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.