry have already covered some of what I was thinking about, I have a slightly different bent that might flip a light switch or two. If my theory doesn’t land on Mars altogether, that is.

    We know from this (and previous posts) that concept is supposed to be the underlying engine that drives the premise. Technically, a good concept should be able to drive a great many premises. The more, the merrier. Specifics that grind details into a concepts, grounds them, and could therefore limit them.

    What do I mean when I say too character names and traits not working in the area of concept? Names of a well known character, or very specific trait (like the brand names Larry mentioned above), carry their own weight and therefore bounces the ball into premise’s court.

    A concept that mentions Superman is certainly hedging on premise because we now understand it is a story about Superman and limits our beliefs in other possibilities. We’ve grounded whatever happens next in Superman’s universe. Thus, limiting the number of premises that might derived from such a notion. I won’t argue that it may be possible to come up with infinite premises in which the “man of steel” could be inserted. Involving Superman in an otherwise great concept might not technically ruin it, just limit it.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

    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?

    That’s a pretty darn good conceptual notion. Because it not only runs through every Superman story ever told, but could be used in a variety of other ways as well.

    What if Larry had added a sex?

    What if an infant son from a dying planet is sent to earth, discovered and raised by humans, and ends up with vast strength and superpowers?

    It’s still a great concept, but does it have to be a boy? More importantly, is there a reason for the boy? We’ve now burdoned ourselves with a specific detail. Does it limit the story options? Yes, I think it does. Not in a large way, but we’ve now introduced our alien friend to the world of earth men, of which he will be most closely associated and have the need to explore first and foremost growing up with all the peer pressures, fears, and prejudices surrounding that sex.

    If we added the word “daughter,” would would have a slightly different set of cultural mythos involved.

    What if the alien visitor was a non-human? Then we have the entire bag of propaganda surrounding the human race to explore and deal with. (S)he will be accepted by very few, feared by most.

    What about the following?

    What if an infant from a dying planet is sent to earth, discovered and raised by childless humans who run a farm in the mid-west, and ends up with vast strength and superpowers?

    We now have a small-town country family with hard working values. The Kents.

    What about this?

    What if an infant from a dying planet is sent to earth, discovered and raised by humans who are very competative Wall Street bankers who want to use the child’s vast strength and superpowers to their own ends?

    Clark Kent would certainly have to learn his values from somewhere outside of his home, have a great deal to learn about responsibility and selflessness–if he was to ever become Superman. Otherwise you’ve got a super-villain.

    All of the above could be interesting stories, but they are all derived for this:

    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?

    I said, “generic blueprint” previously. Maybe I should’ve said, “Genetic Blueprint.” Because it is the very basis of evolution for all the possibilities mentioned above, and many others besides.

    This is what I meant by tagging characters with too many specifics–if you indeed want to create a universal concept in order to achieve the most mileage. And I think what Larry is getting at is that all stories have something like this on a microscopic, or genetic, level. But by getting caught up in the details, the specifics, that we feel makes our own stories interesting to us, we too often load our concept up with those details that send it off to Premiseville.

  24. First time novelist here, struggling to turn an idea into an actual *story*. Do you mind if I attempt to apply your points to my own work?

    Here’s how I think this can be broken down:
    Idea: write a future Earth sci-fi novel.

    Concept: What if future humans developed new methods of producing energy, one highly destructive and dangerous and the other helpful and developing consciousness?

    Premise: A community struggles to survive while a group of friends try to find out what is causing the destruction of the Earth’s matter and stop it.

    Plot: Crowe and Auren want to save humanity from the Drifting before communities are too damaged to reknit. They can’t stop the Drifting because they don’t know what is causing it and their short-term fights for survival are more pressing. In the end, an unlikely ally aids them in deciphering the problem and putting an end to it.

    Am I understanding your points? Even if I’m not this has been immensely helpful! Thanks!

  25. Dave H

    @Robert – I think we are very much on the same wavelength. Looking at the core of your thread, that started with:

    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? (and a crucial weakness, I might add).

    That’s pretty ‘high abstraction/low detail’ that could well serve as a ‘concept’ in my fledgling view. There might be an even higher concept to consider, like:

    What if an infant from one planet is sent off to another, raised by natives there, developing super powers and a crucial weakness?

    The ‘even higher’ abstraction concept would tip it’s hand on the ‘why?’ (the planet might be dying or some other reason) and the ‘where’ (not limited to ‘earth’).

    I don’t think Larry is saying an idea or concept has to be ‘as high level as possible’ – just high enough that it can usefully ‘drive’ one or more more detailed premises. With an eye on abstraction, ‘driving’ means ‘parenting’ a more detailed instance that inherits core general properties and behaviors from the parent, and which adds detail (setting, character details, etc) as appropriate.
    I think one thing that has made the concept-premise distinction tough and bit fuzzy, is that, if you aren’t focused on the abstraction as the distinguishing thing, they can seem to be ‘kind of the same thing.’ Also it adds confusion that it depends where you jump into the abstraction tree… some premises might still be high level enough that they are pretty ‘concept’ oriented and they could parent distinct useful premises themselves. With abstraction in view, that’s perfectly OK. Without it, that’s fuzzy and could be confusing.

    Anyway – not sure if that builds on what your points – but I’m thinking so.

  26. @Larry @Linby —— Shakespeare —–

  27. Robert Jones

    @DaveH–I agree. And very much like the term “Parent.” That indicates that it could give birth to a variety of children.

    I also that shooting for the highest possible abstraction isn’t always an absolute necessity. On some levels, especially for learning purposes, it might be fun to see how far we can go with a coding a conceptual notion back to the basic microbes from which it multiplied and began to ooze forth. But as larry pointed out, it’s basically a developmental tool. And once the basis is understood for a given story, we need not knock it back any further–unless we really want to.

    What if an infant is transported from their dying native planet to a far-off world that has enough similar atmospheric properties, and similarly developed higher life forms, to allow the infant to blend in and survive, is discovered and raised by natives of the new planet, who soon discover the child has certain differences–vast strength and superpowers beyond anything their world has ever seen?

  28. MikeR

    (And now, for something altogether different … in the way of encouragement …)

    I picked up a copy of “Geek” magazine today, and tried rather-desperately to stomach the supposed reality that “Princess Leia” (Star Wars) is going to be the Next Disney Princess, now that Disney has bought (urgh.. bletch..) LucasFilm …

    (since I judge that most if not all of you WERE there, in 1977, and also watched it however-many times, there will now be a respectful moment of silence …)

    But then, I continue … to the documentary “Star Wars: The Making of the Myth” (YouTube: fzqTgze_yBU = “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzqTgze_yBU”, where, at-or-about 23:02, we actually learn that there came a day in the principal shooting of “the” Star Wars Movie when (23:14):

    … “wars” meant: “A behind-the-scenes look at an Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton type marriage” …
    … “we were going to stop shooting. The money had finally run out …”
    … “everyone was shooting anything that moved, and a great many things that didn’t. … it was shot by the producer. I expect that 20th Century Fox wanted to shoot him.”
    … “there was only one special-effects shot finished, and they wanted to pull the plug.”
    … “just scrap the footage, take a six and a half million dollar loss, and just call it a day …”
    … (24:08) “it should be a lesson to all of us that you should believe in what you’re doing to the point where you’re able to express yourself without constantly looking over your shoulder or trying to change things to make it more like what people expect. Make it the way your heart tells you to make it.”

    Sure, sure, we’re talking about $$Star$$Wars$$, not “Logan’s Run” or ten-bezillion other sci-fi films that didn’t “$$make$$it$$,” but still I think that there’s a HUGELY important lesson here:

    “… the affirmation only comes after,” I-F at all.

    When you’re doing a creative work, yes, you’ve got to do the very best job that you can manage, BUT, you’ve absolutely got to: “do it, anyway.” Set the odds up, absolutely the best way that you can devise to (as though you WERE “spending tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money …”), but then, RELEASE the dice.

  29. MikeR

    … to struggle now to somehow bring “back-to the-original thread closure” to The Aforementioned … 😉 … herewith is my valiant attempt:

    “There is no such thing as an ex-post-facto lunch.”

    AFTER you “succeed, brilliantly,” there are absolutely NO faults to be found, by ANYONE, in ANYTHING that you have struggled to do previously. (“Stephen King toilet paper” would sell a million copies, just to start.)

    But UNTIL then, you have to stack-the-deck in your favor in the most advantageous way you know how … and then … roll the dice and blow on them and let them go … and …

    … and either it IS “a commercial $$ success,” or it isn’t. Your “calculated” risks will in due time be “calculated” to be $$wildly$$successful$$ … or not. (Full Disclosure: your odds of winding up as either “Spaceballs” or “Logan’s Run” or “Space:1999” are approximately 99.9995%-to-0.0001%.)

    But, no matter what the “calculation” turns out to be (or, not to be): “Y-O-U” Went First. You reached out to your intended audience, absolutely not-knowing whether they Were Out There … or not. YOU BET that you “stacked that deck in your favor” as Professionally and as Completely as you could manage, but … you “reached out to your intended audience,” regardless.

    … and: “that has made all the difference” … ??? … only time will tell. But: “do it, anyway.”

  30. Tzalaran

    Thanks for this one Larry. Think this is the best example you’ve provided for concept, and i’ve gotten the lesson this time.

  31. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–All Star Wars analogies aside, your basic message is a good one.

    Yes, I was there in ’77. Read the book, saw the movie, liked the book better than the film. That was either the first, or second novel I both read and saw the movie that was adapted from it that year. The other book/movie experience was To Kill a Mockingbird. Kind of a strange mix of reading material for a kid who was in the fourth grade at the time. I recall reading Paper Moon that year too, and a lot of Spiderman comics.

    I don’t recall too much else about that year, but I remember my entertainment choices, which seemed to be a pivotal year. Comic books, science fiction, and literay novels sort of combined to become my life’s asperations. To date, I’ve completed two out of three. I worked on several Spiderman comic books, helped to introduce the public to their first glimps of one of the Jedi knights (Ki-Adi-Mundi) just prior to the release of Star Wars: Chapter One. Not exactly the original, I know, but a valid slice of Star Wars history nonetherless. And I am currently working on writing a novel, which will complete my circuit that actually all began in 1977.

    I still think To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book, BTW.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled program…

  32. Thanks for the great article, Larry. I’m heading home to get some writing done! 😀

  33. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

    Great explanation, Larry – and one I was able to work through to figure out what you were saying. (Found you via Jon Gibbs.)

  34. Okay, I think I’m almost there. Is this even close?

    * idea: a Chandleresque cozy with romance sauce

    * concept: what if the day his dream career ends, a guy reconnects with an old flame, and all he has to do to live happily ever after is abandon everything he’s ever believed in?

    * premise: an accountant turned journalist loses his job and as a result has to choose which of the women in his life he’ll rescue – if he, or they, or all of them don’t die first.

    In my head, that concept and premise both feel too vague. But I’m flailing so much with this that maybe I’m totally wrong. Glad to hear it either way.

  35. @Joel — I think your concept is spot-on. There are numerous stories that could spring from it, but it’s universal and compelling when standing alone. As for premise, I agree, you could flesh it out more toward a window into the story itself. It leans into that, but at some point, the “story search” (as you explore dramatic options) will land you on something clearer. In saying that he must choose which women in his life he’ll protect, it’s obvious YOU know what that means, but your premise doesn’t just say it. Still one sentence, but I think you can fill it out with a clearer preview (versus a tease). A premise isn’t a marketing hook that teases, it’s a story summary, with a hero and a plot, that hooks. Subtle difference.

    Nice work, you’re very close, I think. L.

  36. That is the single most encouraging thing I’ve heard about my art since the applause at my first open mic a hundred and eleven years ago.

    Thank you, Larry. I sorta feel like maybe I’ll be a writer someday.

  37. Another shot at premise:

    After Jake’s dream career as a journalist ends, he faces a conflicting need to protect the two women in his life: Rose, a fellow journalist, whose life is in danger from the thugs who are the subject of her current research, and Siobhan, an old flame who’s already involved with Rose’s subject — because she’s stolen a pile of money from them.

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  39. Hugo

    Hi Larry,

    i’ve a doubt about genre. As i saw in your posts, genre itself is conceptual, so i decide to put my question in this post.
    Through many sites and blogs to help new writers, i see this council a lot:
    “First, decide what genre you want to write. Then, studythe best books in your genre”.
    However, choosing the genre first, the creative freedom won’t be bounded? Suppose, in spite of i like to read mostly fantasy and sci-fi, i let my brain “totally free” for new ideas. After working this ideas and achive the concept of my story, i realize that there’s nothing about fantasy or sci-fi.
    What do you think? A writer must decide what genre he wants to write before the “brainstorming” of ideas?

    Besides, i guess, it’s fair enough to think that i’ll have more chances to be published writing the genre that i mostly read (and so, feel more confortable writing it).

    Thanks for your help,

  40. Pingback: Greatest Fear: How to Find It and Run with It - Writingeekery

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