Category Archives: turning pro

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  And yet, among the unpublished this remains an unspoken benchmark, smothered in reviews that focus on other things and writing teachers who take this for granted in introducing authors to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








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Part 2: A Deeper Understanding of Craft

Last post I opened a can of worms that a few of you found… confusing.  Even discouraging. 

And some of you, thankfully, found to be liberating and empowering.

I promised a follow-up, but did so without taking into consideration that confusion might ensue.  So today’s post is sort of a dance between clarification and continuation (sounds like marriage to me, but that’s another post), with the goal of making room for all of us on the same page.

If you count yourself among the confused (rather than the discouraged, which is a different response altogether), I ask you to go back to the last post (Part 1) and scroll through the Comments until you find one from Cathy Yardley, an astute blogger on writing craft and a very knowledgeable contributor.  She confessed to being a little confused, too.  Which I took to heart. 

Believe me when I say, I get that it’s probably my fault.  This stuff is thick and gooey and nuanced, which is ironic given that my highest objective is to clarify.

Read my response to Cathy’s call for clarification.

I’m hoping that’ll help.

There’s a reason we go deeper into the storytelling experience.

Since I mentioned marriage, allow me to leverage that analogy for a moment. 

It’s hard.  It continues to be hard the longer we do it.  We succeed at it, if we ever do, in spite of it being hard, applying what we’ve learned and tested and grown into along the way.  Or not. 

Given that easy-to-accept truth,  you wouldn’t think of saying this:

Gee, this is hard and confusing, so stop telling me what makes a marriage work or not, stop breaking it down into its most basic levels and then providing tools to apply to the challenge, and stop telling me how to make my marriage stellar in a neighborhood full of separations and weekend visitations, which is just, I dunno, normal.  Just let me wing it and make my own way, because all that psychological crap is just so darn confusing.  I mean, just look at the Joneses next door, they don’t ever talk about their relationship and they seem happy as hell.

That’s what some writers feel when confronted with the depth of knowledge available about storytelling.

“Just shut up and drive” may work in some relationships, but when it comes to your relationship with your story, it’s a recipe for frustration.  Possibly a train wreck.

The information and the understanding is out there.  We all get to choose whether we wear blinders or reading glasses.

The Feedback

I’m delighted that so many of you “get it.”  That the relationship between storytelling physics and storytelling tools, and the possibility of storytelling art is, while still challenging, an intriguing and promising can of literary worms.

You get that the recognition of three levels of storytelling experience – essences, if you will – is empowering because it provides a variety of ways to approach and evaluate our work.  It’s overly simplistic to just ask, “is this good enough?”  Especially in comparison to “Is there enough dramatic tension… is the pacing right… will my reader feel the vicarious experience of my hero and root for her or him on that path… and is the conceptual centerpiece of the whole thing going to be compelling enough to anybody but me?”

Which question(s) gets you further, faster, and with better outcome?  The ones that are based on an understanding of dramatic physics, that’s which.

One reader commented that these levels and all these component parts and realms and essences and tools and empowering hoo-hah (my words, not his) is starting to feel like Buddhism (apologies to enthusiasts for that belief system, those are his words, not mine). 

Which translates to: why is this so hard?  Why can’t we just write our damn stories and not worry about all this “stuff”?

I’m sorry this is hard.  I’m not the one making it hard.  I’m one of the guys – for better or worse – trying to bring clarity to the inherent difficulty of it.  And in doing so, hopefully add to the bliss of it.

Clarity comes from breaking things down into their component parts, and then examining the relationships between them to help us make better choices.

Just like in marriage.  And in health, investing, spirituality, even politics. 

As in life.

Even when it all seems so… complicated.

Another reader expressed concern that the underlying physics and the six core competencies tended to sound like the same things, or at least overlap.  A fair assessment, and a great can of worms to open.

Because they are, and they aren’t.

Breaking It Down

If you don’t like the term “physics” (my editor at Writers Digest Books didn’t, by the way), then call them literary forces or fundamental qualities.  What you call them is less critical than how well you understand them.

Or better put, understand how essential they are.

These forces are like gravity.  They simply exist.  Deny them and you’re still stuck with them.  Harness them and you can achieve things like flying and dancing and hitting balls for fun and profit.

I’ve broken them down into four areas that writers should grasp (my opinion), because each stands separate and alone – yet related and dependant – in a story that really works. 

They are:

–         dramatic tension (conflict in the story)

–         vicarious empathy (we root for the hero, we care)

–         pace (how quickly and how well the story moves forward)

–         inherent compelling appeal (why anyone will want to read this)

These natural dramatic forces are not tools, per say.  They are, however, what make writing tools and models and processes effective, because such things are designed to harness — optimize their power.

And that’s the difference between the four forces – physics – of dramatic theory, and the Six Core Competencies that allow us to access and optimize them.

The Six Core Competencies are tools.

They are based on physics, and they describe the physics, but they are not the physics. 

They are an operations handbook to the physics.

You could argue, perhaps, that they somewhat overlap with the four forces (essences) described above, but they’re really a defining context and a list of standards, criteria and elements that allow the writer to optimize the physics.

A concept – one of the six core competencies – touches on all four of the inherent set of physics (forces, essences) in a well told story.

Characterization focuses on three of them.

Theme touches all four.

And structure… that completely defines how effectively all four will perform.

Scene execution is the means by which all four happen.

Writing voice is the delivery vehicle, squeaky wheels and all.

Still confused?

Allow me one more shot at an analogy here in an effort to clarify.

The physics of cooking are: heat, food, seasoning, presentation.  They aren’t things, per se, they are qualities.  They aren’t even activities until, well, they are put into play.  They are what you have to work with.  They are what you seek to optimize.  You deal with all of them, to some degree (or absence), every time you cook a meal.  Leave one unhonored (like, serve the chicken raw) and the meal will bomb.

None of those, however, stand alone as a recipe.  They are the raw materials, the variables, of a recipe.

A recipe is, in fact, a set of core competencies that coalesce into a strategy and a plan that allow you to optimize those four forces, or variables in the cooking equation.  Each one of those four things – heat, food, seasoning, presentation – can be understood, applied and put on a plate in any number of combinations.

The core competencies of cooking are what allows you to optimize those forces.  To harness their power for good, for effectiveness.  The core competencies become a recipe.  And not necessarily a formulaic one (you still get to pick the china, determine the strength of the spices and decide between rare and well done).  You still select the levels you desire to put into the outcome, from a pinch to a pint to nothing at all.

And if a recipes calls for you to zest a lemon, which is a skill-based activity, then you’d best understand what that means, practice it, perfect it and nail it.  Especially if your goal is to cook professionally.

Or you could just wing it, make it up, or skip it altogether — because this is so freaking hard! — and take your chances. 

In our stories, the Six Core Competencies are a set of tools that allow the writer to understand and optimize the raw forces from which a story is made.  The better you apply them, the better the story.

Physics are just there.  Wai ting to be used or abused or worse, taken for granted.  Waiting to help you or kill you.  They are eternal. 

They are waiting for your creative choices and tastes.

The Core Competencies are a means by which to make sure that what you serve your audience is both delicious and nourishing, and in a way that allows you to impart your own touch. 

A set of tools.  Working with a set of physics.

Which leaves us with the third realm of writing experience (again, the first being physics/forces/essenses, the second being the six core competencies, or however else you wish to label them: and that is the polish, the final veneer.

And therein, in what has heretofore been craft, resides the possibility of art.

Whether by design or by pure blind stumbling luck… whether by trial and error or focused intention… whether after decades of effort or after a single informed and enlightened draft…

… art doesn’t stand a chance until craft has been served.

And craft, no matter how you define or apply the tools, is totally dependant on physics.

My book — “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” — has recently been published by Writers Digest Books and is available at most bookstores and online venues.

Image courtesty of Eric Fredericks, via Flickr.


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