Pop quiz: what is the CONCEPT of your story?
I ask this of all of my story coaching clients, right at the top. The answers are frustratingly all over the map. And yet, I believe it is one of the most important things a writer needs to understand about their story.
The problem with both the question and the answer is that the definition and street-level interpretation of “concept” is vague, often imprecise and widely misunderstood. It’s like trying to answer the questions: what is rich? What is health? What is wealth? What is happiness or friendship or good or evil?
The inherent risk – for both the definition of “concept” AND these other questions – is that a wrong answer can hold you back… or even get you killed.
Some writers don’t understand why we need to even address the question.
As if, in their insular writing world, a concept will somehow emerge from a linear narrative that ends up going in a specific direction that wasn’t ever on the radar. That can work, that’s just a process… but it’s how a concept is reflected in a final draft that matters.
And if a compelling concept never surfaces, the story will suffer for it.
Let’s say you are writing a story ABOUT Ireland in the 1300. If THAT and that alone is the depth and extent of your concept… then you risk a story that is low on dramatic tension, character and pace. You’ll lean toward a historical travelogue. You’ll likely end up with an “adventures of…” type of story, an epic saga (good luck with that), with a hero going from one thing to the next in this time and place.
That hardly ever works.
To get there, allow me to offer a short case study:
One of my clients recently answered the question (“What is your concept?”) this way:
A young girl moves to Chicago to mend a broken heart and meets an attractive options trader who ends up having ties to the criminal world.
Is that a concept? Sorta. Hell, anything is a concept, right? You could write a story about that.
But… it too easily could end up being “the adventures of our Heroine in Chicago on the arm of this dark dude.” Without a linear core story. Without drama or stakes. A travelogue. A slice of her life, for better or worse.
While you might argue that, based on the wide breath of the interpretation of the word “concept” in the storytelling context, this IS a concept, I’m fairly certain that it isn’t a good concept. Or at least, a complete enough concept.
At risk is what story the writer actually tells from it.
Trust me, “The Help” is not “the adventures of three black maids in 1962 Mississippi. “The Hunger Games” is not “the adventures of a girl in a futurist dystopian world.” If it was, Katniss might have ended up a hair stylist in the Capitol City… and if you remember those coifs from the film, that would truly be have been a horror story.
Both of those bestsellers had much more compelling and SPECIFIC concepts than an “adventures of…” type of narrative focus. That works in bio-picks an literary character studies, but rarely in commercial fiction.
Gut check: is that you? Does your concept lean into an “adventures of…” type of story, versus a SPECIFIC THING THAT HAPPENS AND MUST BE RESOLVED type of story?
The latter is the concept you should be striving to craft.
Back to our example… the responding story from that stated initial concept might have been this: “… they had some adventures, ups and downs… and then they lived happily ever after.”
But even if the author knew that, intended that, it didn’t make it into the concept. Which IS the core story being told.
Agents want more. Publishers want more. Readers want more. Cool settings and themes are great, but rarely are they the stuff of the CORE DRAMATIC story being told. This is all about the name of the game here… giving the reading public what they want, through your eyes and words. A literary win-win.
And that’s the key, right there: the word DRAMATIC. That’s what was missing from this first pass at a concept.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell, and it is pandemic in its scope: writers are too often, when challenged to describe their concepts, describing “situations” and “locations (time and place),” where “adventures ensue.”
The concept is what your story is ABOUT, at a DRAMATIC level. It it’s only a situation — you’re in a situation when you drive to the dentist, the traffic sucked, but that doesn’t make it a story worth telling — then the story isn’t there yet.
I’ve seen all of these recently, posing as statements of concept:
A woman who falls in love with her boss.
A spaceship lands on a strange new world that looks a lot like Earth.
A dragon wants to become human, and must win the love of a virgin to make it happen.
A tall cowboy named John travels in time to 1950s Los Angeles and becomes a movie star.
A marriage is in trouble when one spouse begins to have an affair.
All of these are SITUATIONS. There is little about them that is CONCEPTUAL.
Each of them perhaps implies a story landscape… one in which everything or nothing at all could happen. But someone reading these statements of concept wouldn’t know which. Worse yet, the writer may not know.
All of them could end with “… and lived happily ever after.”
All of them need more. More depth, more specificity, more promise of conflict and stakes. Which, in each case, would make them more CONCEPTUAL.
Let’s return yet again to the first example…
…. (“A young girl moves to Chicago and meets a hot options trader who ends up having ties to the criminal world.”) and see what the writer really meant. Which is a good thing… at least there really was something more in mind.
Too often, there isn’t.
When asked to explain the source of dramatic tension in this story, the answer went like this:
When one of her new lover’s best friends confesses he’s working undercover with the FBI and asks her to wear a wire for him to snag the boyfriend on Federal charges, she must decide which team she wants to play on, and thus, who she really is.
Dripping with dramatic tension. With stakes. Theme. Choices.
This is more than “the adventures of…” There is a CORE story on the table. One with DRAMA and STAKES driving it.
Now THAT is a concept. It opens a door to a hero’s quest that is some combination of problem solving, goal pursuit, the crafting fate, theme… all of it in the midst of danger and consequences.
Combine her first answer with the second, and you have a concept you could successfully pitch:
What if a naïve girl moves to Chicago and meets a sexy options trader with criminal ties, and must decide who she is when a Federal undercover officer posing as her lover’s friend asks her to work with him to incriminate the guy?
Notice, too, how much more effective this is when posed as a “what if?” proposition.
The writer actually had the second answer when offering the clipped, insufficient (because it didn’t so much as touch on the CORE story) answer to the first. But this writer didn’t understand that THIS WAS CORE STORY…and thus, the heart of the CONCEPT.
Who knows how the narrative might have been formed without that realization. Because EVERYTHING in a great story connects to the CORE story in some way, however subtle.
That’s the risk. That’s why we need to know what our concept is, and if it works.
She does now, by the way.
IF she had written about the first stated concept, the story might have unfolded episodically, simply taking us along for the ride as the new romance unfolds. This then that, then something else… oh what a grand time she’s having in Chicago. Maybe later she tosses in the undercover BFF, but the story might not have been ABOUT that aspect of things.
Even though, at the end of the day, THAT is the heart of her concept.
Stories always turn out better when the writer understands the CORE STORY… and the core story should be defined by a well-rendered statement of concept.
The core story, and the statement of concept that gets it into play, should never be an after-thought.
This is storytelling, not a diary or a memoir. Dramatic tension is key, as is pacing. Something needs to be at stake.
Rather, a great concept should demonstrate the writer’s grasp of STORY PHYSICS in terms of engaging a reader on a deeper, emotional level.
A final example of a story concept that DOES nail it, just to send you away seeking the right thing:
What if a guy engaged in a murder investigation stumbles across a 2000-year old conspiracy that could topple one of the largest religions in the world, and must survive attempts to silence him before he can discover the true nature of the underlying secret?
Definitely not “the adventures of a guy on assignment in Paris.”
That’s a killer concept. Even if it offends you to the core. Maybe because it does.
It’s all just fiction, after all.
The difference between a rejection slip and nearly 100 million copies sold, or somewhere in between… that’s the power of concept.
Where are you with your concept? Need a second pair of eyes? Click HERE to see how you can verify that your concept really does lead to a CORE STORY, or if you risk episodic storytelling that doesn’t.