For Your Consideration: Questions at the Heart of Your Story Idea

How Do We Know If Our Story Concept Is Good Enough?

Earlier this week I posted an article entitled “The Most Important Storytelling Challenge of Them All.”   A few passionately articulated comments ensued, one of which I posted as a guest blog because of its value-add.

And then there came another wave of very enlightened and deep comments to that one.  Seems we’ve stumbled upon a topic that hits people at the core of their writing heart: determining if our story ideas are worth the time and effort it will take to turn them into a fully-developed novel or screenplay.

The consensus opinion:

We can sweat the details and the processes and the mechanics of writing until we’re blue in the carpel tunnel, but if the core idea itself is lacking in some way – or perhaps even more confounding, simply mediocre – all may be lost before the ship sets sail.

Too often our motivations to write a story don’t align with our choice of story idea.  And that is the hidden trap that awaits us as storytellers.

We pick the wrong story, and for the wrong reasons.  To avoid doing that, we need to understand who we are as writers – specifically, why we are writers.

It’s like a studio musician compared to a composer.  One doesn’t necessarily beget the other, yet the former is a prerequisite of the latter. 

In writing novels and screenplays, we are always called upon to be composers. 

In fact, we need only be adequate musicians if our compositions touch the heart and mind.

And in choosing what to compose, we must understand why we desire to compose.  That and only that will lead us to the right choices.

The most simple and challenging of question remains: how do we know

When we finally land on an idea, when it intrigues us or even possesses us, how can we be sure it is worthy of the time and monumental effort required to evolve it into a complete novel or screenplay? 

How can we know that others will agree that this is a great idea?

Who is to say what is a great idea, and what isn’t?

And, can a less-than-great idea become a great story?

Fact is, we never really know

There is no way to get to the point of knowing.  We must evolve and trust our instinct on this issue – our art, our aesthetic judgment – and doing that is the great mystery and forehead-bleeding challenge of writing stories.

Trust me, this is what separates the successful from the throngs of the otherwise equally talented.  The successful have a knack for picking the right ideas.

Certainly there are abundant examples to be cited of story ideas that had at least three backers: the writer, an agent, and the acquiring editor at a publisher.  As long as those three parties to the publishing equation believe in the core essence of the story, it can get into print.

Once you, the writer, believe, your job then is to find one agent, and then one acquisitions editor, who also believes.

It isn’t just the dumpsters full of rejected manuscripts that comprise the body of work that fails to find an agent or a publisher because the idea isn’t of sufficient power.   Those titles you’ve never heard of on that bookstore shelf, the ones that won’t be around in a few months?  Them, too.

Those writers thought they knew.

Often, they submitted an exquisite execution of a mediocre idea.

They chose wrong.

So again… how do we know?

I don’t pretend to have that answer.  But I do believe I know how to cut the variable nature of the question in half.

Ask yourself – why am I a writer?  Where am I on this journey?

That alone can lead you to the right story idea.  It really can.

I have read many unpublished manuscripts, and I have marveled at what some writers believe to be compelling story ideas.  This is why I beat the drum of the six core competencies, because each and every one of them needs to be mastered.

Concept – the heart of the idea that gives birth to the story – is one of them.  A bland concept, one that is forced and contrived, even when competently executed, will not find an agent or a publisher.

Trouble is, one writer/agent/editor/reader’s bland is another’s Cold Mountain.

Which is why we never really know. 

The best we can do is choose the right story for us, and for the right reasons.

There are questions, very powerful and personal questions, that reside at the heart of this issue. 

Why are you writing this particular story?   

Is it because you need a block of stone upon which to carve?   Because you’ve been to a writing workshop and you now have all these tools and all this desire to write something?  And so you sit down and dream something up, something you believe you can whip into a solid story by applying those tools?

Will any stone do, as long as you get to exercise your skills as a storyteller?

Or is it because you see the story inside the stone in your mind’s eye?  In which case your skills are pointed toward the story for the sake of the story, not just the dream of writing one.

Big difference.  Career defining difference.

I know, these aren’t the questions you expected here.  But they’re precisely the ones you should ask. 

There are two reasons to choose a story idea.

They force us to make a choice between two motivations behind the work of turning it into a story: the personal… and the professional.

Both are viable, both can get you published.  As long as the nature of the story matches the nature of the motivation.

A rare few find energy and inspiration in both.  But most of us come from one or the other as we begin a story, and too often we try to convince ourselves that we do so because of both motivations, when in fact that’s not the case.

Don’t be confused by this – if the story isn’t inherently commercial, if it is a personal passion that, despite its lack of inherent commercial appeal, you nonetheless are in love with… then this is a personal motivation.

You need to write that story.  You are called to it.  You cannot not write it.

And with enough craft and time, you may very well sell it.  Because – and only because – you have chosen that particular story for the right reasons.

Or… if you love your idea because you think everybody else will love it, too

… if the story idea is, first and foremost, your strategy to launch your career as a novelist, if it is merely that block of stone that will fulfill your dream of being published – then this is a professional motivation.

It is a very different animal.  In this scenario the dream comes first.  You are in search of a story to fulfill the dream.

And in that case, the idea itself must be absolutely killer.  Commercial as hell.  High concept, totally original, addictive and irresistible.

A story about your grandmother’s youth growing up in the south… that’s a totally different block of stone.  Only a personally-motivated author could bring that to life and launch a career with it.

Don’t be seduced by the fact that famous authors write stories like this all the time – the rules are completely different for them.

You need to strive to understand the difference between these two motivations.

Because to invest a year of your life in an idea that nobody else will love – to concoct a story as a vehicle for your writing dream, versus yielding to an undeniable passionate calling from a specific idea itself —  is… well, that’s tragic.

Too many writers commit themselves to stories that look and smell like personally-motivated stories – small stories, character-driven stories, stories that exist because they h.ave something to say – but for professionally-motivated reasons.

And this is almost always a disconnect. 

It’s the different between going to college to become a doctor, or going to college to get a degree so you can find a job.

You must decide.  You must choose your story. 

Unless the story has chosen you.

In that case your job is to inject energy into the idea by applying the criteria of the six core competencies development model, and to an artful extent that your execution compensates for any lack of inherent appeal in the story idea itself.

We write stories from a personal – as opposed to a professional — motivation because we have something to say.  Even if we also wish to get it sold.

We write stories from a professional motivation because, in essence, we want to write any story that will get us published.   The story is merely a means to that end, whereas the personally-motivated story is the end itself.

In which case you have a tool chest of principles and skills at your disposal to turn that idea into a winner.

The great risk of professionally-motivated idea selection, because your dream is so urgent, is to settle.  To accept and begin developing an idea that isn’t commercial and powerful and original enough.

All of us who write stories will be well served by an understanding of the difference.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to For Your Consideration: Questions at the Heart of Your Story Idea

  1. Sandra

    This is all great. I get it. I see it. It fits with the idea I have for a stand alone novel.

    And yet . . .

    I have an idea for a cozy mystery as well, with characters I have further ideas for and could promote as a potential series – which is expected in that genre. But, as an avid reader of cozy mysteries, I don’t recall often seeing “blockbuster” themes/concepts in these stories. (There have been a few times when it is clear the author is trying to make a point on some issue or other, but not often.)

    Larry, you once said: “Who killed grandma? Who cares.” But in these stories that usually is what you care about. Who killed the art critic who lives in the apartment upstairs? Who killed the guy who runs the used book store? Or the lady who leads the local dieters group. And, of course, how does the familiar lead character find the answers. (These are examples from cozy mysteries I have read written by top authors in the genre.) The reasons end up being the tried and true of jealousy, greed, revenge, love, hate, just plain not liking the victim, or even an accident that is then covered up; the reasons are not that any of these people were international spies or even local right-wing radical terrorists.

    These books sell and their authors become well known.

    So what do I do with this? What might carry my idea for a cozy into the realm of becoming published? What makes these stories fly? Some of the main characters don’t initially sound all that intriguing either. A caterer. An old lady. A small town postmistress. An alcoholic newspaperman who’s now dry and trying for a come back. Yet they have succeeded and become standards in the genre.

    Do you, Larry, or any of your readers, have experience with writing successful cozy mysteries? I would really like to talk with someone who knows the genre well and could give me some guidance and encouragement.

    Other than that, yes – oh yes 🙂 – I need to study and practice the Six Core Competencies and Story Structure and all the rest. This really will make a world of difference in my writing. Your teaching on this is eyeopening and I recommend it to others all the time.


  2. nancy

    My story has chosen me and imprisoned me in my office for a year. Help me finish my sentence. I struggle with defining “a sky-high concept” and then applying some criteria to my story.

    I searched the internet for a refined definition, finding “what if” for concept, but “sky-high” is still elusive. I took your advice and watched 500 Days of Summer—the warden was lenient that day. I then envisioned the conception stage: “What if a guy chases a girl named Summer for 500 days and then finds out he had the right reason but the wrong season?” How is that sky-high? It’s common. Or,
    “What if a guy who wants a relationship falls for a girl who doesn’t, but then ironically she finds one first?” Is that sky-high? Why? I think “sky-high” includes but is greater than universal. Right?

  3. Robert

    Bravo, sir – another excellent post.

  4. @Sandra and Nancy — your comments inspire me to create another post on this subject, as you bring up some good points. Concept, especially “high concept” is a tough nut to crack. So look for that soon… as in, next.

    About “500 Days of Summer,” I’m glad you mentioned it as you did (Nancy). Here’s an opportunity refine the definition of Concept, at the high level, or any other level. I’ll be sure to use that as an example in the post, but here’s a preview: one one level, you could call this a pretty traditional, no-frills love story. But… was it really no-frills? Have you ever seen a love story structured like that? I haven’t. Not just in the production value (which, when writing a screenplay, does count as “concept” when the visual treatment calls for something that unusual and “conceptual,” but also in terms of the narrative itself.

    How’s this for a cut at a higher concept — “What if we show a love affair in a non-sequential order, jacking the tension and stakes by alternatingly showing their bliss and their decline almost simultaneously?”

    That’s high concept. Or at least higher than normal for a love story, with is always tough to move into high concept territory (as is the cozy genre, also tough to concept at a high level… but it CAN be done). Hope you agree… that was indeed a unique way to tell this story, and that uniqueness was, in fact, it’s concept, and it worked (nominated for “Best Screenplay” for many awards thus far.

    @Robert — thanks for that, made my day. 🙂

  5. Holy cow: once again you have opened my eyes to a reality of which I was unaware. Personal vs. professional: this is so crucial. Thank you.

  6. Thomas

    Maybe it’s the term “high concept” that is slightly confusing. Sounds a bit like “high morals” or “lofty ethics” or “big philosophy”. No fault of yours, Larry, other storytelling writers use it as well. Seems to me that it might be put like this : concept is the kind of story (i.e., genre) you are telling, the “height” is how far your take on that story/genre is from the average, run-of-the-mill way that kind of story is usually told. Agatha Christie, who was a past master of tight plots with twist endings did a perfect “high concept” on herself in her final Poirot case. Business as usual was that some ingenious murderer was eventually brought to justice by the belgian detective’s ever superior “little grey cells”. In “Final Curtain”, Poirot’s last case, the serial killer does not kill with his own hands – he cleverly manipulates other people’s emotions and perceptions to make them hate someone so much that they kill that someone. Poirot, who is dying of disease, realizes that the killer, having done nothing himself, cannot be brought to justice – and that he MUST be brought to justice to save his future victims. So Poirot decides to do the only thing he can, and the detective finally murders the murderer. That’s a brilliant angle, twist, whatever, far above “the usual suspects” of how to do crime stories, and that is high concept to me. The fact that it will make you think quite a bit about the limitations of institutionalized justice and ethical duty is no bad thing, either.

    Then again, I may be wrong about the whole thing. Am I..?

  7. nancy

    Larry, Breaking it down into genres really clarifies the concept concept for me. It involves IDEA–Free Mason skullduggery, the lost ark, Julie’s blog, etc.–and/or DELIVERY–500 days of split screen expectations vs reality, simultaneous decades of Julia Childs’ cooking.

    You also took the arrow out of my heart when you said genre is the variable, that some genres are more open to experimentation than others. I think I wrote “the other.” Whew! You leave me with a glimmer of hope.

    So my new motivation is: finish this novel and create a higher concept for the next one. Then when the publisher says, “This is good. Do you have anything else?” I can say, “Sure. Its low concept but since you liked my second one, maybe . . . .”

  8. Pingback: #ScribeChat: High Concept vs The Story We Want To Write: How Do We Know If Our Story Concept Is Good Enough?

  9. Pingback: ScribeChat » Blog Archive » TOPIC: How Do We Know If Our Story Concept is Good Enough?