Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

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by Larry Brooks on January 23, 2013

“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  And yet, among the unpublished this remains an unspoken benchmark, smothered in reviews that focus on other things and writing teachers who take this for granted in introducing authors to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.

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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.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew Stull February 27, 2013 at 10:25 pm

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!

JM February 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

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?

Larry February 28, 2013 at 8:45 am

@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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