Many writers begin a draft with a vision for concept and premise in mind. Others don’t, using the draft itself as the search-mechanism to find concept and premise, then retrofitting it into the story in subsequent drafts.
Some writers are solid on their concept – often without realizing that’s what they have at this point, maybe all they have at this point – and proceed from there. Which is like wanting to fall in love, someone you can describe to a tee, but you haven’t met the right person yet.
That one is usually a recipe for failure.
But when you begin a draft with a vision for the premise firmly in mind – even without it being all that conceptual – that draft becomes much more viable and useful in the story development process. Because premise is the goal of that premise, as well as the vehicle to the end-game.
Concept, as it relates to premise, is the vision for the entire story.
If you don’t get this right, if you don’t make it as strong as it can possibly be, then you are already putting your story at risk no matter how well you write it. Concept and premise are the first things agents and editors look for in a story, over and above characterizations and writing voice.
Not every story needs to be “high concept.” But the presence of something conceptual – which is the very essence of concept – adds strength to any story.
Concept and premise are different essences, yet one (concept) feeds into the other (premise). One of the most common shortfalls of rejected stories is when a premise doesn’t promise something conceptual to the story, when it’s all plot with nothing inherently interesting or provocative at its core.
The Definition of Concept
A concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of the story’s essence.
A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story – often for a number of stories, not just your story – built from it.
A concept becomes a contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself.
It is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.
It can be a proposition, a notion, a situation or a condition.
It can be a time or place, or a culture or a speculative imagining.
It can even be a character, if even before the premise itself surfaces there is something conceptual about that character.
Concepts are a matter of degree. Every story has a concept, the issue then becoming this: how does it contribute toward the reading experience?
The Criteria for Concept
It is inherently, before character or plot, interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, engaging, even terrifying.
High concepts depart from the norm, they exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility.
Not all stories are high concept. Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story.
Concepts promise a vicarious ride for the reader. Taking them somewhere, or placing them into situations that are not possible, realistic or something tense or horrific, something they would not choose to experience in real life. But will love experiencing vicariously in your story.
A concept can define the story world itself, create its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: a story set on the moon… that’s conceptual in it’s own right.)
In summary, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence.
It does not include a hero… unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (examples: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, a ghost, someone born with certain powers or gifts, a real person from history, etc.). A story is then built around that hero leveraging the hero’s conceptual nature.
It might be helpful to consider what a story without a vivid concept would sound like in a pitch: two people fall in love after their divorce. Period. End of pitch.
And the agent says, “next!”
It’s not a bad story if you can pull it off – the writer of such a story would intend to plumb the depths of characters on both sides of the divorce proposition – but there’s nothing unique or provocative beyond the notion of divorce itself. Which is all too familiar, and therefore not all that strong a concept. If you could bring something contextually fresh to it – like, two people who both want to murder their ex fall in love – then the story has even more upside.
When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean.
When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.
Concept is genre-driven.
Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept (however, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent). Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are totally driven by and dependent upon concept.
If your concept is weak or too familiar within these genres, you have substantially handicapped your story already.
Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts
“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)
“The world will end in three days.” (a situation/proposition)
“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)
“What if you could go back in time and find your true love?” (a proposition)
“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based upon a lie, one that its church has been protecting for 2000 years?” (a speculative proposition)
“What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?” (a proposition)
“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)
“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)
“A story set in Germany as the wall falls.” (a historical landscape)
“A story set in the deep South in the sixties focusing on racial tensions and norms.” (a cultural arena)
These cover a breadth of genres, a few of them from iconic modern classics in their own right.
Notice than NONE of these are plots. Each is a framework for a plot. For any number of plots, in fact. The are conceptual.
Just remember: concept is not premise.
Rather, it is the reason why your premise will compel readers. Because it is compelling. Fascinating. Intellectually engaging. Emotionally rich. Imbued with dramatic potential. It infuses the premise with something contextually rich, even before you add characters and a plot.
If you’d like to have your concept analyzed and in context to your premise, click HERE to learn more about my Quick Hit Concept Analysis program.
It’s only $49. As an investment in your story and your career, you won’t find a higher ROI or a better story-jacking opportunity than this. That’s a guarantee.