Fiction Writers: The Definition and Criteria of Concept

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.

*****

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5 Comments

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5 Responses to Fiction Writers: The Definition and Criteria of Concept

  1. Those examples are not only helpful for grasping the concept (haha) but they’re great writing prompts. Nothing to prevent any of us from taking one of those concepts and running with it toward some completely different story than the famous versions we’re familiar with.

  2. Robert Jones

    Larry,

    It’s always interesting to see the way you boil stories down the basic soil from which they were grown. I’ve boiled down my own concept numerous times. And though each time might’ve been the soil from which my story could grow, I still periodically traced my story back to the primitive mud such a notion might be birthed from as my story grew, refining and redefining it. In terms of using one’s concept to capture the attention of agents and editors, I think it’s worth spending weeks–or long–to get it right.

    So would it be safe to say–especially for some folks who may be straining the gnat of concept–that concept can also be a work in progress? It can be refined and honed as the roots of a story work through it and strengthen the soil. But in the beginning the soil may be loose. It’s there to plant the seed from which plot and character will grow. But most writers don’t seem to nail it flat out the first time, causing apprehension and possibly fear of just not getting it. This has been one of the biggest subjects here on SF due to the learning curve involved in craft in general. And I believe that’s probably the main cause for most folks scratching their heads at this one. Fledgling writers especially are having enough trouble finding their story and wrapping their heads around it in a way that’s marketable. Then ask them to boil an unformed story down to it bare essence, the primordial ooze from which their story might grow legs to walk upon the land–and kerblooey, a blank slate appears with no mental chalk to scratch out an answer.

    A large part of this is understanding what a concept is, and relaxing into it without making it into a mountain that causes mental blocks, as we who have been here a while see most clearly. We’ve boiled the concept of concept down to its essence in more ways than I care to remember. However, it’s always made for some interesting discussions and at least one or two folks awakening to the meaning behind it all each time. Therefore, no discussion has been wasted discussion in my book. Just so long as someone out there benefits from it. So, in the spirit of learning, let’s have a go at it once more, shall we?

    In a mystery, the root of concept may be more easily identified than most any other genre. It’s a question–usually beginning with “What if,” and poses the question of a crime, caper, murder, the like of which we’ve never quite seen before. Something about it is a unique twist on what we might hear about through the local news media. It intrigues us. And we begin to ask ourselves what sort of twisted mind would come up with such a notion, perform such an act? How did they go about it? Are they some kind of mastermind, or merely sick? All the questions that follow build upon character, plot, setting, etc…but all that follows were given birth to by that one parent question, the mother of everything that follows.

    Taking that a step further, aren’t all stories really mysteries at heart? Don’t they all begin with a parent, “What if?”

    Parent: What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?

    Children that might potentially spring from parent: What if the planet the child came from had a completely different atmosphere than that of earth? How would earth’s atmosphere differ from his own? Would everything that gives us life, make him sick? What if it had the exact opposite effect and made him stronger than any mortal being, invincible, what some may think of as a god, or super-human?

    And so on…each new question posing the next increment of intrigue within the mystery–to which the audience demands an answer, cannot stop reading until they see exactly where the mystery is leading.

    Even if those other questions eventually help to refine and re-refine the parent concept, it is better to start with an intriguing concept from which such children can grow rather than having no parent at all. You might also look at it as the more eccentric the parent, the more intriguing the children will be that it births. One must not be afraid of misunderstanding, or making this larger in the mind than it has to be. Larry’s methods are here to make your life easier, not more complex. By grasping concept and using it as an effective launching pad, your story seem more complex, the soil more rich from the start. And that’s the big idea, boiled down one more time. Hope it helps someone out there who may still be struggling with this.

    • I’ll address just this one bit: concept can, indeed, be a work in progress, but then, all of story structure can be a work in progress; that’s what pantsing is all about.

      Part of the beauty of story engineering is that I get to nail down my concept before I write a single word, if that’s what I choose. I do, in fact, write down one sentence for each of the 12 critical waypoints Larry talks about, before I even begin writing.

      It’s a lot of work, but it’s thinking work, not writing work. If one fiddles with the concept after writing the midpoint turnaround, there’s gonna be 40,000 words of rewriting to retrofit the new concept. Repeat for all the structural elements: nail ’em down first, then start writing, and you save the “search via multiple drafts” method which I, personally, find tedious and timewasting.

  3. Robert Jones

    @Joel–Indeed! For those who do not know, I really should’ve mentioned that I too write out copious notes, scene cards and put them all to the test, first. I’ve even gone back into my scene cards once complete, rethinking scenes and redrafting plot through another stage of planning rather than drafting. It’s so much quicker to get through a draft that way, make changes, or locate a story if it’s elusive. There are still scenes that pop up that need a bit of refining, or cut altogether, once I begin the drafting process…but you can see those things so much more clearly by doing the “Thinking Work” from the start. Good phrase, BTW. I know there are some who will cringe at it because of the word “work.” But to those, I really must say: If you think writing isn’t work, you’ve got a surprise come whichever route you choose.

    Yes, these things can be done through drafting, but from having done both pantsing and planning in my time, I know there is often huge amounts of waste and frustration from drafting a story as large as a novel. And there are always those scenes that we feel we did our best writing that we know should be cut, but the temptation, once given birth to a favorite child, is to let it live rather than killing them it the next draft. Which spawns yet another draft. Everything new we add, or leave in that’s not quite working, is essentially fuel for another draft. Some may call it a polish, but it’s still re-writing in my book and making sure everything is stitched together properly with new scenes. And guess what, then you’ll have to go over your manuscript once more and make sure it all makes sense again after the fact. Drafts may lessen by degrees as the story comes together (provided you have the necessary craft tools to bring it together), but until it does, there’s always one more read through and yet another draft to follow after each phase.

    I’ve nothing against pantsing if someone can make it work for them. But I believe this takes a fundamental grasp of story mechanics to get it right in a reasonable number of drafts. Compare those who manage to pull it off with the millions who either grow cold on their manuscripts, or create something only their friends are willing to read. Either way, the work either gets done, or the story doesn’t fly.

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