Case Study: When Your Concept Disappears

From my chair, sometimes it seems like folks encounter the “What is your concept?” question, and then they scramble for an answer.  They conjure something conceptual, or what seems conceptual in that moment.

As if they weren’t ready for that question.  Hadn’t considered it.  This is part of the value of the analysis process, it shows you what you don’t know about your story, but should.

Usually they know the next question asks for their premise, and they’re pretty comfortable and ready for that one.

And they quickly forget about what came before it.  In that case…

Too often, the two answers — and what follows — don’t connect. 

You can identify a concept (perhaps in the moment, in retrospect), but when you get down to the business of describing your story that concept leaves the building.

Because it was never there in the first place.

Which leaves the story without a conceptual layer, something that is appealing before and separate from the characters and plot themselves.

A missed opportunity, that.  And when the concept was there, however briefly, and then disappears, it’s a fumble, resulting (using football jargon here) in a turnover.

Which in this case usually costs you the ballgame.

Check out this case study, you’ll see how this fumble looks in print.

Click on this link — SF Concept Case 9-18 — to read a short Kick-Start Concept/Premise analysis where this is precisely what happened.

The learning is this: notice how potentially compelling the concept is, as a story landscape.  And then, how less than compelling the premise becomes when it fails to harness the inherent power of that concept.

A concept is a promise to the reader: you will enjoy the contextual landscape of this story, because it empowers the story.

It’s a promise you should make from an informed basis, and when it comes to pitching your work, definitely not one you should break.


Want to see if your concept and premise are playing well together?

Click HERE for the skinny on my Kick-Start Concept/Premise Analysis.  If you can find a better $95 investment in your story — because your story depends on this — please tell me where it is.


The free Deadly Faux deconstruction ebook (114 pages of workshop-worthy stuff) is still available.  Click HERE to learn more.





Filed under Case studies

12 Responses to Case Study: When Your Concept Disappears

  1. Kerry Boytzun

    I know somebody who was reading “Flight Behavior: A Novel” lately. I asked her what the STORY was about. Her answer was “the failing environment” (climate change). She went on to say the author spun the characters into a story that revealed the different sides in how Earth’s environment is being changed–for the worse.

    While all of that is great subtext, I didn’t hear a story. For myself, this is no different than “East of Eden”. And yet LOTS of people love this stuff. My friend told me that I would have hated one chapter because it pretty much went on and on about things that weren’t relevant to the story–but were part of the author’s SOAPBOX.

    It takes knowledge of what Larry is talking about (and he’s not the only one) to be able to tell a gripping authentic story AND get your soapbox message out. Movies that are an example of this: Philadelphia; Good Will Hunting; Erin Brockovich.

    Stories with NO “extra” contextual meaning are “easy reading”, hence nothing to worry your soul over. And that isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes we just want to escape into an adventure. If that is your goal as an author, do you KNOW how to ensure your context doesn’t have meaning and you won’t get one started by accident?

    In other words, I am the kind of guy who really WANTS to read something of a deep contextual meaning, especially something with a character that goes against the grain of collective stupidity and actually makes some positive changes for once. Thus, do NOT accidentally introduce such a context into your story–and do NOTHING about it for the reasons that you don’t know how to nurture a contextual meaning into your story and make it actually work.

    This is complicated stuff, like the big-time commercial cook in a fancy restaurant making multiple courses for an impressive meal, from the entree to the dessert–all with a contextual theme.

    You think this kind of cook can do that by “just cooking” and following a recipe?

    Nah, me neither. (Which is why chain “restaurants” SUCK).

  2. “…how less than compelling the premise becomes when it fails to harness the inherent power of that concept.”

    Sounds like something on the order of using a word without knowing the definition. Or, worse, using a word matched to the wrong definition.

    It seems to me, the bonus of having concept firmly in mind, it will open the story premise to multiple facets like a diamond.

  3. Trish

    Coinicidentally, Kerry, I just finished reading “East of Eden”, and I liked it very much. Could you explain to me how you figure there is no story there?

  4. Jason Waskiewicz

    When I read the title to this article, my first thought was about the importance of planning. I have nine first drafts of novels in my basement that are failures. I have a novel now that I planned, brainstormed, and outlined prior to writing it. Now it is on its third draft. I’ve never made it to a second draft before, let alone a third draft.

    I had a nifty setting and concept. But, I’ll admit that I had these before. Some of the nine first drafts really had no hope. But some had great concepts. However, in writing them, I lost what excited me in the first place. In the current novel, the brainstorming, planning, and outlining helped me keep track of the concept that excited me.

    So, I really suggest planning and outlining as a way to keep that excitement and original idea. In such a concise form, it’s easier to see those ideas. Actually, in my third draft, I’m starting to find even more ways to adhere to my concept.

    I also ended up refining my concept as time went by. At first, I was excited by the idea of shipbreaking. However, the concept needs more than a setting. It needs a “What if”. It is still related to shipbreaking, but it is more specific. But, again, it was the brainstorming and outlining that kept me on track.

  5. Robert Jones

    I was confused as well. There is potential, but based on the answers, the plot seems fragmented. The political corruption is obviously the dark side, the antagonistic aspect of the story (as currently described), but I didn’t really see a strong villain emerging. That part is too general.

    Then, getting on with the psychic oneness aspect, that opens people up to a unified venture, it doesn’t have a clear purpose either. People are still choosing whether to do good or evil, but how does this force up the ante? Do we end up with a town divided? Forming two side behind the hero and the villain (if there is a key villain)?

    And what triggers this force? Is there a symbiotic connection between the hero and the boy? Is the boy a supernatural trigger for the entire town? Is the hero the unwitting trigger who then has to fight to put the demons back into Pandora’s box? Who or what, specifically, is the real villain because it would seem the villain might be what’s causing a kind of open warfare on the populace.

    Of course, the concept of such a story might be: What if a supernatural agent opened up an entire town to forget the laws, abandon good sense and fight for their unadulterated, personal beliefs at any cost?

    And what’s on the line for the hero? The lives of the entire town? Is she fighting on the side of the angels for some supreme good? The old flame/love interest is there certainly, but seems like that alone wouldn’t be enough at stake. Love interest and the boy isn’t enough either. Not without some explosive reason.

    Lots of good possibilities. But also a lot of questions without answers. The author’s picture so far is like a wild animal walking into town unexpectedly. It looks fairly exotic, but we don’t know yet what it’s capable of–or even if it’s all that hostile because we haven’t seen its teeth and claws yet.

  6. Robert Jones

    Not many folks giving their two cents worth to assist the author. Of course, based on past case studies, the author usually has more of the story in their head than actually makes to the questionnaire. So it might be interesting to hear from the author as well.

    I like the whole unified thought angle. And I don’t want to second guess the writer’s intentions. However, from where I sit, it would seem that unified minds are an interesting possibility to explore within the concept–and throughout the story. I became quickly interested to see where this might go, but then a bit disappointed when further examples of how this effected the story didn’t show up in later answers and the concept became lost. I know there must be a point to be made. Something the author is shooting for. Hence my thinking there’s more to this tale in the writer’s mind than any of us understand at this juncture.

    Food for thought: Maybe this is just adding to, or clarifying what I was getting at in my previous post, but it would seem that if people had this sort of ability, it would only truly benefit humanity (or even a town) if this unity opened people up to a greater understand, a greater sense of good. If evil and corruption still exists within the hearts of certain members of the community after awaking to such abilities, and they use this ability to do greater wrong, then what you have is a huge area for conceptual thinking and thematic vistas.

    To me this raises all sort of questions. From exploring the essence of pure, unadulterated good and evil in mankind to spiritual connotations. Do the good become so enlightened that they rise above the petty earthly demands and no longer care what evils petty people do? Do they become caught up in an age old war and attempt to wipe each other out? Is this why humans only have access to 10% of their brain capacity? There have been plenty of stories where people gain super-human abilities, or strive to achieve some version godly knowledge. So another good question might be: How does this story differ from the others?

    I could go on, but hopefully, if the author hasn’t considered such things, they will see enough here to begin addressing the conceptual side of their story.

  7. Oh wow, lightbulb moment!

    We’ve gone round and round with concept with more posts than I can remember and it is always this thing that plays peek-a-boo with definition. It’s the brat in the room.

    This example Kick-Start said something that really nailed it for me: Premise cannot be a story idea about all the people with shared mental consciousness, it has to be about a hero.

    Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but it seems that concept is what’s happening in the world while premise is what the hero is doing in that world. Can it be that simple?

    Concept: The galaxy is being terrorized into submission by an empire with a big scary weapon and evil wizards.

    Premise: A young man must learn how to be a good wizard to save the rebellion and destroy the empire.

    Concept: Tyranny rules the world with an iron fist and perpetual punishment through a ritual of killing subjects’ children.

    Premise: A girl finds love in the middle of a game of life and death and sparks a revolution.

    Concept: The adoption of Western ways is eroding a people’s ancient traditions and identity.

    Premise: A man from the West makes a last stand to defend the honor of those traditions.

    Concept: The world is but a stage to hide the truth of what has happened to us.

    Premise: A man with special powers will lead the fight against the puppet masters.

    The concept is the arena. The premise is the game.

    • @ MIchael J — you say: “Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but it seems that concept is what’s happening in the world while premise is what the hero is doing in that world. Can it be that simple?”

      What’s happening in that world, yes… but even more basic, what IS that world. Because as authors we get to totally make up what that means. Your examples here lean into the THEMATIC… “a world in which a thematic condition exists.” Well, Superman landing on our planet and being raised by human parents, ending up with super powers (this is the best and clearest concept example I know of) isn’t thematic, it’s just WHAT IS. So you don’t have to express it thematically (“a world in which love is always doomed…”), though you can, if that’s your intention. (Same concept, put differently: “a dystopian world in which the government imprisons all who engage in singular relationships” — that, too, is a concept, and a more specific one, setting a clearer dramatic stage.

      Well put, and spot on if you don’t limit concept to the thematic realm. It is liberating, which is why nothing about story architecture is the “formula” that some fear it to be, and/or aren’t able to distinguish from a narrower view. Concept is “the story landscape,” and all that it implies, invites and empowers. Before and apart from (contextually preliminary to) a hero and a plot entering the frame. It is the STAGE upon which the drama unfolds.

      It’s really that simple, and that clear. Why this continues to baffle so many is really a snapshot of the very essence of how we learn and how we limit ourselves, the degree of either being the variable that dictates our success and the nature of our journey. You have taken a huge, leaping monster of a step on that path, good on you. L.

  8. Thanks to the author for letting Larry share this. Another great learning example!

    @Kerry Boytzun: BTW, Flight Behavior was about a young woman who had gotten pregnant and married in high school. Now, in her mid twenties, she feels stuck in her small hometown with no purpose and no ambition in her life. Her only excitement is her fantasies of having an affair. When the failing economy and environmental changes combine to threaten her town’s way of life, she finds her voice and a passion for living and doing that she hadn’t felt since she was a young girl.

    I rarely read “chick lit”, but a friend recommend this. I found that it was about changes in industry – from small business to large scale corporations – as much as it was about “the failing environment.” A woman learns how those changes are happening around the world, impacting human communities and, yes, butterfly habitat.

    A lot of people say this is Kingsolver’s weakest book. The majority of the criticism is that she get’s too preachy about the environment. I can’t say I disagree, really, but in trying to look at book from a StoryFix POV, the plot and the structure is there.

    So, let this be it’s own lesson to us – people will forget there is a plot in your story if they feel you are on your soapbox. 🙂

    Happy writing, everyone!

  9. Disappearing Concept Author

    This is exactly the learning experience I was hoping for when I submitted the questionnaire, and the motivating reason I agreed to having my answers used in a case study. Many thanks to Larry.
    All I can tell you is that the new and improved concept, premise and plot is WAY better and imbued with story, and like Larry always says, “once you see it, you can’t UN-see it!” Thanks all for your helpful feedback

  10. Robert Jones

    You’re welcome, DCA. And if there are further questions to explore, feel free to post them. This is a good opportunity to bat things around.

  11. Thanks for the followup Larry. As always, makes me stretch just a little bit further for the true meaning of what you’re talking about. My blurring of theme and concept totally blindsided me. I’ve repented and go forth with a pure hear.