Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

“I see this a lot.”

I’m a little wary of opening with that, but I have to confess, it’s the first thing that keeps popping into my head when I want to address – again – the recurring and story-killing issue of writers using an undercooked “concept” as their opening point of reference for their story.

Story ideas that aren’t really concepts at all.

I write about this issue… a lot.

Because I do see this… a lot.

In fact, I’ve analyzed six story plans in the last 24 hours, and four of them suffer from this conceptual short-selling.  To an extent that the story itself won’t be publishable until the writer understands how they’ve tanked the story before it even gets underway, simply by virtue of trying to write it without a compelling concept.

The Questionnaire I use in my story coaching work asks the writer to define their “concept” in two different ways, and then again, in several more that reference the concept to see how it will actually show up and play out in the story.

Get this wrong, and the story tanks.  Or at best, the drafting process becomes a search for a stronger concept, which, without a vision for an outcome, is a tough way to proceed.  Especially when the writer isn’t even aware that they’ve created this labyrinth of dramatic options, most paths leading nowhere.

Without a strong concept a story becomes episodic. 

An examination of a life through a character.  A look at theme by simply seeing it in various forms.  A shifting focus from one source of dramatic tension to something else entirely, episode by episode, without a baseline core story driven by a conceptual proposition driving it all.

You rarely see these in bookstores.  Almost every published story has a core, conceptually-driven dramatic narrative.  A specific hero’s quest.  And yet, among the unpublished this remains an unspoken benchmark, smothered in reviews that focus on other things and writing teachers who take this for granted in introducing authors to the craft.

It’s so much more fun to talk about writing novels that transport us to other places, explore important issues, live another vivid life.  But that is only one of the six realms of story physics – vicarious experience – leaving five others un-addressed and seamlessly integrated, like the heart beating inside a lovable puppy, to the untrained student eye.

Weekly television shows get away with it.

It’s why they’re called episodes.

Perhaps that’s the seductive problem… we think we can package “The Good Wife” or “Girls” into novel.  A story “about” a woman working in a law firm.  A story of three girls trying to make it in New York.  The “adventures of Carrie in “Sex in the City.”  But you can’t leave it at that.  On TV these character-driven “soft” stories deliver on and pay off on a concept every single week.  If/when they become a full length feature (or a novel), there will be a singular dramatic question driving it.

Rent the “Sex in the City” DVD, you’ll see that Carrie and the girls have a specific mission and quest, a hero’s path, with a specific goal.  A concept.  (Big dumps Carrie as a result of the advice of pals – that’s a specific problem… this isn’t “the adventures of Carrie in New York,” this is a concept, driven by a dramatic question: will Carrie win back the affection of Big before he moves on?)

Episodic storytelling in a novel – the outcome of conceptually under-cooked story ideas – is almost always a deal killer in print.

A Baseline Awareness

I’m blown away at how many writers – beginners and advanced, even published – don’t get what a concept is, and what it means to a story.

Everybody seems to think they have an answer to the question: “What is your story’s concept?”… and yet, what I see are actually more like ideas that have yet to evolve into a concept… themes that are mistaken for a concept… character snapshots that are mistaken for concept.

Too often they are under-cooked.  Writers are describing the stage, without opening a conceptual door to a drama that will unfold upon it.

So let me be clear. 

An “idea” is not inherently a concept.  Not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension.

Too often the writer answers this instead: “What is your story about?”  That’s not necessarily a concept, either.  Let’s look at a bestseller to help (no pun) illustrate.

What is “The Help” about?

Three African-American maids in the south.  Yes, it is about that.  But is that a concept?  No.  It’s an idea.  A starting point.  Could go anywhere.  And that’s the problem… when a writer begins with something this vague, it often does go anywhere, several places, either at once or in sequence… and the story ends up being about some combination of nothing and everything.  Such stories become an episodic “The Adventures of So-And-So,” which, like any other story, isn’t an effective novel until that becomes much more conceptual.

Racial prejudice in the South.  Yes, it is.  But is that a concept?  No.  Not yet.  This is more theme than concept.   Could be anything, most likely a series of rather unconnected stuff happening to the characters.

A book project between a young and wealthy writer that requires  the participation of the black maids being oppressed by their white employers in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  Now this is a concept.  Because it describes more than what the story is about, it opens the door to a dramatic question.

 

Notice that the first two answers – an idea, and a theme – do not pose a dramatic question.  And that the much stronger answer, the one that really is a concept, does.  “Will Skeeter enlist the help of the maids to finish her book, or will they accept the status quo, thus derailing Skeeters dream and keeping themselves in bondage?”

It’s about, at a conceptual level, Skeeter’s book, her quest… not the theme or the setting.  The themes emerge from that concept.  They almost always do.

And thus, we discover the bar you’re reaching for: what is the dramatic question that naturally and compellingly springs forth from your conceptual starting place?

As an exercise, answer the question right now: what is the concept for your story?

This becomes a powerful acid test for your story concept.  Remember, concept arises from the potential range of the idea… and a dramatic question emerges from that concept.

From there, the dramatic question leads to the definition of a hero’s goal and quest… and in turn to the identification of an obstacle to that quest… and then the stakes of that quest… and then, the sequence of that quest.

No dramatic question, no story.   No conflict arising from it, no stakes… no story.

No conflict-driven hero’s quest, a singular problem to solve and/or goal to strive fore… no story.  It really boils down to that.

Or, if you have a whole list of dramatic questions without priority or hierarchy – the determination of a core story – then you risk an episodic “adventures of…” story model.

And you better be Jonathan Franzen to pull that off.

If you do know the dramatic question and the core story it leads to, because the concept has already put it out there, then you are in conceptual territory.

But if you don’t know… if there are a whole bunch of potential dramatic questions at hand (which puts you at risk of exploring them all, which will almost certainly kill your story through episodic storytelling)… then chances are you are still at Square One, staring at what is really an idea or a theme that is not yet imbued with concept.

And, you’ll either realize now or later, you’re not ready to write the story yet.

Another Acid Test

Ask, in context to your concept: what is my hero’s core story goal… what opposes it… why… and what is at stake?

Don’t be confused, your novel or screenplay can and even should be about multiple facets of the hero’s experience.  But don’t confuse any of it with the core story.  In successful novels there is always a core hero’s quest, something to achieve and/or survive, in the form of a problem to solve, a goal to reach, or some combination of both… with an antagonist (bad guy, or opposing force) blocking that path.

Keep asking the right questions about your concept. 

What dramatic question does it pose?  What hero’s quest emerges from it?  What opposes the hero on that path?  What are the stakes?

A great idea can take you to these.  For some, the writing of drafts is a path toward discovering these answers.  Whatever works for you.

The most important thing is your awareness of these questions, and the ultimate need for answers.

The sooner you know what the concept of your story is, an answer that resides well above and beyond your idea, arena or theme, the closer you’ll be to actually bringing it alive on the page.

****

Sometimes another set of eyes – schooled eyes – can be just the ticket to help put you over the top on this, perhaps the most important storytelling variable of all.

Click HERE to see if your story concept is at this level yet… or not.

Click HERE to see if the plan for your story’s narrative results in a compelling core story, well told… or not.

****

Click HERE to see an excerpt from the film “Adaptation” (2002), on this very subject. (WARNING: do NOT click if f-word language offends you.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

60 Comments

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60 Responses to Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

  1. Robert Jones

    Hi Zoe,

    First off, I’m always glad to hear my suggestions have helped someone. I’m really starting to enjoy the back and forth with other writers–which makes me anxious to launch my own blog, or website. The problem there is, once I finish my novel, I’ll most likely be writing under a pseudonym and will end up dropping any blog under my own name. It’s like the second most common name in the world. And since as writers, we also have to sell ourselves, I want to come up with a name that doesn’t suggest “average.”

    Anyway, I like where you’re going with your ideas. It’s important to explore choices and flesh out plot and character. It’s what we all do, or eventually do once writing becomes serious. I always start filling up a notebook with a sort of Q&A about my characters and story before I begin writing it. Only hacks settle for the first thing that pops into their heads. We try to avoid cliches, and first ideas usually aren’t quite fresh enough, or need a bit of work.

    That’s why people write multiple drafts. But I gave up pantsing after I got lost in a big mess of my first novel by doing just what you’re doing now and coming up with the possibilities–but only after I was several chapters into the writing. And by the time you have several hundred pages to keep reworking, it’s an exhaustive process. Now I resist the urge to dive in until I have a story I’m pretty satisfied with in outline form. It’s much easier to make changes, but can still be plenty tough at times.

    As far as reading over your plot ideas, have you considered combining them? What if the sister already had the child and had to run to protect it? The threat of a forced abortion might be a terrible fate to hold over a character’s head, but for my money, endangering a living helpless child will always strike the emotions of an audience more forcefully. Children represent innocence.

    Some suggestions in this area:

    1) A child might also be used to reveal things about your main character. People will tell children things they won’t tell an adult. They also open their hearts to that innocence because they don’t want them to make the same mistakes, to prepare them. This would be ideal if the child could somehow be old enough to have at least some semblance of understanding, but people spew to infants as well–either because they can’t talk back, tell their secrets, or because they believe some part of them will understand, feel some part of the messages they impart intuitively. Much like a pregnant mother talks to the unborn child within her womb.

    2) Your stakes aren’t fully on their feet and marching until there is a villain with some very good (either real, or perceived) reasons to want that child out of the way. If the villain wants the child dead, it’s always best to give them a personal reason, their own stakes. Also, there might be worse fates than death. Maybe the villain has been saying there are no children, but they are really tucked away somewhere being used for some awful purpose. Pregnant mothers (like the sister) are dragged off and kept alive until they come to term, then killed as soon as they give birth. That’s a pretty big secret for the villain to have if planned right. Only the sister escapes and gets some type of message to the hero.

    3) What makes your hero qualified to be your main character? There would have to be a reason why the sister couldn’t keep the child safe. Is the sister dying? Is the child better off and out of the villain’s reach if the main character gets it back to her island refuge? Is the hero risking everything if the villain discovers that island? As a med. student, maybe she’s working on a cure that would help others in some way (maybe even whatever condition that’s killing her sis). Whatever she’s doing, has to be something the villain would be opposed to. I like the fact that no one comes back from the mainland alive. That’s certainly a danger on one level, but it comes from the environment and not your villain–who is the main antagonistic threat opposing the goals of your hero.

    See what I’m getting at here?

    4) On top of that, your hero has her inner demons (personal issues, past secrets, or events she isn’t exactly proud of) that get in the way. Can these inner demons be exploited by your villain? Is there a connection with these IDs and the sister that will crop up and cause problems? Even members of the same team need to have their differences. And all of these things are going to come to a head within the confines of your story, becoming obstacles for your hero, CONFLICT on every level. All of this will become obstacles that get in the way of your hero reaching her goals. Imagine, each piece of the puzzle (the plan) for both hero and villain being what each believes is necessary to sustain life, reach their goals (whatever they may be) in the world you’re creating. Defining the importance of these goals, and where your characters find themselves on the game-board just prior to the explosion that puts them in opposition–that’s your set up. And when that contest between them ignites (you’re first plot point) anything might happen. And your characters will ultimately risk anything to win.

    When all this is ready to rock on the page, you’ll have a plan for a truly gripping story. Most writers really miss the definition LAYERS (planning that makes everything seem against the hero on each level as the plot heats up, and CONFLICT (built into each level, each relationship). Because when stress build in life, doesn’t it effect everything? Doesn’t even the most solid of footings/relationships seem to turn against us when life goes to hell? And if your plot isn’t the sort of crisis that puts your hero through that sort of hell, then maybe you need to go back and figure out the character’s truly worst day, and write about that instead.

    Of course, all this needs to build a little at a time, becoming more intense as you go along and the pressure builds. That’s all part of planning that outline.

    5) And this is my final suggestion, I promise. Consider your hero and villain tied together by an invisible, inseparable cord as that plot builds. Some writers have termed this as a CRUCIBLE. The definition that sticks in my mind when I think of this is that a crucible is the container your hero and villain are trapped in together as things heat up. and often the best way to go about this is NOT to think in terms of having a protagonist and antagonist, but rather both opposing forces believe themselves to be the hero. Even if your villain is truly evil and delusional, he/she believes this to be true. And remember, even the worst villain has some good point, or someone they love that brings out a momentary glimpse that they may have been a good person, or could have been, under different conditions. We could all take wrong turns in life and become less scrupulous in some way. Your villain is an example of someone who took that low road. They may have even had their reasons at the time, but they’ve lost site of those reasons along the way and became corrupted–possibly by the very thing they were initially fighting against.

  2. Zoe

    I can understand your anxiousness to launch your own blog, until I saw the back and forth comments on some of Larry’s posts I hadn’t really found a place I felt confident enough to post about my own ideas. But if you launch one be sure to let us know.

    I get the importance of fleshing out character and plot, I don’t think I really struggle with that part, my problem is more that I come up with too many ways to take things and I can never decide which way to go. Just when I think I know my character quite well, in comes a plot twist that begs to be added, one which would mean re-writing a part of her completely, I also find myself reworking the inner demons you mentioned to fit with the new ideas I come up with, again the most exciting ones seem to be the ones that stick.

    Multiple, backed up, documents with re-worked outline versions are the only thing saving my sanity right now.

    I am starting to notice when a direction feels like the right one though, it tends to excite me more than what I already had in it’s place. What you’ve said about reworking things makes me feel a bit better about exploring every avenue.

    I suppose I’m too emotionally involved already with the idea of my island natives having created laws for the virus fleeing refugees against reproduction that I am determined to incorporate it (however I’m now questioning if I should I give this up or if it can be turned into something that causes enough empathy). It was the combination of an article I read about the Chinese laws surrounding this issue and my love of post-apocalyptic fiction that have brought me to the start of my concept in the first place. I like your ideas about a living child as apposed to an unborn child, especially the ease of showing more depth in Sasha through talking to a child, and its making me want to somehow work a child into it somehow, mentally exploring this idea as I type.

    However the reason the child is a danger to Sasha or her sister in the first place is because reproduction is forbidden on the island, a law which when broken has to hold severe consequences, and its deciding what the consequence is that I am having trouble with. A live child wouldn’t help me with this, though as you’ve said would help in other ways – so I’m still thinking of incorporating it somehow if I find a mission for said child. At the moment my options for the consequences are; expulsion from the island (forced back to a mainland where you would have to face a. the unknown and b. a deadly virus), or forced abortion (that is perhaps becoming an issue to perform due to the complications that can occur with abortions when you don’t have antibiotics… antibiotics being a supply that the island are quickly running out of) or finally through the execution of those who get pregnant (which as I said in my last post I am struggling to justify).

    The prospect of Sasha’s sister suddenly having to face these consequences (due to rape – making it further unjustified), produces the stakes that fuel Sasha’s return to the mainland to face what’s there (also something I have been working to flesh out). A part of me keeps coming back to the idea that these stakes would mean more if it was Sasha herself that suddenly had to face these consequences. But the thought of writing a rape scene into a young adult novel scares me (perhaps I need to do more research into young adult fiction as I have never come across a first person rape scene in a young adult novel I’ve read yet). This explains the point I’ve come to already, but your post has me questioning if what I have is enough. Certainly Sasha being the pregnant one and being able to reveal her true thoughts to her ‘bump’ would be a much more interesting prospect to deal with.

    My stakes certainly aren’t fully on there feet yet, but I suppose I have come to those options for the consequences that will set the stakes based around what I already know about my villain. Without wanting to give too much away about my antagonistic force, the most I can say is, Sasha initially thinks it is the virus (which she believes if she can set out to find a cure will solve all her problems), she then goes on to thinking it’s the something/someone else she finds on the mainland that gets in her way but eventually finds out it is the same island council setting the laws against reproduction on the island and the truth they are hiding from all those who live there (their safe haven is a prison and they don’t even know it).

    I definitely need to work in more in the way of the layers and conflict you mentioned, its easier to create a path straight toward the goal than it is to build in the obstacles that’s for sure. I am finding the connective tissue between the big moments, is the hardest to build this into.

    The ‘crucible’ you mentioned is definitely helpful, the opposing force on the mainland actually has a very similar goal to Sasha’s but due to it’s own inner demons and back story is going about it in a much more sinister way. The native island council who has fuelled Sasha’s journey has its own reasons for thinking the reproduction law is the heroic path to take. Of course all the virus wants is to keep on replicating itself.

    Your post has given me a lot to think about and some much needed reminders of things I need to keep in mind. Thank you!

  3. Robert Jones

    You’re welcome, Zoe. I didn’t know this would be a YA novel. So please, take my suggestions to be general considerations to move you forward. That connective tissue is certainly hard to figure out at times. Given time, you’ll consider many of the factors we’ve talked about as if they were second nature. But the questions about possibilities, and not settling until you’ve dug around a while is a good sign, really.

    I believe that once you spend enough time thinking about your characters, the notions of how they will react based on their character will make some of this easier. Then getting the main plot-points nailed became a big help for me. I know a bit about story structure, the key elements are not entirely new. It’s Larry’s take on them that has brought it into as close a scientific approach that’s new. This has helped me take parts of my own story much deeper. However, I’m the sort of person who needs to go over things several times, take them apart, chew on them some more, then finally digest them.

    Doing that with my current plot (an idea that was already written as a draft, then redefined to fit into a trilogy) plus digesting Story Engineering at the same time has been great fun some days, and had my brain turning flip-flops other days. When the pieces begin to click, it’s much like you say, an instinctive feeling that knows when your best ideas are shining through the murk.

    I’m finishing this week up being close to finished. There’s a bit of tweaking left to be done. A few places to polish, or punch up, and I’ll be done plotting at last. I began this one around November–though I may have started reading over my previous draft around Halloween and thinking about what needed to be changed. A written draft would’ve taken me about four months, give or take. So looking at the amount of times I’ve been over this thing within that amount of time, I feel I’ve gotten a fair amount accomplished. Especially when Thanksgiving and Christmas took a good deal of time and planning in the midst of it all.

    But we all keep marching and asking questions along the way. I like to think of it as being a “Story Detective,” unearthing clues until the end result can support itself based on facts created out of whole cloth. Of course, there are truths inserted from both research and observation of human behavior–so some of our lies are true :)

  4. Matthew Stull

    I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion, but having written one full novel (nothing published our even sent off) and starting a new one, this article helped me feel confident in what I’ve already written and taught me a few things with all the discussion! Thanks Larry, Robert, and everyone else!

  5. JM

    I have been following this blog for a little now, and I have already purchased Story Engineering and devoured it. I love the advice and the sensible knowledge that has helped me realize that I really can DO this! I have been working on my concept patiently because I do believe that a strong concept will shape the rest of the writing process. A failed concept says you really don’t have a set vision of what happens, where it goes, and why. Like I said I have been working on my concept for about a week now tweaking it, twisting it, making sure it fits with what I see for the novel itself. Below is my concept and any feedback would be appreciated… but please be gentle! I believe my concept poses a dramatic but also asks that dramatic question within the concept. Not sure if it is supposed to or not. But without further delay…

    What if you found the most coveted treasure in the Universe, an item that contained all the Knowledge and Power of the gods during Creation and you are responsible for handing it over to a group who intend to harness and use its Power for evil and destruction? What if you are the only person now that can stop their plans? What if you are destined to be the Redeemer of the people and bring the Evilness to an end forever?

    But what if you didn’t know that?

  6. @Jason – nice job on the concept. It offers a compelling, provocative “idea” at its heart, as well as inherent drama, good vs. evil, a hero’s quest, siginficant opposition and antagonism, character arc, and many ways to blend in subplot and socio-political subtext. As good as it gets where concept is concerned. Congrats, now go kill it. Let me know if I can help. L.

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