A Quick Case Study in Concept

We interrupt our deconstruction series (“Side Effects”) to present this short case study.  

It’s an example of a well-meaning writer with a story idea that he presents as his Dramatic Concept… but leaves some dramatic cards on the table in doing so.  This is a very common misstep… over half of the stories I coach have this nasty little issue/problem — potentially a story-killer — in evidence.

Half.  That’s scary.

This is the actual Questionnaire/Coaching Document (used with the writer’s permission, name removed; I’ve also shown a placeholder title), which provides context and allows you a sneak peek at what this process looks like.  (To be clear, this is “The $35 Kick-Start Concept Analysis“… which is significantly shorter and narrower than the $100 level.)  .

You can read it here:  The Drug Dealer’s Revenge… and here’s why you should:

It’s only a couple of pages or so.  Not a bad investment of time to possibly save your story from the rejection pile.

Notice how the concept itself isn’t half bad, in that it does set a dramatic stage.  But that’s the problem… it’s only half good.  My response offers examples of how to expand it into a stronger concept, but without crossing the line into the arena of premise, which is another area of story planning focus altogether that’s down the road from Concept.

Then, notice how the DRAMATIC QUESTION provided (a critical element of story) is about something other than the concept.  When this happens — and it does… a lot — it puts the story at risk… and when it doesn’t, when an effective dramatic question is in play, it empowers the story.  It BECOMES the story.  The dramatic question needs to be the off-spring, the inevitability, of the concept, because concept is the introduction of DRAMA, and… well, that’s why.  In this case, the DQ response given connects to the overall thematic story landscape, especially the context of Part 1, without nailing something particularly conceptual.

In other words, a different story.  And possibly a writer who isn’t clear on the difference between them.  One is about a dramatic concept.  The other is about “the adventures of” the hero in pursuing a goal that isn’t what the concept promises.

Also, notice how the First Plot Point (the Most Important Moment in a Story) doesn’t really connect to the hero’s story-quest, or the stated concept.  At least as it’s written here.  What is described is a scene, but one doesn’t touch the criteria for an effective FPP.

There are links in the format that allow the writer to go back in to brush up on the definitions and criteria for Concept and for the First Plot Point.

And finally, notice how this analysis process, including the addition of feedback, shows the writer these soft spots, these nuances and subtleties, which in execution could be fatal, and when fixed, allow the writer to access a deeper level of dramatic tension and resulting thematic resonance.

Think I sound harsh here?  Is saving this writer’s story harsh?  He didn’t think so.  He’s hoping you get something out of this, like he did.  For that I thank him and salute his courage.

Click HERE if you’d like your concept evaluated using this same form and process.

Click HERE if you’d like the other major story points in your plan evaluated, in context to the criteria and to each other (including your Concept and FPP).

Next post: the Beat Sheet from “Side Effects.”



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

21 Responses to A Quick Case Study in Concept

  1. Shaun

    This whole concept thing is going way over my head. I thought I understood it but the more you post about it, the more I feel I don’t really get it. So I don’t know if I really do get it or if I’m just making it more difficult because you’re making it more complex by breaking it down even more. The examples you provide I don’t really understand because you’re kind of being wordy with your answers which makes it kind of difficult to follow. Does that make sense?

  2. @Shaun — you’ll need to be more specifc what about what confuses you. In my view, it’s all on the page: a concept is more than “an idea.” It has a compelling seed of a source of dramatic tension. It isn’t specific to character or theme. That’s it. It’s a matter of degree. What is conceptual and compelling to one make not seem that way to another… which is why we all don’t like the same stories, and why we all can’t be successful storytellers.

    “A story about 13th century Ireland”… not a concept. A story about a king who must survive efforts to kill him before he can assume the throne in 13th century Ireland… that is a concept.

    A story about turning in your drug dealer… not a great concept. A story about turning in a drug dealer who wants to come back and kill you for revenge… that IS conceptual.

    A story about jet fighter? Not a concept. A story about a kid whose attitude might get him killed? MORE conceptual, while not yet being a great concept.

    A story about an unsolved murder? Totally NOT a concept, yet the type of thing writers are insisting IS an concept. They need a better, more dramatic, more original, more COMPELLING concept.

    It’s that simple. It’s either compelling or it isn’t. It implies dramatic tension, or it doesn’t. At least to a perceived degree. The writer gets to decide, and their story lives or dies as a result. Why settle for bland, vanilla, and under-cooked? When it really is VERY simple.

    The better concept has DRAMATIC TENSION attached or implied. Something fresh and interesting. It’s that simple. Not sure why you’re confused. It’s a matter of degree and perception. That, too, is simple. An “idea” is not always conceptual. Until it is, by the addition of the promise of dramatic tension, and the perception of something compelling. L.

  3. Shaun

    See, that I understand. So I do get it. I felt like the more you were breaking it down you were trying to imply there was more to it. That it was more complex. Or at least, I was making it more complex by thinking there was more to what you were saying when it is just That Simple. Now that’s confusing. lol Thanks for the clarification and reply!

  4. Great story idea, and feedback by you Larry. Adding some further dramatic tension, perhaps the drug dealer antagonist was friends with the student back in high school. They hung out, went to see bands, played video games etc.. Maybe he he isn’t that bad of a guy, but jail has changed him. I mean, in Canada where I live, many dealers are not big baddies at all, just small timers (ie. Jessie and friends on Breaking Bad). Also, another layer could be added in that the supplier of the dealer gets wind of the student turning the dealer in – has it out for him.

  5. Sara Davies

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this. This is excellent! So great to see another person’s use of the questionnaire. I like the proposed story idea – sounds promising.

    I’m having a tough time isolating my core thread from the gazillion strands I generated in my giant waste-of-time first draft-attempt-mess-nightmare-creature. Never again want to goof around for 200 pages to figure out what I could plan in 5.

    This is mega awesome.Thanks so much for doing this.

  6. Thank you to the person who allowed their work to be used as a teaching aid. It was a great benefit to read explanation and instruction in context.

  7. @Sara. Your response prompted me to come up with this.

    Episodic story telling = two main ( or more) story lines, none fully clarified in the authors mind that are attempted to be told at the same time. I say “attempted” because, 1) Each story line fights in the authors mind for prominence. The tension bogs down the process and soon leads to abandonment. Darn, I really did want my NaNoRiMo badge this year. 2) Halfway or further through the writing, the story that is the authors to tell clarifies itself. The realization that 2/3rds of the words written don’t belong, at least to that story, is a real buzz killer and grief generator. Any attempt at force fitting only aggravates the problem and the “story” is abandoned. Whew, I’m glad I didn’t quit my day job. 3.) Episodic stories that are finished aren’t really complete. They simply reach page count and are abandoned between book covers. Come on. Art really should be given a chance ya know. Concept. Dramatic Question. It really is about more than filling in the blanks.

  8. I love the concept phase. This is where you can take the story in any direction, just like your example. I’ll spend more time working on those few lines than anything else in the novel. Of course, this was after I’d read Story Engineering. Thanks, Larry.

  9. This is marvelously helpful. I’d also like to thank the writer who allowed you to share this. Courageous.

  10. Larry, this is terrific analysis and helps hone the focus and point of the novel. I can’t tell you how great it is to have your insights into story structure. I tell so many of my editing clients to subscribe to your blog and devour your posts. Keep it up!

  11. Sharon C.

    A specific example always helps clarify, even when one thinks they understand. Thank you for sharing this analysis Larry, and many thanks to the writer who agreed to be our example. I think we’ve all learned from this.

  12. Darned good value for $35 Larry.

  13. For anyone who’s still having trouble understanding the difference between a concept and an idea:

    – an idea is ONE bit of information
    -a concept is made up of many bits of information, all tied to together. As an example, take the word “birds,” and mind map it. In the center will be the word birds, while the spokes around it will contain words like: have two wings, have a beak, feathered,etc.

    All of these spokes are individual ideas, which alone, don’t tell you very much about what a bird is. In fact, all of them are necessary in order to truly define what a bird is.

    It’s the same thing with a story. An story about a teen who turns in his drug dealer is only an idea. It’s half-done. The Why, When, How of story-making are not answered – only the What. If it were a wheel, it would have only one spoke. But add in the other ideas – that by themselves don’t carry very much weight-and you end up with a wheel with lots of good, sturdy “spokes” that will provide dramatic context to the story.

    @Sara- the best way to isolate your core story is to think: What is going to happen to my main character that will make or break them? AND what inner demon/psychological block/character flaw do they have that might prevent them from getting out of the mess they’re in?

    Hope that helps.

  14. Rebecca

    Thanks for sharing this, Larry. I love seeing examples – they make things so much clearer for me.

    A few thoughts about the deconstruction:
    -if the core story was about the kid’s recovery and the turning in the dealer was just contextual, could that event be used as the FPP? (it seems like it would work as a no-turning-back moment where he acts to change his life for the better)
    -another suggestion that might tie the two stories together better in the ‘drug dealer out for revenge’ version would be to have another drug dealer offer protection from the first one, but accepting the protection would mean the hero turning back to drugs and his old lifestyle, the one he’s trying to escape from.

    And in response to the post, wow, concept can be tricky! But I think I’m finally starting to get it. If I’m understanding it right, I feel like a great concept includes the protagonist, the antagonist (or hint at antagonistic forces), what the protagonist tries to do over the course of the story, and why.

    Thanks for the insightful posts, Larry. Keep ’em coming.

  15. Robert Jones

    Hi everyone,

    I needed to take a few days off and allow my own plot to gel a bit. As helpful as the new deconstruction has been in terms of defining “concept,” I found myself going in circles and not making any real progress with other aspects of my story. I’, actually hoping we branch out to the other core competencies of structure, even if it’s merely an extension of how concept effects, or enlivens them.

    Back on point, I would like to thank the writer who allowed the analysis of “The Drug Dealer’s Revenge” to be posted. I found portions of it to be quite helpful.

    @Rachel–Nicely stated.

    @Sara–Spinning off of Rachel’s advice, try listing all the scenes your main character takes part in separately from everything else in your story. Looking at those scenes by themselves should give you an idea of what might be lacking.

    Everything else in the book is either a subplot, or waste. And will have to be proportioned accordingly. As a fan of meaty stories, I think that secondary characters and subplots can be used to good effect–leaving the reader hanging on what might happen with the main character while switching back and forth, for example. But all of those secondary things need to come together by the time you get to the part four wrap-up, and all need to contribute to the main story (main character) as part of the whole in an important way. Allowing something to remain just because the author thinks it’s cool detracts from that whole.

    If the idea is really cool, put it aside and develop it in another story. There need be no actual waste, but it sounds like you do need to focus on waste management in your current story. If you are having trouble isolating the core, the only answer to that riddle is that you still have multiple stories/plot-lines. Another way of looking at it is by asking yourself which threads your hero actually touches, and which are just a part of the world around her? We all live in a complex world, but we don’t see it, or interact with everything in it. Especially when things become “interesting” in life. Stress and drama narrows our focus. So much like your concept needed to be boiled down to a single sentence, your plot needs to be boiled down to those things that are causing the most stress and drama for your hero.

  16. Sara Davies

    @ Curtis: That’s more or less it.

    @ Rachel: “make or break” helps.

    @ Robert: Good suggestion, listing the main character’s scenes. I’ll try that next. I have many subplots, originally having envisioned this as an “ensemble cast” type of story, like the Lord of the Rings. Even though Frodo has to take the ring to the volcano and cope with Sauron’s evil (while trying not to succumb to madness), many others play important roles in the fight…although I guess it’s worth nothing that their efforts make Frodo’s work possible. I think (hope) my subplots tie into the main “dramatic conflict” enough that they are meaningful. I’ve already tossed a few plot twists and wrinkles that seemed extraneous. Trying to peel it all back to the essentials…but it’s still hard to get clear about what those essentials are. I need to revisit Parts 3 and 4, and figure out how to shift what was already in high gear into much higher gear.

  17. Robert Jones

    Sara–I wouldn’t be able to comment on some of the secondary stuff offhand. What you’re suggesting can certainly work in terms of supporting characters, in fact, should be how any supporting cast technically works in terms of the whole. I would say it really depends on how complicated and technical you’re getting. Too technical for writers learning craft, or working on a first novel, usually means a lot more work in figuring things out. Again, I can’t say this applies to your story or not. You may have too much clutter, or you may just be too boggled with all the learning of structural things to see clearly how to move your story forward.

    If you want to email and give further examples, you can. I know many writers don’t like to talk about a work in progress, totally up to you. But I also know it’s harder on the boards to get into any sort of detail. Here’s my g-mail, if you want it: rjones221b@gmail.com (Any similarities between it and a certain Baker Street detective is intentional 🙂 )

  18. Robert Jones


    My learning SE has certainly slowed my story progress. This is simply because my learning methods simply leave me little choice but to focus on one thing at a time. It’s just the way I’m wired. So I’m there with the “boggled” of late.

  19. Zoe

    As always Larry your post’s help me out when I need it most. The irony is that this post itself, while very in depth, didn’t give me what I needed to nail down concept. But your questionnaire pointing out the links to more on concept here, there and everywhere, plus opening my eyes to the search button on Story fix (that I didn’t think existed) lead me to another of your post’s on concept, that really did help. I’ve been looking for that slippery sucker of a search bar for a while now, but obviously I didn’t look hard enough. It was a real face palm moment when I found it.

    I have a quick question while trying to nail down my concept, that I would appreciate any comments on. What if I want to change my dramatic question half way through because my story dictates that I have to. Is this evidence that I am trying to follow too many core stories?

    Basically a virus plays a major part in my story. My protagonist has survived the virus by hunkering down in a unexposed, secluded society. However a change in circumstances means she has no choice (due to dire consequences if she stays) but to leave and return to the virus exposed world. Only she has no idea what awaits, because nobody has returned from there for a long time.

    So her initial journey and core story is going to be a search for a new safe haven and home, but eventually she will come to find out that she might be the most qualified person left to cure the virus and has to battle her own inner demons to step up to that plate and face the fact that if she doesn’t find a way to cure or vaccinate against the virus, there is no home on the mainland that will ever be a safe haven. Undercooked? Overcooked? Or risking episodic?


    PS. Thanks to the writer who's ideas were exposed to help others here. If the war we are waging on becoming better writer's was on par with the wars we set-up against our villain's, you would make a great potential protagonist 🙂

  20. @Zoe — interesting question. It reminds me of my son when he says, “I know I’m not supposed to cross that busy street, ever, but if I’m in a hurry can I cross it if I’m late for school?” Answer: no.

    Now, I don’t want to come across as a cranky old absolutist here… but you don’t bend the principles to fit your notion of the story. The higher calling is that you bend the story to fit into the parameters of the principles. The former is almost always a no-win proposition.

    If you did what you suggest, then you fall right into the textbook definition of “episodic” storytelling. True, each micro-story in such a novel or film, each section/episode, may have it’s own concept, but then that goes away and another takes center stage, without there ever being a CORE story arc. It sounds like your core story doesn’t begin until halfway through, which means you should compress that setup to fit in at the FPP.

    Of course, the rules are flexible, and you get to choose. But the principles are there to help us choose, and unless you’re an old pro, I’d say your choice is a risky one. Hope it works out, in any case. Larry

  21. Zoe

    Thanks for the above, I absolutely want to avoid episodic storytelling at all costs and I am trying to come to terms with how to avoid that by working on trying to get it done the right way.

    I thought I was done with developing my concept, but recent posts, both side effects related and other have made me realise I am still pretty much at square one with just an idea. I now realise the importance/helpfulness of having a solid concept before I move on to outlining my story structure.

    I don’t suppose there’s any chance you might post your questionnaire again but filled in, in a way that you feel nails it (perhaps by your own generated answers) and then comment to breakdown how and why in a similar fashion.

    It’s always seemed easier to me to learn from being shown ‘heres how its done’ as apposed to ‘heres how not to do it’ (though im not suggesting the entirety of the above questionnaire is that at all). But I do feel, an example sheet of it being done in a way that kills it, that could be used to par up against our own answers would really help.

    If not, no worries, I learned pretty early in life that you don’t get anything unless you ask.

    Also, different post I know, but I have only just started going through the side effects posts this week as the movie was only released last weekend here in the UK and I wanted to see if I could spot the plot points myself before reading through the posts. But now that I have seen it, I just wanted to to say thank you for putting the time into the side effects posts that you have, I have found them extremely useful and thought provoking.

    I think this response probably could have been filtered into several responses onto several different posts lately, so hopefully I don’t offend by throwing it all into one here.