Case Study: Heroes and Villains and Readers Who Can’t Tell the Difference

Let’s call him Joe.

Joe is another of those courageous writers who consented to running their coaching Questionnaire answers (the Kick-Start concept/premise evaluation), with my feedback, here on Storyfix .  He turned me down at first, uncomfortable with the notion that someone out there might want to “borrow” from his concept.

I assured him this wasn’t at risk.  In fact, that in a forum like this, that’s almost zero risk.  Not because the concept won’t spark a moment of envy — it might, actually — but because in a community like this, story ideas are like dreams… we all have them in abundance, and often we wake and don’t remember what all the nocturnal fuss was about.  And even if we do remember, they aren’t worth anything (including being stolen) until they are executed well.

That’s the hard part.  Go ahead, steal an F-35 stealth fighter plane, see what you can do with it.

I wanted to share this because Joe came to this process very enthused.  He didn’t say it, but I think he believed he was ready to write the story, and that it was a solid plan, even that it was a potential bestseller.  To be the bearer of bad news isn’t my idea of a good time, but like a doctor (okay, a vet or a mechanic, if that seems less self-aggrandizing) delivering a diagnosis and a therapy plan to someone who really didn’t know they were terminal, I have no other choice.

The writer pays for just this type of feedback, the kind that will save you a year of your life writing a draft that won’t work, going away with a notion of roadmap that will save the story, or at least give it a chance.

The problem here is, once again, a concept and a premise that don’t know one from the other, and then a story plan that doesn’t live up to the missions and criteria of the various elements.  Joe had read — studied, he assures me — Story Engineering, so this evaluation reflects a common challenge for the new writer.

In essence, this stuff is a lot harder than it looks.  An idea you are passionate about does not legitimize the compromise or redefinition of what a novel requires.  That’s like saying a supermodel can be a good actress, simply by the jaw-dropping nature of their looks.

You can’t shortcut it, you can’t bend the definitions, and most of all, you can’t/shouldn’t confuse your passion for a story idea with the discipline of getting the moving parts in the proper form and function to make that idea work.  In this case I don’t think Joe was “bending” the definitions, per se, but rather, that he hadn’t really wrapped his head around them.

Don’t let your killer story idea blind you to what must be done with it.  Those are the very things that make your killer story idea WORK, no great idea ever has stood alone.

As usual, your input is appreciated.  This is an concept and a theme that can work, should work, but (IMO) needs a complete architectural overhaul before it will.  Let’s help him get there.  You’ll see that I’ve mounted a soap box toward that end.  In reading again before this posting, I was tempted to add even more feedback… but I’ll leave that to you guys for now.

You can read the feedback to the story plan here: Bully concept.

(I’ve additional feedback in the comment thread below; it’s the #2 placed comment, after Robert Jones’ usual brilliant take on it all.)

Click HERE and HERE for more on these coaching programs.  “Save a year of your life…” just sayin’. 


Here are some conference/workshop dates on my calendar, in case you’re in a traveling sort of mood (or you already live on the West coast).

May 16-18, Wenatchee WA — the annual “Write on the River” conference.  Click HERE to see a summary of the sessions; I’ll be doing a 101 structure workshop on Saturday, and a three hour Master Class intensive on Sunday morning for those who want a Big Picture context.

May 22 — I’m doing an online webinar for Writers Digest University, an upgrade reprise of a session called “From Good to Great.”  Look for signup details soon (click HERE to read a summary of the previous version of this; the analysis included will be different, and the content shifted toward front-end viablity… just what Joe needs in the case study above).

July: stay tuned, I’ve been invited to teach in Beijing — not a typo — in conjunction with the Chinese publisher who is releasing Story Engineering there, in their language.   Never been there, travel tips happily accepted.

August 1-3, Portland OR: teaching once again at the Willamette Writers Conference, doing three sequential sessions on building your story from the idea (blank page) up.

August 15-17, Los Angeles CA: the West Coach Writers Digest Conference — A Novel Writing Intensive.  This just came in as I was writing this post, but I’m so in.   May be doing a day-before “masters” class (a separate ticket), as well.  I did this one last year, a really amazing experience.  Check back for updates on specific sessions, and check all the Writers Digest online venues (and the magazine) for registration info.

October 3-5, Edmonds WA: doing a Friday intensive (long) sesssion at the annual “Write on the Sound” conference (not to be confused with the Wenatchee WA “Write on the River” conference… those WA writers really like their bodies of water).  A great event, lots of great sessions all weekend.  Website is not yet updated, check back for registration (it’s still early, many conferences don’t open up registration until 10-12 weeks prior).

October 11-12, Tampa FL: presenting at a retreat for the Tampa Area Romance Authors (TARA).  Not sure if you have to join to attend, but I’m betting they’d love to see some new faces.  (Same story, website needs updating on this retreat, but there is general contact info available.)

October 24-26, Surrey, British Columbia: presenting at the Surrey International Writers Conference (specifics to be determined; check the website later, like the others).

 I’ll update these as information hits the airwaves.


New Review Online

As I’ve mentioned, my first published novel, Darkness Bound, (Onyx; it was my USA Today bestseller), was published in 2000, and has been recently republished by by Turner Publishing, who published my entire backlist in conjunction with the release of Deadly Faux.

Well, a reader has posted another review of the novel, which you can read HERE.  The story is dark and dangerous and sexual (be forewarned, if not enticed), but in a good way, and Wayne’s review is a nice overview of the steamy  psychological context of the story.  (The cover shown is from the original edition.)




Filed under Case studies

30 Responses to Case Study: Heroes and Villains and Readers Who Can’t Tell the Difference

  1. Robert Jones

    Several things need to be defined about the hero and villain. My first impression was that the bully would naturally be the villain, but reading a bit further, I thought the kid who tries to trick the hit man into killing the other kid might actually be the villain. It certainly isn’t nice, or especially heroic. It’s an act of fear, desperation, or an eye for an eye and then some–especially when I later read the death of the cat was an “accident.” Then I got to wondering just how bad the villain was, how emotionally scarred the kid next door was already for an accidental death to have him go off and blackmail his neighbor…all this plus a near death experience that converts a hit man and has him seeking redemption.

    The hit man having a near death experience that changed him was the most interesting part, actually. Because no hit man is going to bother with heaven and hell without some kind of larger-than-life experience. And even then, he’s going to weigh the odds of being delusional, did the experience really happen? Was he offered some concrete proof from the experience that made him buy into it? A hit man is not going to be an easy sell. Some long lost relative can’t actually tell him some deep dark secret the hit man already knows about himself to win him over. It would have to be something the hit man doesn’t know about the deceased relative…and can be found among the relatives personal effects boxed away, in a safe deposit box, etc…but it has to be proof the hit man would never suspect in a million years, something important enough to shake him. Or make him believe the experience he had was real beyond any doubt.

    Then we come to the question of who is actually the hero? My money would be on the hit man so far. He has the most intriguing story path here.

    Next question: What does this make the kid trying to convince him to kill the bully? It would seem this neighboring kid is either a psychological basket case, or an even bigger bully by default.

    I must admit that there’s a certain intrigue about making a hit man (someone usually stamped as a villain) the hero, and making the neighboring kid (someone who we might normally think of as an underdog because he’s picked on at school) as the villain.

    There’s your contrast. This is what makes the story different. And if there’s a lesson to be learned about bullying that teaches the other bully at school that violence only breeds more of the same, that one day’s bully might become the next day’s victim, then that’s a subplot that grows out of the main plot.

    There are other ways to play it, certainly. And I like what the writer is getting at in terms of one character who has killed, seeking redemption, and a secondary character who is innocent, but leaning toward a step he will regret for the rest of his life. However, no matter how you slice it, that kid thinking about killing the bully CANNOT be the hero–or even one of two heroes comprising the two halves of this story. That kid has a problem. He needs serious help. Something went wrong and he’s twisted on some level that is in desperate need of straightening out. And what’s to prevent the hit man from telling his parents, or just disappearing into the night? He would probably be used to moving around a lot and avoiding the law…why not just avoid the kid? It would be child’s play for him.

    Now, if this kid next door was already the bully, and he wants to take out his opposition so he can be king of the hill at school and decides to blackmail the hit man into doing his dirty work…then you have a story of one man who crossed the line a long time ago, and a boy who is ready to cross that line now. And that would make for an interesting story as well. Because the hit man sees himself in the kid and has a vested interest in helping him before the kid makes a huge mistake.

  2. One of the things this whole process has brought me, juxtaposed with the prevailing silence on this issue at writing conferences, is the realization that the acceptance of ANY idea as a dramatic premise seems to be the thing to do, as if nobody should challenge the viability of another writer’s ideas. It just seems impolite, or out of place, for anyone to tell another writer that the idea itself is full of holes, that it could never happen that way, and because readers aren’t stupid, they won’t accept that it WILL happen that way in a story. Instead we focus on execution, what you need to MAKE the idea work, but sometimes the square one premise notion is already built on sand, and you really can’t make a decent silk purse out of cow’s ear full of holes.

    Leo Decaprio said it in an interview I read today: he’s never seen a director be able to make a stellar film out of a crappy script.

    I wanted to add this to my feedback, but thought I’d see what comes out here. Robert’s take is (as usual) very incisive, and I thought he might touch on it, but didn’t. So here goes.

    This whole thing (Joe’s story) depends on something that is, in my view, never going to happen. Ever, on any planet. To even propose it’s going to happen is… well, just too far out there. It is this: that a bullied kid would have the utter balls, the discipline and the raw material, to approach his neighbor (the hit man), who we aren’t sure is even acquainted with him, and either “blackmail” or manipulate this guy into… actually killing the kid who is bullying him.

    If he’s that smart and badass, why not just kill the bully himself?

    Or what, I’ll egg your house? Show your wife the pictures of you doing strange things while you’re gone, the ones I take through your window, which you convenient leave open so I can see? What does he have on this guy to force such an unlikely alliance?

    I just can’t come up with a feasible means of blackmail, or pressure, that the feeble kid could bring to a hardened murderer with a goal of leveraging it to get the man to do his bidding — kill a kid, a bully, without pay. It’s just… I hate to say it, but it’s unthinkable. Ridiculous. But the whole story depends on it. The neighbor would just grunt and say “get out of my house,” or laugh, or slap the kid into the next county. Even if he feels sorry for the kid, he wouldn’t be subject to this degree of manipulation. The man has no reason to help the boy do ANYTHING, especially be “tricked” into killing the bully (how can a kid “trick” an intelligent, hardened murderer, even one who is repenting to do ANYTHING at all?).

    We need to call it when we see it. We CANNOT build a story on any old notion we want (which is precisely why there are 999 rejected manuscripts for every 1000 submissions), nor can we create the World’s Most Unlikely Thing to use as leverage to get the story going. The story is DOA at the concept/premise level, which is the point of it all. To try to make it work, without basically changing it radically… I’m all ears. L.

  3. Well, it CAN work, but the adjustment isn’t if the child can successfully blackmail a mafia hit man, but if they both can come to terms with what they lost.

    Even if it isn’t in black and white, the clearer avenue here is to keep the theme, but spin it just ever so slightly.

    Yes, the bullied child COULD try to blackmail the mafia hitman…if that’s what he saw his mother or father do (no telling what the father actually did here).

    Yes, the mafia man COULD be blackmailed into doing it via feeling bad / survivor’s guilt.

    However, the story isn’t how the bully stops bullying, but how the child and the mafia man need each other to grow and obtain a new level of thinking.

    IF the child had no father at this point and lost his mother, then he might find he really needed a father figure after all (even if it is from someone as morally questionable as a mafia hit man).

    IF the mafia hit man lost a child, perhaps this might be the “redemption” he seeks. Perhaps it starts off as placating him to make up for a loss, but then as the growth happens, it turns into what he needed: To be a responsible parent.

    There are possibilities even with what Joe has, but he has to look at it in the scope of the “dark buddy movie” theme. They may not admit that they need one another, but when push comes to shove, they do find out they needed each other all along.

    Not really a sweeping epic tale in the bare bones, but the possibility is there. I wouldn’t be too hasty to throw it out.

  4. One thing really stuck out for me when reading the evaluation–The author said the First Plot Point is when the bully kills the teenager’s cat. This seems to be an Inciting Incident, still part of the set-up. The FPP is when the teenager reacts by forming his goal and setting off on his quest.

    Larry has said that the First Plot Point is the most important scene in a novel, and that it occurs at the 20-25% mark. It seems so simple and straightforward, so it’s disconcerting to see so many authors ignore it or get it wrong. (Myself included.) EVERYTHING in the plot, before and after, depends on it.

    The book’s FPP and the Premise are not the same thing, but maybe the FPP could be used as one way to distinguish the Concept from the Premise. The Concept is an engaging idea about a world. The Premise adds a character and his goal–shown at the FPP.

  5. Larry, while a bullied kid lashing out is no stretch of the imagination, as you say, manipulating a tough guy ain’t gonna happen.

    And that’s where the story goes in MY head: confused and battered kid preposterously and ignorantly attempts vicarious revenge and instead becomes the moral project of a heretofore morally bankrupt man.

    Probably only enough for a short story in that, though.

  6. Thanks to Joe for letting us see his work. I like his ideas, with some tweaking.

    I see the hitman as the hero and the bully as the villain. Maybe start off with the hitman’s near-death experience, which leaves him looking for ways to gain redemption. When the teenager comes to him, the hitman sees a way he can get himself on that path.

    But I think the bully has to do something way worse than killing a cat. Maybe he pushes another kid, the teenager’s best friend, into the path of a car, and the kid is severely injured. When this kid regains consciousness, perhaps he unites with the teenager in wanting the bully killed before he actually kills someone with his bullying. This “conspiracy” between the two youngsters could be a subplot. Plus it would give the author an opportunity to let the reader know exactly why the teenager approaches the hitman. Actually, the teenager never needs to know the neighbor is a hitman. The hitman could just act as a sympathetic person whom the teenager confides in and who wants to help the boy(s).

    I agree with Larry that the hitman would never seriously contemplate killing the bully. But as Matt suggests, perhaps the hitman has lost a son. Another subplot? Maybe his wife yanked the boy away when she divorced the hitman. Now, being on the path to redemption, he sees that, as a parental surrogate, he can help the teenagers channel their rage into a new direction – maybe getting psychological help for the bully. Or maybe just scaring the crap out of him in some way that cures him of his bullying (I prefer this idea if it can be carried out successfully. It could make a thrilling scenario).

    Then wrapup the story with the teenager, his buddy, and the hitman all being satisfied with the outcome. And maybe, since the hitman has become a new person, have the divorced wife return with the son. (I just threw that in as a remote possibility. Maybe throughout the story, the guy has tried to persuade her to return. A subplot with a little romantic twist.)

    Hope this helps!

  7. I have cats, lots of pets, and love them all dearly. I’d hate anything to happen to them. But if one of them died, and someone inadvertently caused the accident, would I get a hit man to rub them out? I think not. That would be over-reacting, even for me. So the whole dead cat thing blows the story apart completely for me.
    Actually, I can picture this as one of those latter-day Clint Eastwood movies: he’s the hardened old timer trying to teach some wisdom to the young kid next door. But it would work better I think if the kid didn’t try to do the blackmail bit, but the hitman finally, at the climax, comes out of his shell and scares the bejeezus out of the bully as a way of helping his young friend. But no one gets murdered.

  8. Laureli

    I do see potential in the story… and it might be pretty fun figuring it all out, (but exhausting just to think about)!

    I like the lines of critical imagery going on here too. I didn’t think I would be willing to let others critique (aka: tear apart) my own dream-novel concept/work… but today I am convinced Larry is providing something valuable in this addition to his own insights & correction.

    What Joel says “while a bullied kid lashing out is no stretch of the imagination, as you say, manipulating a tough guy ain’t gonna happen.” seems to ring true to me, too. Not only do tough people have a hardened shell against the needs or feelings of others, but they are likely to be much more wiley/conniving than we could ever be, so how could a teen– who can’t even outsmart the bully– then outsmart the hitman- especially one who has discovered a life-changing need for forgiveness/redemption?

    What Joel said got me seeing a juvenile-genre novel wherein the bullied kid would be forced provide this kind of narrative within his own inner world- the one he escapes to when he can’t find help or other viable escape. (The place he goes to live out revenge is all in his head and he gets quit caught up and even lost to it).
    A story twist not unlike the one of ‘Shutter Island’.

    Simon’s take also fits in a juvenile genre. Like a “hidden moral lesson” theme story.

    Also, I agree with what Elizabeth reiterated:
    FFP: the First Plot Point is the most important scene & EVERYTHING in the plot, before and after, depends on it.
    Sorry, the cat-killing seems more like an inciting incident.

    Larry said during his review of the story, “He may initially sign up to scare the hell out of the bully, even punish him, but I don’t think he’d risk everything by killing another KID. Even a bad kid, that’s going MORE THAN BACKWARDS on what he decided not to do anymore.”

    I couldn’t help but wonder what delicious kinds of blackmail or reward might come up to motivate this murder for hire that might entice him more than the fear of hell.
    Perhaps the bully is the kid of the mafia killers’ old-time rival or adversary! Perhaps he was once beaten in a test of ingenuity or strategy or sabotage skill by this other man, and so he was forced out of his line of work because of that… what else was left but to find ‘true reliegion’? But now this opportunity comes around –and for HIM to pay back becomes a viable motivation (and therefore regain his supreme status). After all, his ego could trump his need for eternal harp music.
    Even though his near-death experience opened his eyes & revealed his need for redemption -it comes years after he’s been hardened enough to kill. I think of people in society today who don’t live their lives trying to fix any wrongs – until maybe they need in-home care. They may TRY to butter up their kids then, but after a lifetime of inability to care they simply don’t have the know-how. And they aren’t even killers.

    As well, this thought occurred to me… what is the heroism of the protagonist?
    “Q: What does your hero NEED or WANT in this story… what is their “story journey”?
    A: The teenage boy wants revenge on the bully because the bully killed (even accidentally) the cat his mother gave him before she died.”
    Revenge is payback – as in: the bully should lose something as valuable to him as the protagonist lost. Revenge means he wants the bully to HURT as much as he does. If he’s dead, nothing hurts him, right? So I don’t believe that conclusion to pain; killing seems like an overkill reaction- contrived. Unless the protagonist is actually shown to be mentally unstable & angry enough to kill anyway… and this is only a justification for a lead-in.
    Even if losing the cat was the last straw in a long succession of wrongs done to him & other losses. If he plots this kind of revenge it really points to a mental deterioration – not just into an abyss of mental torment over the losses, or anger. (Nothing heroic there. The protagonist is supposed to be heroic, right?)
    Larry explained that the premise “has to evolve that initial desire (for the bully’s death) toward something more ironic, more moral, more credible, and – to make the read satisfying – something unexpected.”
    Mental illness is the only thing I can think of that might come off as unexpected.

    If the ex-hitman was told by God that he needs to “go back and make it right,” maybe his twisted idea of this is not actually for helping the protagonist for a good or heroic reason, but in wiping the earth clean of all other potential hit-men (and he sees the bully a kid like he once was -therefore a future hit man?). Again with this character, mental status is askew!

  9. This story reminded me of a similar premise that did work–the charming film MY BODYGUARD. Same set-up: A teenager is bullied and comes across a thug kid in school (kind of like our Mafia hit-man)–big, rough, and aloof. Rather than blackmail and murder, the teenager hires the thug kid to be his bodyguard and protect him from the bully. The thug agrees, partly for the money, but mostly because the kid reminds him of his smart younger brother who had died.

    The mere presence of the thug standing by the teenager is enough to deter the bully. Of course, the teenager and the thug become friends, and everything is fine–until the bully hires his own, even bigger, bodyguard to challenge . . .

    But enough of the plot spoilers. We’re talking about the premise here. We need a premise like MY BODYGUARD–a heroic teenager who comes up with something believable and clever to solve his problem.

  10. Wiz W

    A very quick suggestion for the brave volunteer. Have a look at Gran Tourino for an excellent take on similar ground. Will try and add more thoughts later.Cheers.

  11. Matt Duray

    Hey everyone, it’s been a while since I’ve commented but I felt like I could add something to this discussion, so here we go.

    ‘Joe’, I agree with Richard when he said that the hitman appears to be the hero of your story, or better yet, the anti-hero, and in light of Larry’s comments about there being just one concept, premise and FPP, it would stand to reason that this is in fact the hitman’s story. And you already know what the focus of that story is: his redemption.

    As I read the questionnaire and the subsequent comments, a few films and novels came to mind, which may help you to crystallize your hero’s journey (not the journey of your heroes). About A Boy (the film – I haven’t read the book) is about a guy who is jolted out of his self-centered ways by a bullied kid. I understand what you’re trying to do by giving both of your main characters their own missions – you want them to actually be doing something unique to them – but if you look at About A Boy, you’ll see that both of the characters have their own personal stories but that the hero/anti-hero of the story is still the self-centered guy. The bulled kid has troubles at school and at home, but it’s his inability to deal with these situations alone that moves the hero onto his path of redemption; he has someone else to think of other than himself. The relationship between the kid who needs someone and the guy who has no-one is the heart and soul of the story. The bullies hardly make an impact on the film at all.

    That’s what I felt as I read your answers. If the FPP is the moment when the hitman and the kid form a bond, then the rest of the story shows how they fix each other. You could even have the hitman fall for the kid’s aunt to further nudge him along the road to redemption (which begs the question: what will she do when she finds out about his former life?). In About A Boy, the guy falls for the mother of one of the bullies, in a neat subversion of that idea.

    Larry’s right though, expecting the reader to root for a child to be killed would be risky. Even if it was a young Hitler, the fact is he’d still be a kid. It would work as a plot device to bring the characters together, but you can’t really have them plotting out how to do it. At best, the kid could do that, and the hero would discourage him, voicing the reader’s thoughts and humanizing this killer. In Leon, the young girl begs the eponymous hitman to kill the corrupt DEA agents that killed her family and the audience root for that because even though her mother and father and older sister were pretty horrible to her, her young brother was a little angel. And he was killed. That murdered child is the reason the audience could believe that the surviving sister would go to the hitman down the hall and ask him for revenge.

    In both About A Boy and Leon the central relationship is between an adult and a kid, as with your story, a relationship that is forced upon the characters at the FPP following a crisis; the attempted suicide of the kid’s mother and the murder of the kid’s family respectively. You instantly have the parent-child dynamic working its thematic magic. Marcus in About A Boy doesn’t have a father figure in the same way Melissa in Leon doesn’t have both parental figures and in the same way your bullied kid doesn’t have a mother.

    In that context, have you considered making the character a hitWOMAN? The kid would be drawn to her, to fill the gaping void left when his mother died (or if you want to keep his original gender, perhaps the boy’s father has turned to alcohol, leaving a paternal void as well as a maternal one). Yes, he could still go to the hitperson for revenge, but that would merely be the catalyst for their relationship, and the bully himself would be relegated to a MacGuffin, which is fine, as long as you understand that the role of a MacGuffin is to set the stage or move characters towards each other. Think the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the money in Fargo or No Country For Old Men. Wikipedia says that a MacGuffin “is the central focus of the film in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may re-appear at the climax of the story, but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story.”

    So, if you harness the inherent parent-child theme, and the child is replacing a dead or absent parent, what would the hitman/hitwoman gain from the relationship? Yes, his redemption is the end goal and this new relationship will get him there but as Larry points out, the characters coming together needs to make sense. The reader needs to read it and not be jolted out of their suspension of disbelief. In Leon, Leon and Melissa share two moments before the FPP. We’ve already seen Leon ruthlessly assassinate several people by then, but there’s clearly an undercurrent of tenderness and concern when he sees that Melissa has first a bruised face and then a bloody nose. At the FPP Melissa knocks on his door because she has nowhere else to go, and Leon allowing her to come inside makes sense to us because we already know that not only is he sympathetic, but that he’s sympathetic towards HER.

    Using that as inspiration, your two characters could voluntarily or accidentally meet once or twice – at least once, like in About A Boy – before the FPP, but the FPP could be a moment where something critical happens and they turn to each other for help, or one turns to the other for help. The two films I’ve mentioned are good examples because Leon hammers home the plot points whereas About A Boy is much more subtle – which do you want yours to be? In the latter, the guy and the boy aren’t exactly forced together at the FPP but they share a moment where the self-centered guy can’t fail to feel sympathy for the boy, and this moment is the starting point of their relationship, and his redemption.

    One last thing about the hitman’s motivations. I read a book by Simon Lelic a couple of months ago called Rupture (in the States it’s called A Thousand Cuts). It’s about a teacher who walks into a school assembly and inexplicably shoots and kills three pupils and a teacher before turning the gun on himself. A policewoman is assigned to the case and is expected to wrap things up quickly, but she begins to suspect that the teacher was driven to his crime because he was being bullied – by pretty much everyone in the school. The cop’s determination to discover the truth of what happened that day is motivated, surprisingly, by sympathy; she, too, knows what it’s like to bullied in the workplace.

    I won’t reveal any more in case you want to read it, but my point is that your hitman needs a reason to be drawn to this bullied kid. Was he bullied as a child? Was he bullied into his life of crime? The latter would be a neat way to marry the bullying of the child, the hitman’s former life AND his sympathy for this kid, which means the reader would readily believe that he would open the door to this child at the FPP. You could even explain how the hitman lost a child years ago, or how the loss of his child resulted in his entering a life of crime, making this new, bullied child his reason to redeem hiself even more powerful and poignant.

    I don’t usually write such long posts but I hope some of it has helped. I wish you the best of luck!

    P.s. The whole parent-child thing? That would contribute to your premise, not your concept 😉

  12. newguy

    I write fantasy. It is easier to come up with interesting concepts in the fantasy genre than other genres imo. This is what I would do to the story.

    First the hitman is an angel. He works for God. He was once a hitman when he lived, but he repented and when he died was given the powers of an angel. So the concept for the story is:

    What if an ex-hitman who repented and became an angel after death was sent down to help guide a grieving young boy who was being bullied?

    Now you’ve got forgiveness and all sorts of themes from this concept.

    The turning points could be something like:

    First turning point – The boy hires the hitman nextdoor neighbor to kill a bully. He is unaware that the neighbor is an angel.

    Mid point – The hitman gets “sick” and the boy decides to carry on the hitman’s plans to kill the bully. The hitman is not really sick of course. He is acting in order to teach the boy a lesson.

    Second turning point – The boy cases the bullies home. He discovers that the bully does not live at the address that the boy had believed. Instead the bully, abandoned by his parents, is homeless and lives at the edges of town with a younger brother. The boy then realizes why he cannot simply kill the bully. He notifies his school and they get the bully help.

    This follows the setup, response, attack, conclusion paradigm.

  13. Wiz W

    Coming back with more thoughts here. So far I felt as though everyone has done a great job of throwing in suggestions for how Joe can “fix” his novel from a plot point of view but hasn’t yet answered his main problem: the fact that he hasn’t yet got his head around what his central concept is, or indeed, the difference between a concept and a premise. Alarm bells started ringing when he said that he was afraid people would steal his ideas. My personal feeling is that if you have a solid grasp of concept this wouldn’t be a concern because a concept is something from which any number of stories can be and ARE told and no one can tell it like YOU. Concept is a skeleton; premise is the skin, flesh and unique features which make a story individual. Hence many/most/all of the Marvel comic stories are basically around the same concept of someone who is either born with/develops special powers who ends up having to fight the forces of evil on earth. It’s this compelling concept that makes us come back for the same story time and time again, although the RENDERING of that story is made unique by the way this skeleton is (literally) clothed in different costumes: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.

    I felt that the two ideas stated at the beginning of Joe’s assessment effectively split his notion of concept and went straight into the clothing of the story (premise). Is the concept about bullying? Or is is a concept about redemption? My guess is that it is about the latter, because within that concept can also reside a premise/story about bullying. Does that make sense? Take the same concept of “redemption” and you can not only have a story about bullying but about prostitution, war veterans, kids with dead siblings who have survivor guilt…the list could go on and on. Concept is merely a landscape upon which any number of different stories could be told. Don’t get too specific too soon. I struggled with this myself, until I realised that my concept was not about “a man who….” but about something that PRECEDES character. It’s a notion upon which I then add character, premise, etc. For example, if this is a story about redemption perhaps the concept could be the notion that we can come back from the most heinous of crimes and not only change but change someone else from a similar fate. Onto this concept you could then lay any number of premises, from the alternative story of Adolph Hitler to a story about a hit man who regrets the life he has lived and wants and has the opportunity to change not only himself but someone else for the better. Another bonus of getting your concept clear is that it paves the way for a clearer exploration of character motivation which seems to be another problem that readers are currently struggling with in your particular story. I, too, have no idea why the hit man would currently want to help your kid – what’s in it for him, ( did he accidentely kill a kid on a hit gone wrong in his former life?) what does he stand to gain or lose by the transaction? What’s stopping him from just walking away?

    The example of Leon is a good one. In the set up of that film we have a really nice metaphor for an alternative side of Leon’s character in the way that he tends to his houseplants; it’s unexpected and fresh, and there’s a hint that there is a different side to him, away from his job as a hired assassin. We also have the one or two tentative interactions between Mathilda and Leon which provide a foundation for their later relationship – they are not complete strangers to each other and there is intrigue on both sides. Then later, when he hears the mass execution going on down the hall and realises that Mathilda is the only one that is going to potentially get out alive his decision to open his front door and let her in is both credible and motivated by something urgent. There is a choice presented here, as there always should be in an effective first plot point. The choice could go either way (otherwise it’s a lame choice) and having made the choice the hero opens up new and different questions: what now? At the moment I am not sure what the connection is between the kid and his neighbour in your story. I’ve read nothing to indicate what the set up of their potential relationship is, what sort of person either of them is, etc, and because of this their coming together seems a plot convenience rather than a credible inevitability. Going back to the concept of redemption, however, could give us a way into this. However, it needs to be set up and I think you need to be prepared to make your hitman your hero (or anti hero). At the moment, your kid seems to be the villain, simply because he seems to want to oppose everything the hitman wants to do with his life (stop killing, retire, whatever). And yes, plotting to kill another kid is not something anyone could root for in a hero so you should think about that as an antagonistic goal rather than a heroic one.

    As an aside, one of my favourite films is “Carlito’s Way” and I think that might be worth (re)visiting if you’re so inclined. It shares some features with your story, or the direction you might consider taking your story in.

    On a last point I would emphasis the fact that you shouldn’t sweat it about being “original” in your concept. I don’t think your concept IS original and nor is this a bad thing. Everything I’ve ever written is about redemption and responsibility; similarly many of our great directors and writers never stray from their pet concepts. The thing that makes them original is what they clothe these skeletons in. That is the nub of what the gatekeepers say when they tell us “make it the same but different”; that is the basic statement of concept versus premise. The difference is what you, with your unique, individual experiences and personality bring to the table in your characters and story events. Keep going.

  14. A comment for Larry. Thank you for the Superman example regarding the Concept landscape. Maybe it’s just me and my childhood affection for Superman, Superboy, etc. (I grew up during the end of the Golden Age and right through the Silver Age,) but of everything I’ve seen you post, and in your books as well (Story Engineering,) for some reason that example resonated more clearly than any other I’ve ever seen explaining Concept as opposed to Premise, AND why they should be separated out, e.g. to discover all the richness of your Concept. Thanks!

  15. Joe

    Hello fellow writers. This is “Joe,” and this was my Concept Questionnaire. I just wanted to thank everybody (especially Larry) for taking the time to read and respond. I am currently in the development stage of my novel, and all of this constructive input you guys are posting is very helpful to me (and much needed).

    I will be carefully going through it all, and I would like to address as many points made here as possible.

    Just to provide a little further insight: the chapter-by-chapter prose has yet to be written. I am currently working on Concept, using Larry’s book (and other books) to help me, along with drafting the bones of the plot.

    To touch on the point Larry brought up about believability: While I do not have a story summary, I do know how it will end and it will NOT be with anyone killing the teenage bully.

    What I had in mind was a struggle between the grieving boy and the hit man: the boy struggling to get the hit man to kill the bully (somehow working manipulation into that, which I know will require careful planning as to make that believable), while the hit man struggle to convince the boy that killing is wrong and vengeance will not give him peace (ironic because he used to kill for a living).

    The hit man does have a true/sincere out-of-body/near-death-experience during his heart attack, and makes a sincere “180” in his life, struggling to make right for all the wrong he committed in his life. In a sense, he sees helping this grieving boy as a means to his redemption.

    How I am relatively set on ending the story, the arc for each character: the boy abandons his “goal” for revenge and finds peace in forgiveness; the hit man obtains his “goal” for redemption in self-sacrifice.

    The expression “the night is darkest just before the dawn,” I wanted to take the character of the grieving boy to the darkest place possible (throughout the course of the story) just before he finds peace. He needed to learn the hard way that that peace is found in forgiveness, not vengeance.

    More postings to come. I just wanted to give a quick post to say thank you to everyone, and touch on a couple points.

  16. Mary E. Ulrich

    Interesting reading, but the whole plot seems trite.

    Violence is easy.
    Resolving conflict is damn hard.

    Perhaps a plot twist might be to have all three of the bullies –and it sounds like they are all bullies– unite against some even bigger problem, thus finding redemption for all of them.

    What can I say, I like learning new strategies and happy endings.

  17. I often like to add something to Larry’s story concept evaluation, but in this particular case, I don’t find the premise particularly riveting, and personally it might just easier to scrap it and start from scratch. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I personally believe that a story has to have a strong concept before even writing, otherwise character, story and conflict will also be weak.

    There are millions of story ideas out there, but coming up with a good one is half the battle.

  18. Another thought – sorry if it was already made, but some of the posts are quite long. What if there’s more at stake? I see the hitman as the father of one of these two kids. It could be that the ‘nice kid’ accidentally killed the bully’s cat. The bully is the hitman’s son. The bully aims to take revenge on the ‘nice kid’. The hitman, who knows only too well how his life of crime started, and is looking for salvation in the form of sparing his kid, the bully, from a similar fate, now sees both futures in stark contrast. The one he’s created so far, leading his own son, perhaps, to someday follow in his footsteps, or to repent, change his ways, and more importantly, change the arc his son’s (the bully’s) life is headed for. That sounds like better stakes to me…

  19. MikeR

    NO idea ever existed that was either “worth stealing,” nor that had not already been “stolen” hundreds of times. Ideas are cheap and abundant. Fantastic -treatments- of them are rare, indeed.

    The (in my humble opinion, quite fatal) flaw in this particular idea is that … no way, no how, can I ever believe that a teenage kid is actually going to convince “a middle-aged ex Mafia hit-man” to do -anything- -at- -all- about a bully at his school!

    Every one of us went through school, and somehow, more-or-less survived the experience. Bullies and all. All of us both “learned how to fight back” and also “how to avoid conflict.” We might have dreamed of doing much nastier things, but that’s only because our own tiny, self-centered viewpoint of … well, the entirety(!) of compulsory school, really … was “that of a teenage kid.”

    This idea presupposes that a middle-aged hit man (how many times have you actually met such a person?) is gonna give even five seconds’ thought to the capital murder of a teenager at another teenager’s request. That … simply ain’t never gonna happen. Period.

  20. MikeR

    I’d like to suffix my previous comment with a couple more:

    @Joe, @Larry – it is a tremendously(!) helpful thing for @Joe to be willing to put his own story ideas out onto this public place, especially when the initial review was not favorable. It takes guts to do that, frankly, but the reward – both to @Joe and to the rest of us – is very large.

    There are lots of folks who, having made a bezillion dollars writing fiction, decide to put out “a book on writing.” And, mind you, those books are usually very nice reads. (Either that, or they’re an inside-view into a lingering acid trip. 😉 )

    But there are very few writers who =haven’t= (yet!) had that level of gilded-success who write an excellent set of writing books anyway.

    Likewise, there are very few aspiring authors who would risk, well, their own egoes, to allow something that’s less-than-favorable to be exposed to the public. Y’know, you can privately send in your money, privately get back a whimpering pile of paper that’s shot full of holes, and privately react any ol’ way you privately want to. But if, instead, you consent to be public (albeit, anonymous) about it … then, you are giving BACK.

    I personally think that this story-idea smacks too much of real horrors, e.g. Columbine High School, to make it commercially successful. Yet I do see some interesting story-treatment ideas being alluded to, which could be applied to a different concept/premise that could gain commercial traction. And so, that’s what I’d do with this story idea. Change the concept and premise; keep the interesting settings, actions and ideas.

    Again: thank you all for “giving BACK.”

  21. Robert Jones

    @Joe (and everyone who commented)–Lots of interesting suggestions, however, I think everyone missed the the one thing that could fix everything here–make it a musical!

    Just kidding. Although the idea of the hit man bursting into song is damned intriguing…LOL!

    I’ve been away all weekend–was getting ready to leave when I read this previously–and am now trying to catch up on all the posts this afternoon. I liked what Simon said about the hardened old timer coming out of his shell. There’s something there that makes me think it might work. But I also agree with Larry concerning the entire believability factor.

    Bringing in my own current thoughts, bullying is a real problem in some schools today. It has always been a problem in every school, but with things escalating concerning school violence and bullying in the media, the believability factor doesn’t just extend to the kid approaching the hit man. It’s also in the idea that there is just one bully. The bully is THE villain, yes, but does he have flunkies? A gang? The idea of just one kid acting on his own and killing a cat accidentally isn’t very realist either. Take things to the level of even having the teachers afraid of the gang issues. Make anyone who crosses the bully and his thugs really be at serious risk.

    Then when the kid does something to tick the bully off, he might be in fear of his life, hiding, locking the doors when his father is working late. Then when kid’s cat turns up dead because they couldn’t find him, it looks like a warning, or a portent of his own death.

    I also think that the kid doesn’t even have to know the guy next door used to be a hit man. Maybe he just runs next door for the guy’s help when the bully and his pals are after him.

    Which then brings us back to the hit man.

    What if these weren’t young kids but teen-agers? What if the violence and the gang started effecting the hit man’s life once he started helping the kid, or warned off the bullies? What if things get so bad the hit man seeking redemption is put in a position where he’s actually tempted to resort to violence? Can a man with such a dark cloud over his past, walk the path of redemption without falling into temptation when the life of the kid next door (or even his own life) are at risk from this gang?

    Think about deriving your concept from those questions, or something similar.

    I think most of us reading the questionnaire previously got stuck in the idea that this might just be a minor incident, or the usual type of grade school thing most of us have seen. I’m not sure if that’s Joe’s intention as well, but that’s a story no one is going to buy into. The threat here has to be serious. The stakes have to be high. And the bullying factor has to be on a par with what the media portrays. Weapons, serious violence, even death. You can’t play around with grade school kid stuff, involve a hit man and get this guy to intervene in the real world, or a seemingly real novel. Which means this is probably high school.

    Read “The Magician” by Sol Stein. It has a high school setting, a gang, a villain who is the lead bully who is also seriously disturbed. It’s an older novel, but might give you some better ideas. I think these days, a story like that could be escalated even more.

    A word on violence: Not everyone likes it in fiction, yet everyone tunes into it nightly for the real deal. You play around with tentative violence, you’re writing an 80’s TV show like “The A-Team.” In the real world, violence isn’t about fun and games. You write about it, you make it real. My feeling about the accidental cat death is that the writer is either afraid of what people will think, or has some mixed feelings about portraying violence himself. Bullying can’t be tentative, or fluffy. A hit man can’t be discovered like a vampire living next door by a kid–or used!

    So rethink how the kid comes into contact with this guy. Make the hit man helping out seem real, make the violence real, make the stakes real. Anything less means your chances at being taken seriously won’t be real either. Your job as a writer is to make it true to life. Research teen violence. It’s ugly. It’s scary. Then make it real in spite of what anyone else thinks, or says. You’ll be surprised how they’ll flock to you if stop being tentative. Write for today, not the 1950s. Truth be told, the 50s weren’t such pretty times either. People don’t change. In fact, nostalgia makes frauds of everyone. Expose the truth.

  22. Joe–it was truly brave of you to allow Larry to share this with us. I love getting to read Larry’s feedback on other writer’s story questionnaires because it always helps me learn more about how to write stories that work.

    From your Larry response, Joe, I’m taking away the following snippet of info:

    “The concept invites the reader to care about what is CONCEPTUAL.  A premise invites the reader to CARE ABOUT A CHARACTER, which is different.  Both are essential, they become a sum in excess of either part considered alone.”

    Boom! Love it! It totally explains the exact difference between concept and premise. As a story coach, I find that’s one of the hardest things for writers to get/understand. So I love being able to point to snippets of genius like this, which I only get to come across when there’s a brave writer willing to share themselves with the StoryFix community.

    So thank you Joe, and thank you Larry!

  23. @jennifer — thanks for culling out, and calling out, that specific take-away truth about concept vs. premise. I’ve written so much about it lately, and so many writers remain challenged by this issue, that I’m amazed when it boils down to something this accessible and clear. When someone sees it, seizes it, and shares it… well, from my seat, that’s the gold, the perfect moment.

    We sometimes write something that’s important, that matters, and then surround it by context and setup and payoff, with a pile of words, and then we wonder, “has that point been lost? Is it clear? Will they SEE it? Will the gold shine through the ink?”

    Well, Jennifer saw it. She always does.

    BTW, to others reading here… Jennifer Blanchard is a writing coach with two killer websites and a new ebook on the craft:

    Also, her father just sold a novel, applying the coaching from his daughter and the principles that she and I are committed to sharing with other writers.

    More gold, right there. L.

  24. MikeR

    “Just keep sharing,” @Larry, @Jennifer, =and= @Joe.

    Just keep sharing.

    Thanks. (From all of us fellow sojurners on this crazy story-quest.)

  25. Robert Jones

    Sidenote: I received an email from Amazon suggesting “Deadly Faux” this morning. It wasn’t among a group of books either, so it looks like they are giving it some promotion all on its own. Thought I would share the news 🙂

  26. I’ve been absent for some time, but I now remember why I love your site so much. As Anthony mentioned, that Superman analogy to demonstrate the difference between concept and premise is outstanding. Examples tend to express the distinction much better.

    Write on!

  27. Debbie

    I think the idea that a high school student wants a bully dead comes right out daily news we all hear about. School shootings and violence have escalated in recent years. I don’t think it is a stretch for a battered HS student to want his neighbor ex-hit man mafia type to kill a bully.

    I agree that the premise and concept need to be further defined but this type of story speaks to the generational problems that plague our times. You could easily imagine clicking onto YAHOO and reading about a HS student who couldn’t take the bullying anymore and hired a hit man to do away with his tormentor. I think a story like this can’t have a happy ending, though. I think it would be most powerful if the kid were truly being tortured, maybe with a rotten home life and feelings of sexual frustration, possibly he is gay but rebelling against that notion. The hit man sees something really bad happen to the kid by the bully, sees for himself first-hand just how bad it is, and in a moment of passion does away with the bully. Maybe he doesnt’ mean to kill the kid, Maybe it’s a threat that goes wrong.

    In any case I don’t see how the kid can have the bully killed and go on to live a long and happy life. I see this story ending in tragedy, with the kid maybe killing himself or his family. To be believable he is really messed up. I don’t know who will have an arc here – more likely it will be the hit man, who the story is really about. He is the hero. The bully is the antagonist. The kid is just there as a focus on what the hit man needs/wants and how to make his life worthwhile.

    It’s true that we all can relate to the neg. effects of bullying and what intense bullying can do to a developing child are rampant in our culture. It’s a good start to a story I would read.

  28. @Debbie — I agree with much of what you’ve said. That desire for revenge on the part of a bullying victim, even to that degree, IS the concept here, and it’s powerful, we can all relate to it even if we weren’t in that situation. The desire for bullies and the arrogant to get what’s coming to them is one of the most powerful elements of story physics (“empathy” leading to “rooting”) in all of fiction. Tapping into it… that much is genius.

    So I agree, you’re right that it makes a terrific OPENING dynamic for a story. But that has to evolve into a different dramatic question, and quickly, because the story itself needs to end up taking another arc, being “about” something else, which obviously includes resolution for the victim that allows him to surface heroically. Because forgiveness, combined with intervention that stops the heinous act, is an even more powerful example of story physics at work. L.

  29. AJ

    I don’t know if this is the best place to ask or not but I have a serious question that I’ve been mulling over for some time now.
    How does Story Engineering apply to a story with multiple POV like Game of Thrones?
    The big question that I have is that does the first Plot Point have to be one event that affects them all? Or does every single character kind of revolve around their very own individual four act structure?
    Any advice at all would be helpful or if there is a post that I haven’t found yet, it would be great if someone would guide me in that direction. This problem has been with me for weeks now!
    Thank you so much! 🙂

  30. MikeR

    @AJ – I don’t know if there will be a follow-up to this thread at this point, but I am working on a story with multiple points-of-view – multiple stories – and the way that I’m approaching it is to have one “master story” … the one that, shortly after it ends, is THE END … and, within that master framework, subordinate stories that relate to the individual characters (their families). Each of these stories are subordinate to the master in the sense that the events that happen in the master story have the power to overwhelm those of the subordinates, which are taking place within the context established by the master before terrible changes start to be imposed upon it by the turns of events. They are, if you will, “caught up in that [master] story.”

    But they also influence that story. Some of the “turns” in the master story are the result of subordinate events. The master story is fully known to the master players but the subordinate stories are fully known only to subordinate players =and= vice-versa. Things that happen for reasons pertaining only to the subordinate stories, influence the master story (in unexpected and unplanned-for ways), and vice-versa.

    Which, I think, is more realistic in a bigger tale. My tale is historical fiction, set in a real time and a real place. History -is- overlapping individual stories and the dynamics of how “individual” stories inter-twine. Each railroad-track is separate, and yet, they cross.