Good to Great: Nail a Better Concept To Empower Your Story

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by Larry Brooks on February 19, 2013

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Lin Barrett February 19, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Larry, thank you so much for this post. Like many you’ve written, it arrived in my in-box just when I was ready to use it. How do you do that?

Robert Jones February 19, 2013 at 7:54 pm

It would seem a lot of folks continue to have trouble with the concept of “concept.” Mind if I take a stab at this?

Concept over-simplified:

I’ll use the example from above.

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.

We, as reader, might imagine this girl is going to get into trouble with her criminal boyfriend, but it doesn’t tell what kind of trouble she gets into.

Thus, a concept isn’t a concept until it tell us specifically “what kind” of trouble the hero is going to be facing in your story. Otherwise it’s all in the writer’s head and not on the page where the reader (in this case Larry, or an agent) needs to see it.

Here’s my pet-peeve, in hopes of shaking things up here–and maybe give a thought or two. And since I’m signed up for Larry’s story coaching, he can really throw this back on me if I get it wrong in my own questionnaire :)

Here’s the upgraded concept, using the same example:

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?

What I want to know is: Who the hell is this naive girl and why is she moving to Chicago. Everything about being caught between the BF and the FBI sounds great, but I’m seeing the movie trailer (a great way to think of your concept, BTW) and this naive girl is in a bar with a charming guy buying her a drink.

“New in town?”
“Just started a new job with blah-blah.”

And suddenly they’re involved and he’s beginning to look a bit nasty, not as charming as he purported himself to be in the beginning.

And that’ll work. It certainly cut to the chase in a hurry. But I was just commenting on the importance of character arc in the previous post. So let’s see how this might improve, or even deepen those stakes, theme, tension, and choices.

What if this naive girl (insert name here) moved to Chicago to find herself?

Why?

What if her bad-boy father, who never got over his need to dominate her mother, wanted to control her life as well?

How?

What if her mother recently died and the father insisted she put her life on hold and take care of him–that it’s her family duty to take her mother’s place and look after him?

She knows well what that life will be like. She defies him. After all, it’s time he learned to stand on his own feet in the modern world as well. Especially if he’s a throw-back to men being the king of the castle and everyone in it scenario.

So she falls for this charmer in Chicago. She might even find it appealing when he reveals himself to be a bit of a bad boy himself. Maybe she’s always had a thing for bad boys. That’s her imbedded view of male love–as it is with so many. She may not even understand why. She is naive, after all.

Psychosis/saboteur.

But now when she makes the choice to wear that wire, she’s really making a choice that defines her, that throws off her inner demons.

See how knowing her ups the ante for everything else?

But does it improve the concept?

When (insert hero’s name) defies her domineering father and moves to Chicago, she never expected to meet (insert villain’s name), a sexy options trader with criminal ties. Ultimately, she 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. Can she throw off the yoke of her past, or will she become a victim of her own naive views of love?

Stakes, FPP, mid-point, and a cliff-hanger ending that makes us question how it will all turn out. In other words, a mini movie trailer with key points (including hints of character arc) all in place.

Read Larry’s post on story structure within movie trailers and this will all become even more apparent.

Larry Brooks February 19, 2013 at 8:19 pm

@Robert — really like your response and the enhancement it illuminates. A great concept not only paves the way toward conflict and stakes, but also to the facets of the character who must live that experience. This is a direct link to story physics, especially hero empathy and vicarious experience. The point of it all is escalated by a compelling concept, it makes one ask those questions about the character. The same is true in “Side Effects,” by the way, which is a VERY layered and compelling concept (apparently missed or under-appreciated by some… but I think you’ll see it). Story physics become a sum in excess of their parts, and a compelling concept is the fuel, the spark, that allows that to happen. Moreso than a compelling character alone. The more interesting the journey of a great character, the more we FEEL it, versus simply observe it. Concept is the key on that front, IMO. L.

Robert Jones February 19, 2013 at 8:49 pm

@Larry,

Agreed. Even the best character based, slice of life drama needs problems, obstacles, stakes, and all the other accoutrements of those “story physics” you mentioned. Otherwise how is the character going to achieve/learn anything? And more importantly, how will it be entertaining to an audience?

I’m picking up the theme for your new book here. How all the parts fuse into a whole. Or, how to make a damn fine stew out of combining all the composite ingredients. And don’t forget to dice up those juicy steaks and sauté them in a bit of flour before tossing them into the pot!

Ron Estrada February 20, 2013 at 10:05 am

Darn you, Larry. You sure have a way of bringing me back to the basics and re-visiting my story. By breaking it down to a few lines like that, it really allows me to step back and say either “that’s fantastic!” or “is that it?” The good news is it’s easy to re-write a few lines to get to the fantastic. Beats the hell out of re-writing a 100k word novel. Thanks again for the wake-up call!

Kerry Boytzun February 20, 2013 at 10:43 am

“When asked to explain the source of dramatic tension in this story”…

For me, that was a KEY that unlocked the core story, the concept Larry was looking for. Words are magical and used in the right combination, they form a “Spell”. Note that you “spell” a word in grammar school, but in actual use, the Spell has an entirely different meaning. And I’m dead serious on the powerful Spells words put on us (Main Stream Media, fiction).

What’s interesting is that not all questions will work for everyone as in getting the answer you want. The answer is locked up in the mind or Muse of the author in this case. A series of words, usually posed as a question will act as the key.

However, what Larry is running into, is what many psychologists run into when trying to get something out of a person–that they themselves are NOT CLEAR about in the first place.

For example, there are many books on self help which will ask you a most ridiculous question: “List (What are) the limiting beliefs you have in regards to (anything) Success”. Dude! The type of person this question is targeted at–is the kind of person (client) who feels they are NOT successful. Any sane person will have already tried everything they are AWARE of–in order to not be unsuccessful, or to fix their problem themselves. Thus don’t expect a simple question to give you the answers you’re not aware of. Do expect a wild goose chase full of red herrings and denial.

The problem is that we lack the self awareness for our inner beliefs, reasons, and behaviors that cause us, in this case, to be unsuccessful. The therapist will NEVER unlock such inner issues with a direct question. The KEY (questions) literally will be worded to communicate to the part of that person that they are not aware of–and if lucky–will unlock a clue or the actual reason that they are choosing to behave in a function that makes them unsuccessful.

The above paragraph is WHY we are so interested in stories. To learn something on how someone else “did it” so that maybe we can “do it”.

So, ironically, if Larry wants to know what my story’s concept is–the odds are stacked against him (me actually) in getting the answer. Assuming of course that I haven’t become clear about it (concept) already. But the reality is, is that I am NOT a seasoned writer. Hell I haven’t written a novel yet. Thus I don’t know what “to look for” yet–in regards to what makes a great concept. Sure Larry has told me in many different ways via his book, website, and other media–but I have to “get it” in multiple ways, just as if I was learning to hunt wild animals for food (surviving in Alaska say…) and I had to learn to recognize tracks, leaves, markings, etc. I have to know “what to look for”. Larry is asking me “what I see” in regards to my story’s concept. But realize that I’m a rookie. Heck, realize that most published authors out there aren’t aware of what structurally is making SOME of their novels great, and thus when they go off track–they didn’t realize that they were off track. I know as I just read yet another meandering episodic adventure of the wizard…

Double jeopardy here–is that Larry still has to ask me what my concept is (with a direct question) because we have to get out what I consciously think it is in order to move forward and actually capture the wild animal. Larry is hoping I won’t say “the adventures of a computer hacker who…” WHACK! goes the hammer. Try again, but this time with…

I dunno, but for me, the above question I began my post with, where I quoted Larry “When asked to explain the source of dramatic tension in this story”–that did something for me. It unlocked something further in me regarding story concept.

It’s the “Source” of dramatic tension as in what IS the source? Sure, take a story idea and throw it in the bowl (soup) and start adding ingredients. Stir it with the “What if” spoon and observe what, if any, dramatic tension begins to form. This would be “searching for story” but as Larry suggests, you can do it in your head, with pictures (snow flake guy?) charts, pen and paper, mind map software.

Bottom line–no tension–we’re bored to watch or read it. What’s the source of the dramatic tension that ultimately is the reason we keep turning the pages…that made the books a “couldn’t put it down”? That made you say “I had to know what happened…” (because something WAS happening and it created a LOT of dramatic tension).

So here’s a question for anyone reading this website of Larry’s:
Just how important is Story Structure to you when you design-plan your story? Are you serious about it, or is it just another “That was a great post Larry, keep ‘m coming…” and you go back to writing stories however you write them.

I’m looking for a few serious Story Structuralist people. I gotta IDEA…

Let me know. You can email me with my first initial and last name attgmail dot come.

thanks

Kerry Boytzun

PS Robert, I love the way you think!

Tiny February 20, 2013 at 11:33 am

@Robert – After reading your post, I wish I held off just a few more hours before sending in my revised/expanded questionnaire to Larry. The combination of Larry’s and your posts – somehow they just set off the necessary fireworks for me today.

Ah well, better late than never. :)

Margaret Fieland February 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Larry, after you sent me the questionnaire with the Concept question, I read up on it, then spent several weeks staring at my WIP (and continuing to write) until the answer became clear. Then I went back and did some rewriting, because I needed to get to the guts of the concept much sooner than I had. Having articulated the answer, the succession of the plot became much easier to write.

Margaret Fieland February 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Kerry, I do consider structure. I especially consider it after I finish my first draft, to tighten up — play up what turns out to be the black moment, for example.

I’m now taking an online class in mythic structure (hero’s journey), and I’m finding that model is far more intuitive for me than the first plot point, etc thing. Maybe it’s all those King Arthur and Robin Hood and fairy tale stories I read as a kid –. I just finished using it to outline my current work-in-progress (the one Larry analyzed).

Robert Jones February 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm

@ Margaret–I’ve always liked the mythic hero’s journey as well. And certainly a lot of great inspiration can, and has, come from those types of stories. How did your story structure analysis go using that as your framework? Or haven’t you gotten it back yet?

I’m thinking the FPP would still fit in with that structure–but probably it is termed as something else. So far, I can’t find any stories where there isn’t a moment that sends the hero on their journey, thus changing their life for the course of the story, possibly forever.

In the older detective fiction I used to read quite a bit of, for example, the FPP might be as simple as the detective becoming intrigued enought to take on the case, then responding by investigating. What is missing in many older stories, is the warrior section. Often they may decide to go into attack mode, but it’s quickly tied up as resolution–or moral, thinking in terms of fables and religious stories where often a character’s martyrdom is often solution/resolution.

So most of the points seem to hold, as far as I can see, they just become scrunched in terms of percentages, or seemingly omit one of the four parts.

In a novel, certainly these things are needed more due to the fact they give purpose to longer stories and keep the from sagging. But I’m in favor of playing with that structure in terms of interchanging plot and pinch points, so long as they don’t mess up the missions of each of the four parts (Shutter Island was a great example of keeping the general mission for each of the part, but by inserting information meant to purposely mislead).

And I’m not entirely in favor of thinking each of the four parts has to be exactly 25% either.

If the FPP is ideally placed at the 20th percentile, and that moment is your biggest and best moment to end part 1 with–then part two might be 30%, tagging on the left over 5% from part 1.

And what if part 2 is also 30%–or even 35%? Is that going to kill the fourth part if the conclusion wraps up in 15-20% of the book? I’m thinking there’s a bit of wiggle room in there somewhere. After all, the meat of most stories are going to be contained within parts 2-3. And what if the hero decides to martyr himself in part three warrior mode? Isn’t that going to make part 4 a fairly quick resolution? Maybe not in every story, but you get the basic idea.

I drove myself crazy with this for a while. Then, as I began to digest these precepts more fully, I relaxed and began playing around with those percentages a little and having fun. The end result is that I came back to Larry’s words that said these things are not meant to be a formula, but a set of guidlines to help you on your way.

If I’m missing the boat with this, please, Larry, advise me of my shortcomings. But I’m thinking, in architecture, all buildings are not sets of perfect squares.

Larry February 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm

@Robert — I think you’re spot on. Those percentages are targets, guidelines, optimal treatments, and often safeguards against our UNobjectie selves. We can fall in love with one aspect of a story, or talk ourselves into believing that one phase is more interesting than the next (in the mistaken belief that “interesting” is the highest mission… it’s not). If we come close, we’re usually safe in terms of leveraging story physics. If we are way off, something has to give, and then it’s our choice to live with either way. Sometimes it flies (when the pilot is a pro), sometimes it doesn’t (when the pilot doesn’t know better). Like landing an airplane, gear up, on a sheet of foam. Yes, it’s survivable (as are my endless analogies). But… like I said, the targets are principles and optimal targets that will almost always keep you safe. L.

Sara Davies February 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm

It’s helpful to think about functionality and momentum – what a concept or plot point is meant to accomplish – what it does, what it’s for. One writer described a plot point as a “doorway of no return,” a threshold beyond which the hero can’t walk away. It’s not only an event (large or small, internal or external) but an event that forces the hero to commit and identifies the scope of the problem.

What Robert says about concept introducing (or encapsulating) the central dramatic thread of the story feels right. As Larry points out, “concept” poses a question that requires and generates answers. Seems like survival-related issues (mental or physical) are keys to concept development. The question posed by the “concept” allows the reader to immediately identify with the character. What begins as a set of circumstances becomes dynamic: “must decide who she is.”

What if the girl only pretends to collude with the FBI agent to catch the bad guy, but all the while uses that relationship to buy time to learn the bad guy’s nefarious mad skillz? What if she plots to get rid of both of them, lets the bad guy fall, and as soon as they’re gone, takes over the evil empire? Maybe she loses her innocence through her association with the bad guy and the FBI agent, and concludes no one else is playing by the rules, so why should she care about the rules? She walks away with all the money, and hires a hit man to assassinate her domineering father. Anything could happen.

Harder to generate a scenario from nothing. “What if it rains?” might be less compelling (unless we’re talking Noah’s Ark) than “What happened to the guy who got hit by a bus?” but it’s still a big leap from there to “What if a guy who gets hit by a bus…a) sees God and dedicates the rest of his life to saving orphans, or b) decides to get revenge against the bus company, the driver, and the driver’s family, or c) dies and becomes an organ donor, and the recipient’s life is altered when she realizes she remembers things that happened to that guy and not to her, and that he committed a crime only she can solve? (I think that might have been the plot of a movie).

Maybe it’s harder to solve a problem when you’re too close to it. Nothing in my story makes sense. Every question generates more questions than answers, until all the threads unravel and go off in different directions. I keep coming up against motive – why it would be logical for an individual or entity to make the choices I said they made? This is after-the-fact restructuring, a retrofit – harder to do than doing it right in the first place? Theoretically the core concept should narrow the options. Everything in the set-up has to get resolved. There should be no accidents or coincidences – all ingredients and characters have to serve an identifiable purpose, and if they’re redundant, they’ve gotta go. Le sigh.

Sara Davies February 21, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Is this an example of what a concept looks like: “What if a melon gets hurled off the roof of a building, the seeds germinate, and a vine sprouts and smothers the neighborhood?” Does a concept have to imply consequences? Does this idea become a concept if the vine takes over the city and has to decide whether to destroy it or cooperate with it, or if the citizens have to decide whether to move out of their houses and live in the leaves or exterminate the vine with weed killer? Any question can be phrased as a “what if,” but are all “what if” questions “concepts” and when do you know?

Robert Jones February 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm

@Sara–I think–if this is the vine’s story (and it sounds from your innitial statement that it is the main character) it becomes a concept when the vine is faced with big trouble–the people wanting to destroy it. Even if the vine is bad, or sees itself as justified, it’s putting innocent people at risk, either their homes, or their lives. The people are having to reconstruct everything if they decide to cooperate. And where is all that money going to come from?

Now the vine itself needs its own reasons, not to mention inner demons. If the vine is biased against humanity, sees them as destructive, in need of wiping out in terms of their city/colony–then I guess we could say Mr. Vine’s inner demons might come from the careless human that mudered his mother (the mellon) when he tossed her off that roof.

But (and I’m sort of cracking up here) was the mellon murdered, thrown off said roof intentionally, or was it just an unfortunate accident?

I think Mr. Vine needs to figure this out or he’s just adding more guilt to deal with in the future if he discovers he’s wrong. But he’s obviously got anger issues and not thinking about any of this too clearly. So the humans need a champion, a clever lawyer, or investigator who’ll go after the facts.

I think this could be played as a mystery: Who killed Mrs. Mellon? And for humanity’s sake, why?

Meantime, it’s a contest, to see which species dominates the city:)

Robert Jones February 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm

And the funniest part is, I’m spelling melon with two L’s throughout. But it gives it more huminty that way…don’tcha think?

Sara Davies February 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Yes, I think you’re absolutely right on all counts.

I’m pretty sure the melon was intentionally thrown by a malicious picnicker during the 4th of July fireworks finale. Dude was drunk.

But I’m still confused.

What does a concept DO?

What does a compelling concept…do differently?

Does a concept have to identify the hero and what the hero wants? Should it also identify the obstacle the hero will encounter in pursuit of that goal?

How does a concept work? It seems like the objective goes beyond saying what the story is “about” (an angry, vengeful, suffocating vine) but should explain what it’s about in a way that does something very specific. What is that something? Is it to establish an agenda for the vine? Convey the nature of the conflict the vine will face? Or what?

I sense that you understand concept. You seem to be doing it, but I don’t know what it is that you’re doing. My brain doesn’t work like this. I’m frazzled, shaking, drooling, and my hair is starting to fall out.

Robert Jones February 21, 2013 at 7:25 pm

LOL@ Sara–I think it takes a bit of drooling. Possibly even loss of hair. This is something that was explained to me prior to Story Engineering. Let me explain it from a different perspective, or at least the perspective that it was originally taught to me. The names have all been changed to protect the innocent, but it’s all basically what Larry teaches here, so we’re good to go.

What you are striving to create is (or was) what might be considered your 30 second handle for pitching your story to an agent, or editor. It consists of the following elements, put together in a way that is meant to cause intrigue (make readers, and agents–who are also readers looking for good stories–want to read your book). Here’s the recipe for concocting this short paragraph:

1) Your hero is in bad trouble.
2) Your hero is introduced and most importantly, what that bad trouble is, SPECIFICALLY.
3)The antagonist, A.K.A. the person who is the main force behind the threat/trouble your hero is facing.
4)The stakes–what it is that hangs in the balance. What are the CONSEQUENCES if your hero should fail.
5) If you can work in a strong inner demon that gets in your hero’s way, that’s also a nice plus.

How this goes together is what you might see on the dust jacket of your favorite books. It could become the opening paragraph in your query letter, your 30 second handle/pitch, or (and let’s call it by the name that’s confounding so many), your CONCEPT.

And that’s basically it in a nutshell. Your concept is a short, intrigueing paragraph meant to sell your book in about 30 seconds. It includes and encapsulates the core elements of your little fictional drama.

Ta-Dah!

Robert Jones February 21, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Core DRAMATIC elements–I should say. In other words, how all these things lend themselves, blend, into a darn good conflict.

Sara Davies February 21, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Thanks. That helps a lot. Self-promotion? What a ghastly prospect. My partner on this non-fiction thing was like, “Hey, do some marketing,” and I was like, “Hey, you’re freaking me out, man. Stop saying that.” Just thinking about it makes me want to lock myself in a lighthouse far away in middle of the ocean. Queue horror flick soundtrack. Sounds like developing a “concept” may be mercifully irrelevant to the actual writing of the book, unless it can be used as a springboard for generating a solid outline.

Upon further reflection, I wonder if the wanton cruelty that led to the death of Ms. Melon (a single mother) saved her from a worse fate. She was a cantaloupe at a rooftop picnic. No way that night was going to end well for her.

Robert Jones February 22, 2013 at 10:34 am

@Sara

My thoughts at this point is that it might be helpful for you to get Larry’s questionnaire. It may seem that you aren’t ready for it, it might even make all your hair fall out at once, but in taking the single thought of concept and boiling it down, stewing on it, is not entirely conducive to seeing it in context with everything else.

Here’s what I did, and how things have played out:

First off, I wanted to finish my plot, in hopes that it would make the questionnaire easier. However, in using it as a story developmental tool, I wish I had looked over these questions before I began. I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer them all right away, or at least without thinking about them a while–but therein lies the developmental process.

Larry said some of the questions would seem to repeat, but to press onward. In looking at the same aspect of my story from a slightly different angle, or POV, really helped. Much like turning your concept into a “What if” question, you might also have to streamline other answers. All of those key factors that will turn your story into an interesting conflict are covered from several different angles.

So in context, the answer to–“Will writing that short blurb encapsulating your concept help in the writing of your novel?”–my answer would be, “Yes.” The better you can sum up your concept/conflict, the more influence it will have on generating your characters world views (what they are fighting for), and your theme, which stems from all these underpinnings. Thus, every scene you write will be empowered by this knowledge.

At time, I knew the answers without having to think too much, but even then, the act of writing them down next to some of my other answers is helping to cement those walls even more.

I finished my plot before Christmas, came back in January and realized that both my ending, and part of my villain, needed some work. I got the questionnaire, but avoided it until my plot was fixed in those areas. I’ve been using the questionnaire for about five weeks now, and I’ve gone back over my plot several times to strengthen things since. For a while, I drove myself crazy researching posts on Storyfix, and trying to find Larry’s definition for things in Story Engineering. Ever try to do that on your Kindle? It was maddening. I ended up buying SE a second time in paperback from Amazon…UGH!

At this point, I think instead of driving yourself (or any of ourselves) crazy, some of us could probably work towards breaking down and defining those things that seem puzzling, thus moving forward instead of “waiting to be ready,” or struggling in isolation. We are a community of writers, all aiming towards a similar goal, yet so few of us really talk, or even pose questions. None of us can think of all these things right off. That’s why the term “writing is rewriting,” was invented. And even the best writers have their friends, or other writers they trust, look things over and make suggestions.

As an artist, I probably don’t have to tell you how this country treats most of its creative people. Isolation becomes pretty par for the course, even in so called “real world” communities/professions a selfish attitude often prevails, the gates barred to anyone that can’t be seen as an asset–which usually means financial renumeration and not those who have necessarily worked their butts off, to say nothing of doing it for the love of art’s sake. And so the joy is often squashed by the very club we yearned to join, sending us back into isolation to rediscover why we’re doing this in the first place.

Yet, we all want recognition. And to keep doing what we are doing creatively, we need to make a living. So a balance has to be struck. Things are changing in the world, however. There are more opportunities to be found, more communities as well. I think it’s a good time to learn, or get back to the basics of enjoying what we do with a bit more creative control. But we can’t be naive either and toss our work out there without understanding story mechanics. The results of that have become pretty apparent for many would-be writers. The parallel of the recent indy author craze, from an artistic POV, would be like having several million people splashing paint on a canvas and posting it on Amazon, saying, “I’m a new pop artist, buy my work. Isn’t it pretty?” With no clue concerning design, paint theory, or application…and drawing? Who needs to know how to do that? There’s no form, or reasoning in making pretty colorful shapes, is there? No “structure,” to use the coin of the realm.

I think you might want to email Kerry and hear his “idea.” Might be a perfect venue for some.

Robert Jones February 22, 2013 at 10:53 am

P.S.

A melon and a human meet at what was supposed to be a social gathering–but alas, cultural conflict gets in the way. Isn’t that how most wars begin?

And yet, those clashes of different cultures, opinions, differences, are what drives our stories. Seems like you’ve hit on the key to both concept and theme in a single statement. See how you snuck up on it without any real effort? Two birds with a single shot. Now all you have to do is think about the spark that ignites your current story and do likewise.

Kerry Boytzun February 23, 2013 at 9:55 am

@Sara Davies

I feel your frustration regarding what does a concept do, and a compelling concept to boot.

I’ll wager that I could help you via a voice conversation. Often all we need is someone outside ourselves with the right questions to help us unlock what’s just beyond our grasp. Ping me if you want.

Having said that, I suspect that anyone who doesn’t see what others claim is there will need to look at what everyone else is looking at—differently. It’s like watching the Wind. The Wind is a concept that nobody sees but its effects.

Noticing the effects is like noticing where the Invisible Man has just walked. Forensic investigators, criminal detectives all share these abilities to “look backwards” for the cause. Same goes for “where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire”. That saying means look for the cause and it won’t be staring you in the face either—you’ll have to dig for it and look sideways.

I’m talking about generalities but then one needs to get specific. A concept is supposed to be a source of dramatic “tension”. Let’s roll with that idea.

In life, what causes tension in you that you feel–in your own experience? How about work, when the boss calls you to her office. Or back when you were a student and you heard from the teacher that “The Principal wants to see you in her office. Now.” Myself, I’ve had those experiences and still feel tension when my boss wants to see me. Specifically I’m being confronted by my boss.

Confrontations should cause tension in the story. If they don’t, then the story is flat…dull. The reader (me) is waiting for something to happen. Specifically something that causes sparks. Tension could be Love, lust, something of an emotional want or “don’t-want”.

Pretend you’re at work and a coworker says “did you hear that our boss got called into her bosses office and Mr. Big just blasted the heck out of her? They’re still in his office and there’s yelling and screaming we can hear from behind the closed doors.”

If that was where I worked, I’d be INTERESTED. And I would be feeling some kind of tension. Kind of like YEAH! Bout time the bitch got hers. Then you’re coworker says “oh, I heard today that our Boss and Mr. Big were having an affair!”

Juicy! More tension. The key is that for a story the tension must build from scene to scene (James N. Frey, Larry Brooks). Stories WITHOUT this kind of tension are the ones you find yourself reading to “see what happens” because you’re interested just enough and have been reading that much of the book. But this is only 1 part of what Larry is saying that’s key to a successful (good to great) story.

Story “sense” is also key. A story just can’t have “anything” occur in it. It has to make sense–fit in. Even fantasy and science fiction. Too many published writers create a too powerful antagonistic force that ironically lets the air out of the tension bag. Simply put, “Bambi vs. Godzilla”. There’s NO story there. No contest. The invincible antagonistic force is NOT as interesting as an equally powerful A.F. (antagonistic force) because the invincible AF just does whatever it wants without having to be cunning and outsmarting the hero. Invincible = BORING.

The AF is another specific detail that will make or break your entire story.

Okay, I have to run. Ping me if you like,

Best,

Kerry

Jason Waskiewicz February 23, 2013 at 11:44 am

Concept and outlining changed my writing the most. When I began writing, I had an idea and I would then start writing in hopes of finding out what would happen. I would create a series of adventures and then stop when I felt it was long enough. I wrote 9 really bad novels this way!

I had an idea for the current book too: a boy is crippled on a planet where old spaceships are broken. I’ve had this idea for years and I’m glad I never tried writing it. The idea would have brought me another rambling, aimless book. However, I stopped to think about concept and realized that a book about a boy getting his legs crushed under a falling chunk of spaceship really isn’t that interesting.

Once I had a concept I realized the boy would be a lot more interesting about 30 years after he was crippled. The concept created conflict. The conflict created an enemy, an interesting history, and finally a story. The outline enables me to see the story as a whole, what works, what doesn’t, what is rambling, and what adds to the story and what detracts from it.

I don’t know if it will be a good book. What I do know is that it will be better than what my previous 9 efforts, mostly because I had a concept that gave me actual conflict and adversaries. The outline is not a rambling series of mini-adventures. The adventures are all tied into the concept and lead the plot forward rather than fill pages.

Robert Jones February 23, 2013 at 2:54 pm

What does concept do?

I think we’ve established what it does: Concept establishes the core dramatic thread in each of our stories.

The trouble is, the term “concept” needs defining, or possibly a greater definition that what we’ve all perceived it to be in common language. Here’s the popular definitions:

con·cept (knspt)
n.
1. A general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences.
2. Something formed in the mind; a thought or notion. See Synonyms at idea.
3. A scheme; a plan: “began searching for an agency to handle a new restaurant concept” (ADWEEK).
[Late Latin conceptus, from Latin, past participle of concipere, to conceive; see conceive.]

Now, we could take our little “Case of Ms. Melon,” and ask if it fits that description. And it does. We’ve already spilled enough ink on that “idea” to turn it into an intriguing yarn–humor not withstanding. And as far as drama, hell, we’ve got murder, vengeance, the destruction of a town. It’s increasingly getting out of hand and we don’t even know for sure if it was murder, or an accident.

You could take that basic concept, give it to a hundred different people and they would all be able to write a different story–a very dramatic story.

And therein lies the real problem.

If this idea belongs to Sara, then she has to decide the specifics of HOW that story is going to be played. Because it is “her” PLAN and “her” WORDS that will ultimately make the story hers to own. To copyright, if you want to look at it from a legal perspective. Concepts, that is to say, the barebones of an idea, cannot be copyrighted. What you do with your idea, the specifics in how you develop it, is copyrightable.

Let’s look at this another way.

The definition for CONCEPT, in use with story mechanics (or story engineering/physics) is different from that of the standard dictionary definition listed above. We might define it this way:

Concept: 1) The dramatic core thread, or string of events, you choose to to structure your story.

2) The story-specific path you place your hero and villain upon, and all the requisite scenes designed (by you) with which their dramatic conflict develops.

Example: A rooftop picnic turned into tragedy when Ms. Melon fell to her death. Or was she pushed–and by a human? The case was assigned to Johnny Appleseed, a detective with a hard-cider problem that hasn’t handled a serious investigation in 30 years. Was this because no one took the case seriously, or because no one wanted the truth known? Ms. Melon’s son, Mr. Vine, has taken the entire town hostage. It’s citizens huddling in the town-square as the town is systematically decimated. As the malicious vine closes in, it’s anyone guess how long before panic ensues and lives are lost in the crush. Can Detective Appleseed prove he still has what it takes to find the answers before everyone gets pulped?

See how that paragraph gives the story a direction with drama and stakes attached? Now it has a specific shape, or path, with which the plot can develop along. There is now a thread, or a chain that has linked linked our previous ideas together in a very specific way.

See how knowing that path, or writing that paragraph stating your structural concept gives both the writer, and reader, a better idea of the drama that is about to ensue?

CONCEPT: The links of a specific chain, along which YOU decide how the dramatic events of you story will unfold.

Anything less specific are ideas that could be taken in a hundred different directions. A concepts limits your idea to one specific direction. One “Dramatic Core Thread.” Your design–and not a hundred different people’s.

It’s that simple. Be specific.

Kerry Boytzun February 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

Create a fictional story concept from the non-fiction book that has an amazing story:
http://franklinscandal.com/
http://www.brasschecktv.com/page/22354.html

My concept would have the story told from the POV (point of view) of one of the two private investigators that broke the true life story wide open.

Note: when you select such a topic as this type of scandal, the story almost writes itself as the famous words “Then what happened?” come to life. Granted you still need to observe Story Structure and in this case, have a SPECIFIC concept to lay the foundation of the “story” version of this scandal.

Everybody loves a hot story or scandal–especially when you can read about it safely tucked behind the pages of the book. It’s a very different experience when you are part of such a scandal in real life.

It’s the job of the Writer, the Author, to expose these events, Yes?

The Writer is the answer to “Someone should do something!”

Sara Davies February 24, 2013 at 4:17 pm

@Robert:

I did get Larry’s questionnaire, and am using it with another questionnaire he included toward the end of his book. Both are helping me clarify and streamline what I’m trying to do. The problem now is that there is too much I don’t know about science and military strategy and geopolitics/economics and a bunch of other things, and feel I can’t fill in the gaps without extensive research, OR radically change the concept or approach (such as making it pure fantasy, or shifting POV to a character who wouldn’t need to know as much). 200 pages into it, I feel like the whole thing was bad idea. I don’t know enough to know whether it fits together logically, or if I can make it plausible. The antagonistic force wasn’t just one person, it was two people, and a whole government, and a conspiracy of different factions, all exerting pressure on the two central characters. But I’m at a point where not being able to make it work has taken on global personal significance. I don’t know if I’m the only one who does this – I’m going to guess probably not – but you know how when you can’t do something, and maybe decide that means you can’t do anything, and in turn that means you’re a failure, and then that means that you’re a bad person, and then THAT means that you may as well just lie down and die because you have nothing to offer. It’s just depressing, trying to solve what can’t be solved. Maybe I’ll come back to it later. My husband used to say that no efforts are wasted, that there’s a cumulative effect…learning happens, even when a project is unsuccessful. So for now, I’ll hold on to that little silver lining, LOL.

I’m taking a break, doing some short fiction. Just wrote a 1000-word story about a cafe that’s having an existential crisis, not that that ever happens to me (the cafe itself is the main character). On something small, and in familiar territory, it’s easier to go down the structural checklist and make sure all elements are in place, that I hit every point where it should be. I might do a bunch of these to reinforce, try to get the rhythm down.

It is a drag that no one takes people in the arts seriously (unless they’re one of 20 people worldwide who hit it big)…there is this message that it’s self-indulgent, a waste of time, and people who have “real” jobs are studying something important and saving the world.

I like your comment that a concept limits an idea to one dramatic direction.

@Kerry:

I’m low-tech, so I don’t want it means to “ping,” but you can email me if you want. I’m not much of a phone person – better at processing what I can see and in print. But I think I’m OK on concept now. I need to separate concept from process and from plot. Too bogged down in the details of the story, can’t see the big picture in it. But if you want feedback on what you are doing, let me know.

@Jason:

I’m impressed that you’ve written 9 books and that you’re dedicated enough to keep working at it. Before the macro-structure stuff Larry talks about, I had the desire-obstacle-action-resolution thing down, in terms of micro, scene by scene development, but agree that the broader parts 1-4 and the turning points within them change the whole game.

Zoe Frear February 25, 2013 at 1:58 am

A few more examples of what the core story is in popular reads today woukd really help me I think!! Going to watch some of my favorite movies and see if I can get my head round this elusive thing.

Robert Jones February 25, 2013 at 6:22 am

@Sara–It sounds to me like you have a pretty good handle on your story, except for the parts that need to be politically correct. Taking a break to work on some short fiction is often a good idea. I was going to suggest trying something else that wasn’t already underway before you began learning structure–a light-hearted experiment in putting structure to use that you will not take as seriously as your larger work in progress.

I’m going to leave you with the sage wisdom of some past art teachers of mine, combined with some tidbits I heard from fellow professionals back when I was breaking into being a professional there and was worried that everything needed to be 100% in terms of accuracy.

1) It’s a big world out there, and you either learn to be a great observer and study everything with an eye toward making it absolutely correct, or you learn to fake it very well.

2) Just because a thing seems hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Because whatever type of work you’ve done before, or think is hard work, you’ll work harder here. But it will also be the most rewarding–if you’re serious about it.

3) No one is 100%, unless you happen to be 100% wrong.

Pretty basic stuff for someone who has already put the time into to studying the arts. But it’s worth reminding yourself that those same rules will apply in learning anything new, or striving to grow in any creative way.

My thoughts on your story is based on it being science fiction. Most people don’t know all the geo-political ramawhosits. And most people who have “real jobs” are just putting in time. I think the questions we all need to face deep down is, “How do we want to spend our time? What’s important to us?”

I have a feeling–well, more of a knowing–that people look at a story that is symbolic (sort of a parable for real life) and actually extend that symbolism into reality with greater ease than if you tried to give them all the correct terms, rules, laws, and how people generally ignore those things and try to cheat the system anyway. I also have a feeling if you make up the rules and laws in your fiction, based on your instincts and observations,, they will probably be horrifyingly close to our current reality anyway…LOL!

Secondly, make one villain the “big boss” who calls the shots. Even if the secondary villain believes he is equally in charge of his territory, making his own rules, or trying to cheat the big boss, you still need to have one who villain who comprises the role of chief antagonist. Whether it’s political, or criminal circles, we all know that once that head is cut off, there will be others who want to rush in and fill the gap. But the “main” head is still there for a reason, is always a little smarter, meaner, willing to do whatever it takes–martyrdom for their cause if necessary.

Sara Davies February 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm

As Zoe says, the thread can be elusive, but I think it’s something we can learn to see. Seems like plot and characters are supposed to function as the delivery system for the theme. (Fun indie movie on Netflix: “Safety Not Guaranteed,” about whether a guy who claims to be a time-traveler is legit, how relationships can heal the past.)

@Robert:

Thanks. In four years I completed three paintings that I felt were successful, out of dozens I didn’t like. Meanwhile, other artists could crank out a gallery’s worth of stuff in six months, having arrived at a formula or method that worked for them and kept them producing images of uniform quality like factories. You’ve reminded me of how many nights I would sit there staring at what I’d done the previous day, chain-smoking clove-cigarettes and cursing the walls, trying to figure out why it wasn’t working. The number of times I painted the same section over and over and it still looked weird. Took months to finish one 40 inch by 9 foot triptych, the one painting that is everything I wanted it to be. I think it works because the concept was solid, long before I got to the execution stage. But no reason why writing should be any easier. I don’t want to be slow, but I am slow.

In one of my favorite novels of recent years (Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) the main character is a detective investigating the murder of a heroin addict. The way Chabon writes Meyer Landsman, we spend most of our time riding through the detective’s emotional life, and almost no time looking at investigative procedure or other details of police work, which are treated in passing and barely mentioned. “Theme” includes cultural displacement, loss of faith, religious and political madness and hypocrisy. Despite having the characteristics of a “literary” novel, there is a strong plot line with mind-blowing twists in all the right places. Mind-blowing because they’re unexpected both in terms of the events of the story itself and because they challenge and lampoon sacred assumptions. In the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, a literal or scientific command of the details is not necessary.

Still can’t put in the broad strokes of my story without understanding some of the details that would explain trends. No way to do it without reading a small library. At the end, the main bad guys do get arrested and the prime minister gets kicked out of office.

Mike March 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Concept is just a word. You don’t need to define it. And if you understand dramatic conflict, you don’t need to plan out anything in advance of writing your story because you know that your characters will be involved in a conflict that repeats and evolves and resolves in some way, usually a way that will develop as the plot advances. Situational, or anecdotal, so called slice of life stories, can be avoided by asking yourself this question: “What is the matter?” In other words, what is the trouble? Everything focuses around that, certainly. But I wouldn’t get too hung up on the word concept. There are plenty of words in the writers lexicon already.

MikeR March 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm

When you said, “combine her first answer with the second,” and then presented your version of that … I compared the two preceding paragraphs that she’d written, to the combination you’d done by way of example. And, somehow, it just felt like your combination left something out – something that seemed to be hidden in her second paragraph.

As I played-through the little scene that her second paragraph had brought-up in my mind, it occurred to me that, “there’s another story going on here.” There’s another character – the FBI agent – and another team. If he’s not to be a stock wire-head, he’s got a story too. He’s not just there for a Federal paycheck. (Heh.)

Light-bulb moment: “all three of them have a story of some kind, even though the story we’re reading is ‘about’ the girl.”

Indeed, those are the stories that I most enjoy: the ones where all three are moving along some kind of character arc, all three have something to win or lose, and when the heroine wins (or loses) her quest, you feel the outcome on several levels at once.

Karen W March 10, 2014 at 5:28 am

Here is a genuine question in the light of this great post that I hope someone can answer. Elsewhere on this site and in his books Larry talks about the difference between an idea and a concept. He gives the example of an “idea” being “I want to write a love story”, then says “I want to write a love story set in a NUNNERY” qualifies as a concept. I totally understand the extrapolation of this that he then does into a premise (the cardinal, the child abuse, etc).My problem is that I can’t grasp the difference between the nunnery example of concept and any of the examples above which Larry quotes as being examples of bad/weak concepts: the dragon, the spaceship, the naive girl from Chicago. Doesn’t the love story set in a nunnery also qualify as being too vague as it COULD end “happily ever after” also? Surely it, too, is missing the specificity and core story element?! Could someone shine a light into this apparent contradiction for me, or am I missing something, as regards this particular example of the love story and the nunnery? Cheers.

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