Getting Published: The Genre-Concept Connection

Somewhere deep within the genealogical family tree that illuminates the origins of the word genre, we find another word that confuses the whole issue: generic.

And that’s the problem. Your genre-based story can easily become generic – it simply becomes another face is a crowded sea of stories – rather than standing out.

This very thing, stated that way, explains a vast percentage of why stories within any given genre are rejected. They are simply good… when they need to be great. And greatness relies on a powerful concept driving the whole thing.

What will make it stand out is your concept.

Which is nothing other than the presence of something CONCEPTUAL about the story landscape and framework upon which — and within which – you define and execute your premise.

Example: “The Help,” the novel (and subsequent film) by Katherine Stockett. The premise (young woman tries to launch her journalism career by writing a book about the experiences of the domestic workers in her community) isn’t all that fresh and compelling until you place it within a conceptual framework: the whole thing goes down in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, where racial bias defines the cultural values of the era and place.

(Click HERE to learn more about the critical differences between concept and premise.)

Most workshops, even when they are genre-specific, show us what to do, how to do it, and why. Few show us what can go wrong.

And yet, it is precisely that – what goes wrong – that derails stories and keeps budding careers locked in a holding pen.

I have read over 600 story plans in the past three years, including some from published writers.

The verdict is in: something usually goes wrong.

There is a reason that perfectly good, solidly executed stories get rejected. That reason often has a lot to do with the lack of something conceptual being offered at the heart of the story.

This is even more true, more often, when the genre itself – romance and mystery in particular – seem to defy the application of what might be construed as “high concept.”

Using that reading experience as a database – meaning, I’ve discovered this for myself, rather than read about it elsewhere — I’ve come to some empowering conclusion.

I’m quite clear on what actually does go wrong.

It’s an equal opportunity story killer, and because it has to do with our creative sensibilities, rather than our technical skills, it’s tough to teach, tougher to learn, and always a moving target.

When was the last time you went to a writing workshop or conference and came away with the realization that your story idea (concept, premise, plot, exposition) just isn’t good enough. Nobody tells you that. They leave it up to you to decide what works and what doesn’t.  As if… anything can be made to work.

It can’t.  Not when it is void, at its very core, of something compelling.

And so, a throng of writers go away and write the hell out of a perfectly mediocre or lame story idea. Because nobody told them to look right there – at the concept and the premise that springs from it – for the broken parts.

Right there is where many stories go wrong.

Apropos to today’s title… more than half the time it has to do with the writer’s choice of concept. Or worse, the complete lack of one.

And/or, the concept or lack thereof doesn’t match up with the conceptual demands of the genre.

A thriller must have thrills.  Periods.  The tragic childhood of the hero you are asking to thwart a threat… that’s not thrilling.  If you put your eggs in that basket — if you try to write a “literary novel” within a genre that requires the presence of something conceptual, then you are in for a dark surprise down the road.

That hardly ever works.  Your best shot in this case may be complete mediocrity.

What does work:

Mediocrity arises from one of two arenas (yes, sometimes both… that’s an even darker picture; that said, when the first goes south, odds are the other is at risk, as well):

– The nature of the concept and premise itself;

– The technical, structural expositional skill with which that concept/premise is rendered.

You can write the hell out of a vanilla idea… and it is still vanilla.

What makes an idea triple chocolate thunder is the concept underlying your dramatic premise.

In other words, the empowering context of something conceptual.

Enlightenment awaits at the intersection of concept and genre.

This perspective dawned on me this past weekend as I conducted a workshop with a roomful of eager-to-learn, highly educated and skilled romance authors. I’ve discovered that romance writers are a unique lot… they actually understand more about “story” than a lot of other genre-specific authors, perhaps because there are so many sub-genres within the romance paradigm.

Here, in a nutshell, is what became crystal clear:

Concept, and the way it is applied and becomes empowering, is different from genre to genre.  Especially when it comes to romance.

Where other genres thrive on big loud conceptual elements, romance thrives on nuance and ambiance.

The optimal target and criteria for concept – the essence of it – is uniquely constrained for romance authors who are writing clean, traditional, classic two-people-meet-and-fall-in-love-after-jumping-through-hoops romance. The Debbie Macomber flavor of real-people-in-real-life-situations romance.

Soft fuzzy warm stories of love.

One of those writers nailed me on this.  While sub-genres or romance are indeed subject to a higher conceptual bar as much their non-romance counterparts – thriller, mystery, paranormal, historical, speculative, time travel, etc.  Those genres and romantic sub-genres do fall in line with the more-is-better essence of the highest/best form of concept…  and thus, the water muddies for the traditional romance writer.

Here, paraphrased, is what she said:

“What if I don’t want a superhero, or the world isn’t ending.  What if nobody in my novel reads minds and nobody gets killed and there are no cops and no one is investigating anything at all? That’s the romance I read, real people in real life, that’s the romance I write. So what about that? How do I make THAT more conceptual, which is what I hear you trying to sell us?”

A good point, that.

And yet, there is an answer. That real-life-real-people novel she’s writing… it’ll likely tank – disappear into the crowd – if there isn’t something conceptual, even in the most subtle way, something appropriate to her genre, at work behind the premise itself.

A love story… standing alone as a concept, that’s not highly conceptual.  It needs… something.

A love story between people who work in the The White House, or who are being audited by the IRS, or who bring different and conflicting religions to the deal, or who are actually cousins… where one party is dealing with amnesia or a disease (i.e., “The Fault in Our Stars”)… something… any love story will be fresher and more compelling when there is something conceptual about the story arena/landscape.

When asked what was conceptual in her story, there was no answer.  And thus, the opportunity is exposed.

You could frame the challenge this way: what about your romance novel is fresh and original, will make it stand out in a crowd, will get the attention of an agent… apart from your stellar writing voice and structural execution?

If you can’t answer that, then opportunity awaits in the conceptual realm.

Concept applies to all genres… just not equally so.

Here’s the truth that sets both ends of that spectrum free: your concept needs to align with and then optimize the conceptual demands of your chosen genre.

Different genres require different levels of, of forms of, something conceptual. The more genre-specific it is — thriller, suspense, paranormal, etc. — the more effective a higher concept will be.

Understanding this implies you know a lot about a lot of things. So lets look at some quick examples.

– In the mystery genre, you need to solve a crime that has something conceptual about it. Not just a generic murder, a generic detective, in a non-descript setting. A higher concept will make your story stand out and fuel a higher level of story physics across the entire narrative arc. Like, the victim was a hooker with a client list that includes powerful politicians. Like, the detective has been barred from the case because the victim was his ex-wife. Like, the murder happened in November of 1963 in Dallas, when everyone was looking elsewhere. Something that is conceptual.

Not just who killed your uncle?

– In the thriller genre, you need something conceptual that poses a threat that delivers the thrills. A massive, unprecedented tsunami. A pandemic disease. A terrorist with a new angle. An extortionist targeting her own wealthy family. Something that is conceptual.

Not just will the team win the game?

– In the suspense genre, including romantic suspense (which tends to mash mystery and thriller together within the tropes of romance) the suspense needs to be mysterious and thrilling. A lover with a secret life, or a game changing past.  A hitwoman falling for her mark.  A woman who bets everything on a man who isn’t what he seems. Something that is conceptual.

Not just will they end up together after all?

– In the paranormal genre… well, this one is obvious. Vampires, with a twist. Ghosts, with a twist. Mind readers and shape shifters, with a twist. Both are conceptual – the paranormal thing, and the twist you put on it. No twist, no real concept in play.  Something that is conceptual.

Not just a look at the childhood of a girl who can read minds.

Notice how all of these examples, when they work, are not about otherwise unremarkable people involved with unremarkable real life romantic aspirations. Which begs the question: what IS remarkable about your story, on a conceptual level?

These genres demand something fresh, edgy and compelling, a notion or proposition or arena/landscape that frames a story with whatever the genre itself demands: mystery, thrills, eroticism, adventure, a massively urgent problem, etc. None of it can be simply a take on real life… at least if you want it to rise above the crowd.

You could say that the genre itself defines the bar for its concept. Something thrilling, suspense, supernatural, historical, enticing… or romantic.

This is EXACTLY what the classic romance genre demands: a fresh take on real life romantic experience. Even without those higher concept tropes of the other genres.

If you want it to fly…

… you absolutely DO need something conceptual in the mix. In this case (general romance), give your characters a career that presents an arena within which the story might unfold (they work in the White House… they are in the funeral business… one is a sex therapist and the other a priest… something).

It doesn’t matter that your favorite romance author doesn’t seem to do this. That’s a trap, don’t fall for it. Branded bestselling authors play by a different set of rules… their name IS their concept. When you accept that, then you must see that they DO, in fact, have something conceptual in play. (This one, by the way, is true for any and all genres… don’t look to John Grisham or Nora Roberts Debbie Macomber or Nicolas Sparks to understand where the bar is; they’re great, but they could publish the New Orleans phone book and it would sell.)

In any genre, including classic romance, the compelling nature – something conceptual – of the story landscape and the narrative hooks and opportunities that come with it become the keys to elevating your story.

Do this, and chances are you won’t fall victim to one of the two ways your story will disappoint.  One of which is being conceptually flat, predictable and too familiar. Such stories — even when the author is famous — rely entirely on character and execution to work.  Which means, you are taking some of the most powerful tools in your bag of tricks off the table… namely, the presence of something conceptual.

The other realm of failure — execution — remains at risk, concept or no concept.  All genres require stellar execution to gain attention, that much doesn’t differ genre to genre. But if you’re writing romance, or other “mainstream contemporary” fiction that seems to defy quick genre categorization, don’t think for a moment that concept – the presence of something conceptual at the framework/story landscape level – won’t help you.

It might just save you.

Because the mission of concept is to infuse your premise with a compelling ambiance and energy, by presenting a dramatic framework that is anything but generic.


Click HERE to see if your concept is indeed conceptual, or if it is simply another take on your premise.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to Getting Published: The Genre-Concept Connection

  1. Thanks for taking on the romance genre, Larry. It was a fun post and great advice.

    One thing to add–Romance readers and editors expect to see tried-and-true tropes (like “secret baby” or “Beauty and the Beast). To come up with fresh concepts and new ways of doing these, it’s necessary to know what’s been done before and how it was done. That means reading and studying published romance novels–tons of them.

    To stick with it, it helps it you happen to love reading them. It’s also why it’s not as easy as people think to dash off a romance novel.

    Guess that’s true of all genres. But who ever said all this was easy?

  2. You hit straight into the bullseye with this post (again), Larry.

    Once you truly get this, at a gut-feeling, intuitive understanding level, thenthe way stories work—the way successfull stories work—suddenly becomes clear, like a flower opening up, and there’s just no way to close it back again. There’s no way you can ever excuse an unconceptual story again, no way you can allow yourself to start drafting a story without having a clear concept first.

    And for this, for helping me get this (clarifying what I’ve been smelling about my own writing each time I go through a revision), I THANK YOU. 🙂

  3. Best Beloved and I are silly for each other. Pretty typical romance.

    Except when we fell in love, we were both married to other people. And we, literally, walked off into the night together.

    Things ratched up 2 years later when she was in the hospital dying. Having a baby at home made it more difficult.

    My Chandleresque cozies take a very different approach, because they’re mysteries, not love stories (though they have some romance because I don’t know how to write a book without it.)


    Shawn Coyne’s “Story Grid” covers how genre affects the path you take through your book.

    I’ll bet there’s a “Genre Engineering and Physics” book in here somewhere.


    I’ve thought about how all 12 of the engineering and physics concepts apply to various genre, but I’ve also noticed that great nonfiction includes them as well. Malcolm Gladwell’s books hit all the points, yet he’s working with reality, not dreams.

    Sort of kills “but that’s how it really happened” as an excuse for bad memoirs.

  4. “ratched” s/b “ratcheted”

  5. Another great post, Larry!

    You didn’t mention them, but science fiction and fantasy can easily fall into this trap, too. Just because you include space ships or elves doesn’t mean you have a concept. A deeper meaning, even if it’s subtle, give the reader a stronger experience.

  6. Connie Taxdal

    I’m one of the 36 who attended our Tampa Area Romance Authors retreat last weekend. Your presentation was inspirational, soul-digging, and informative.

    Here’s a few statement other attendees are saying:

    “Adopting all the good stuff already said, it was all great—resort, food, workshop, and company.”

    “I like that Larry tailored his presentation to our group.”

    “The three session seminar and workshop delivered so much more than I expected. I could totally see the concept. I could see the ending, the antagonist, the conflict. But the “how” of the premise I could not verbalize and it seemed paralyzing to me. Having said that. The moment Larry used the word paradigm, thereby establishing that the “physics” was a model, something in my brain clicked, and I was able to state a premise.”

    Thanks, Larry. You can come back to Florida anytime!

  7. daniel

    Timely post. Never hurts to be reminded about the need for a compelling concept. Every day should do it. Plus the need to add a twist to genre novels. Can’t have too many crime/paranormal books where the ghosts solve the mystery.

    I am not surprised to hear the feedback of Larry’s presentations. Everyone I’ve come across has felt very positive about him. I always try to nudge, or throw, people in the direction of this website.

    I can’t add anything to the romance debate. Only to say my own tale has a twist-two people 4000 miles apart, meet by random chance online, ends up with me living in a new country, married, and a young daughter currently grooming the cat with her hairbrush. Now that’s a tale with hook, plot points, midpoint and pinch points complete with a happy ending.

  8. Great post, Larry. I’m not much of a romance reader, but these examples are applicable to all genres.

  9. Jason Waskiewicz

    One of the reasons I keep coming back here is that Mr. Brooks puts into words the reasons I have 9 failed novels in the basement. I’ve always been really good at coming up with nifty ideas and settings. But, I always fail. As he points out, one of the reasons I fail is that I don’t take the time to come up with anything beyond that nifty idea, I just start writing.

    The result is a terrible novel that I know is too awful to bother to even try publishing. As I said, I have 9 of them. That concept is the real difference. Hopefully I have it in #10.

    And he is right about genre. I was talking with an actual published author who I know. He said his publisher is tired of the “Twilight”, “Harry Potter”, and post-apocalypse lookalikes that come streaming in at a steady pace with nothing to distinguish them. Publishing in a genre, even a specialized genre, means little if the tale lacks a strong, unique concept.

  10. Another excellent post and wonderful that you rose to the challenge of romance writers. I love them 🙂 And really, challenge is a =good= thing)

    If you look at the concept of some of the romance writers who write everyday life romance, I think there is a concept there–often it’s based around setting. For instance, Virginia Kantra writes her Dare Island series about a fictitious island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

    Her stories feature a tight-knit local community live year-round in a place most of us live only for a week or two on vacation. Her conflicts are reflected in the inner/outer push-pull of that setting. Local vs outsider. Money vs. lack of money. Character vs. image. And her theme is always about becoming/returning to/discovering family.

    Concept is definitely there,you just have to look at it the right way.


  11. Lori Sanders Foley

    The Story Physics workshop in Florida was tremendous; likewise your blog cements the ideas that you worked so diligently to impart. I returned home like a dog with a bone. I immediately started analyzing my manuscripts and discovered that my major plot points hit those marks! I was amazed.
    I commend your acknowledgement that not everyone learns the lesson the same way. I kept listening, and you hit upon a phrase that made “compelling premise” comprehensible, and suddenly, I got it.
    Thank you.

  12. Robert Jones

    Elizabath Parker makes a good point in reading “tons” of a specific genre in order to understand it. I haven’t attempted to deconstruct a romance novel, but have looked at the structure within movies. I’ve also done my own deconstructions of other genres and literary fiction. The best of them–or maybe I should say all but a rare few–use exactly what Larry teaches.

    One has to consider that ramping up the concept in any story is not only possible, but helps in a huge way. We also cannot confuse concept with the format/structure of a given genre or story. Structure is very flexible and allows for a wide range of stories in all genres and literary fiction to be stretched in a variety of ways. If you look at the format and only see that a higher degree of conceptual thought is obvious in stories that have a lot of action, but not so obvious in the “slice of life” stories, you need to look more closely.

    The closer you get to seemingly “ordinary people” stories, the more you’ll see the wants/emotional needs of the character tied directly into the foundation of the conceptual groundwork. Hence the ongoing argument of which come first, character or plot? And the more far out a genre reaches at times, the more attention plot gets and characters can often get short shrift. But neither has to do with concept. All these elements blend together in any form of fiction and can appear confusing. Therein lies the problem with people getting it.

    Concept is the seed that unfolds into the stage from which the plot and characters grow, the field they play on. How they grow is entirely up to the writer. A good concept could be given to a hundred different writers and a hundred different stories would be born. Which is why concepts are not copyrightable.

    –A concept might give rise to an alien world and the political ramifications upon it’s citizens: “Hunger games.”

    –The character and their wants/needs might be a young woman whose awakening mind is struggling to deal with this alien world who needs to challenge the political nature in order to survive, escape, get home.

    –The plot is everything she does, all the step, plans repercussions she experiences in the present due to her choices.

    –Backstory/what the character must overcome within herself (another confusing element because it’s often mistaken for the main antagonist) can get in the way, cause stumbling blocks both physically and emotionally because what the character has to do in the present might parallel a traumatic event he went through as a child, go against a strong belief system, challenge her way of life.

    –All of those “anti” productive elements will be reflected in the form of a person who uses them to thwart the hero, is opposed to whatever the hero is doing in the present–even the past, or beliefs, may be used against her.

    One element builds on the next. In each genre, it gets boiled down to that simple seed from which drama is incited. It might be a man waking up to discover the woman he loves has a secret she’s been hiding that will change life as he has come to know it. It might be something he needs/wants to overcome in order to win her love. It might be an incurable disease that destroys her and dashes his hopes to bits. Then he has to rebuild with someone new in hopefully an intersting set of circumstances.

    Whatever that dramatic seed is, you have to place something of great potiential interest within its shell. If you can only imagine a very ordinary–or “generic”–tree growing from your concept, then it might still not be ready to bloom into a winning story. If you can imagine a twisty, gnarly, monstrous tree that doesn’t quite look like the other trees in the forrest of your genre, then you might have a winner that sells and gets your writing noticed.

    We cannot afford to blend into the forrest. There’s always a way to amp up your concept into something that sends emotionally disturbing possibilities whirling through your head…and hopefully that of your reader. As one writer puts it: “God created a lot of boring characters, but you can’t afford to.” The same applies to your concept, plot, and so on. Stretch you imagination until you can see a plot growing out of it that reeks of curioisity and suspense. Ordinary people are a dime a dozen. People don’t want to pay to read ordinary. They want an interesting experience that is executed well, grabs them by the gut and doesn’t let go until the last possible minute.

    That’s true of romance as well every fictional story ever written. Without the twisty, gnarly branches of emotion, all you have left is: he loves her, she loves him…and they lived happily ever after. The end…amen! Let’s go for pizza and not stick around for the rest. Or is that emotional knife in your gut making you say, “Oh my god, that poor man/woman. What are they going to do now?” And the questions keep mounting and you keep hanging in there to see how it all turns out, right? It’s not ordinary. Ordinary is the boy falling in love with the girl next door in high school, studying, working a part time job, buying a car, graduating, planning a wedding, they raise a family and never have any problems outside of petty stuff at work and their kids getting into fights at school. People don’t pay for that. In any genre.

    I know I’m going to take this to a point where someone out there is going to get annoyed (if they aren’t already), but are you writing fiction, or a documentary on goldfish in a bowl? Because if we are to consider ourselves writers, we have to widen our gaze and consider more suspenseful possibilities. It doesn’t have to be space aliens and superheroes to be extraordinary. When extraordinary things happen to seemingly normal people, a story is born. When you can define the seed that gives birth to those extraordinary cicumstances, you may be on the trail of your concept. Then it would be a real shame if after defining it, we didn’t ask ourselves what might be done to make it just a little more extraordinary, more unique, a more potentially suspenseful, turbulant playing field for my nice, ordinary characters to be cast upon. And consequently, their lives aren’t going to stay ordinary for very long.

    Okay, I’m done 🙂

  13. Here’s an example of fresh concept in genre work (Let me know if I’ve got this wrong, Larry):

    IDEA: Kylie Logan’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HARLOW is a murder mystery. A murder has been committed, and a sleuth works to discover “whodunit.”
    (Nothing new here.)

    PREMISE with characters and plot: The Literary Ladies book club is reading THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW at Halloween, and they also vow to solve the murder in their town.
    (Okay, getting more interesting, but not quite there yet.)

    CONCEPT: Charlie “Sleepy” Harlow is a decapitated rumrunner who appears once a year to search for his head. How is he involved?
    (This fresh Halloween concept gives the book “juice” and makes it fly.)

    I happen to love THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. There were lots of murder mysteries on the bookstore shelf, but it was this fresh re-working of the concept that made me choose this genre mystery over others.

  14. @ Sibilant, elves on a spaceship?

    @ Larry, this is an excellent post. I’ll be sharing it with a screenwriting group I’m in. Too many writers (myself included at one point) just want to fill in the blanks, following the appropriate story structure (and believe, me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with story structure) without having a premise and concept that grabs the reader.

    The part of writing that I enjoy the most changes over time.

    Initially it was writing the first draft. The joy that I feel when the flow is right and I can drop thousands of words a day is hard to replicate. More recently my favourite part was the run through *after* the first drift, excising unnecessary words or phrases or even complete scenes that prevent the story moving forward as briskly as possible.

    Lately, though, I”m finding the most pleasure in taking “high concept” (hate that phrase, but I can’t think of an other) ideas and crafting a story out of them. It’s back to structure, at that point. You can have the most original premise/concept the world has every conceived of, but if you can’t work the story behind that concept into an appropriate three-act structure, you may as well not even write them.

    Thanks again, Larry. Great post as usual.

  15. Bob Cohn

    I used to teach the Greek tragedies and I began with Aristotle’s Poetics because he explains the elements of the drama of his time. They haven’t changed much, just refined a little. HIs clarity about these abstractions still shines in just about every drama I see.
    As I read this post I was reminded of the Poetics by the clarity of your comments. I don’t understand concept and premise yet, but I am certain it is that lack of understanding that makes my novel (completed but not finished) and the other one I’ve started less appealing than I intended.
    You said, “The mission of a concept is to infuse your premise with a compelling ambiance and energy by providing a dramatic framework that is anything but generic.” I’m strongly considering having that sentence tattooed on the inside of my right eyelid.
    I think that is a description of the element I need to add to my works. So, I ordered your books. I can afford them even if I can’t afford to work with you right now. Thanks for playing Aristotle for me.

  16. MikeR

    “D – a – m – n ….” 🙂

    “Larry, you’re G-O-O-D.”

    (And, by the by, I mean that ==most== sincerely. So there!)

    Even though the romance-writer you spoke to, buttonholed you on the “ordinary-ness” of the particular genre that (s)he had chosen to work in, the simple truth of the matter is that E-V-E-R-Y(!) sub-group of “this crazy world of F-I-C-T-I-O-N(!! !!) is: “ahem, ‘made up.'”

    Uh huh. “‘Romance’ IS NOT(!! !! !!) ‘real people in real life.'” 🙂 Because, if it were, “(by definition, ‘real’ …) people in (again, by definition, ‘real’ …) life” would N-E-V-E-R …

    … $$$ buy $$$ it.

    (And why should they? They could get an equivalent “real people in real life” experience by looking in the nearest convenient mirror.)

    Nope. Fiction is all about “escape.” It is all about … (Google it™ one-word) … “EverSoMuchMoreSo.” It’s all about a perfectly-legitimate escapist fantasy that I, “Gentle Reader®,” am more-than-willing to buy.