by Larry Brooks
A four-part primer on how to compete at the highest levels of the writing game.
The word dichotomy isn’t one you hear all that much in the writing conversation. At a glance it sounds more apropos to a discussion about insects or surgery – “I’m having a dichotomy next week but my insurance won’t cover it…” – and yet, when you drill down into these truths, you’ll find pure gold if you allow yourself to think that deeply.
Sometimes, deeper thinking is precisely what we need as novelists. Because when we write from the seat of our pants, that becomes the diametric opposite of deep thinking. Some writers advocate the opposite: don’t think, just write.
If your seat of the pants is highly schooled on what it takes to make a story work, then by all means, have at it. That “highly schooled” criteria may be the difference between you and the established novelists who love to brag that this is how they develop their stories (and even then, it’s a fuzzy, inaccurate description of what is really going on).
Just consider the anatomical source of your voice when your seat-of-the-pants is doing the talking.
Feel free to right click on the word dichotomy, right here and now, and then click on synonyms within that sub-menu, and you’ll get a feel for where this is going.
Too often writers accept the first thing they learned, or the easiest thing to access (cluelessness defaults to just making shit up), or what Famous Writer X says (almost always applying to their own process, which may not be the optimal process for you) as unassailable conventional wisdom, when in fact, too often, those things are half baked and half true, or just plain toxic.
“Just write,” for example. You’ll hear that, a lot. But beware. Because it’s only half true, and for far less than half of the writers who hear it. You get to decide which half of that proposition serves you.
In this series I’ll introduce four of these liberating differentiations, and explain how harnessing these nuanced understandings will make you a better storyteller… immediately. They are:
Concept vs. Premise
Character vs. Plot
Process vs. Product
Structure vs. Random/Episodic Meandering
Today, by way of launching this four part series, we’ll cover…
Part 1: Concept vs. Premise
Have you ever heard someone describe their story idea and thought to yourself, dang, that’s a killer story. And yet, it may not even be a story yet. This happens all the time.
Or maybe you didn’t think that. And yet, what you heard might indeed turn out to be killer story idea.
For example, if two decades years ago a writer would have said to you, “My story is about a paranormally gifted kid who goes to a school for children just like him,” that may or may not have registered with you as the ignition spark for the hottest story idea of the last half century.
Notice that it’s still up to the writer to make it so.
The idea – the concept – is merely a landscape for the story. The rocket fuel for it. Consider, though, that rocket fuel without a vehicle – the rocket itself – it just a tub full of smelly liquid.
If concept is the fuel, then premise is the vehicle.
It is the marriage of concept and premise that becomes a bonfire of potential in the hands of an author who renders it to the page in a way that leverages all the available tools of the craft.
So when you hear a “story idea” – or more apropos, when you have one that excites you – you need to ask yourself this: what is it? Is it an idea, a story, a concept or a premise?
The newsflash for many is that all four of those are contextually different things, different phases of the story development process. This truth is rendered complex and confusing by the fact than an idea can take the form, or at least the label, of any of the other three.
When a writer attempts to write a draft from an idea/concept that is not yet installed within a viable premise, this becomes the prototypical tormented writer situation. Any draft written from that subset of required awareness is nothing other than a means of searching for, ferreting out, the premise. As opposed to the enlightened writer situation, which is the case when the difference between concept and premise is fully understood.
The goal is to assure that you are the later. That you are an enlightened writer.
This becomes a vernacular issue, one that is exacerbated by some of the most experienced and even famous writers (and reviewers, as well, who mangle these terms on a regular basis). It isn’t that they don’t know the difference, it’s that they have melded them into one starting block criteria, without understanding that the new, emerging writer requires more clarity.
To make my point, let me resort to a ridiculous example.
You’re going in for a medical procedure, and you know in general what the problem is, and what the procedure is, but the terms you use to describe it sound like this: Well, I have a hormone imbalance, one of the hormones is too high and other is too low, and they’re going in to take out the thingy that produces it and put me on some medicine – can’t recall what it’s called – to make up the difference in the right proportions.
Is that wrong? Not at all. But is it a functional starting point for the person who is actually going to do the procedure on the patient? Same answer: not at all. Because it is both incomplete, imprecise and largely, because of it’s over simplification, useless.
Chances are that, in saying that, your listener – part of your golf foursome or the guy in line behind you – isn’t going to ask for more details. And yet… what if your doctor was this imprecise and perhaps confused about the exact terms and parts and substances involved?
Unthinkable, right? Well, as the author of your story, you are the doctor in this example, not the patient. Later, after your book is successful, you can stand in front of a room and adopt a faux-humble context that claims you never really knew where your genius idea came from.
You either knew, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, and the book is nonetheless successful, that genius you are bragging about probably spent a decade writing the sixteen drafts required to finally hit all the right notes.
Concept versus premise: even your favorite author and everyone in your critique group may use the terms interchangeably. Trouble is, you may not be able to get away with it.
Even better, you shouldn’t want to get away with it. Because life is too short, and novels are too complex, to rely on blind luck or some inner instinct that you can’t describe.
So what is the difference?
An idea, a concept, and even a premise – none of those are a story.
At least, they aren’t if they are properly labeled within your process.
And if you accept than a concept and a premise – both of which might be the story idea – are different, which they absolutely are, then you can leverage the power of each to combine them into a whole that exceeds the sum of the parts.
They are like strength/speed and accuracy are to athlete shooting or throwing a ball. Without both, you can’t play in the big leagues.
Concept is very much an idea.
In fact, it is often the first form of a story idea that strikes you. Rarely is the story idea a premise, though sometimes the idea arrives as a vision for a character.
Concept is a framework for a story, a proposition for the playing field and contextual or literal setting for a story, without it being a story yet. Before you add a character and a plot.
The concept for the Harry Potter books is.. simply stated, Hogwarts – a school for paranormally-gifted children. It becomes the playing field, the landscape, for all the Harry Potter stories. For all of those stories… eight novels, totaling eight different stories told from one concept, and one macro-arcing storyline that is born for that same single concept.
Episodic primetime dramas on television are all driven by concept. Take the show Castle, for example, which ran for seven seasons. One concept: a famous author works with a New York detective squad to solve crimes, applying his sense of the criminal mind (as demonstrated in his novels) to the work in the real world. From that one concept comes 182 different premises… one for each episode.
The best example I know: Superman. The proposition of Superman. Alien child crash lands on Earth, is raised by human parents, grows up to demonstrate super-human powers. If you stopped there, and simply chronicled all that… you would not have an effective story. Yet.
Because there isn’t a premise on the table… yet. Because a concept, that concept, is not the premise.
One of the ways to distinguish between the two is to understand that a rich concept can give birth to more than one – multiple, in fact –story. A great concept can become the baseline proposition for a series.
The Hunger Games, all three books and four movies, stem from one concept. Which began as an idea that expanded into that story landscape, and which expanded even further – by adding a hero, a dramatic proposition, stakes and antagonism – into separate premises, one for each book, one for each movie (which were adaptations of those initial three premises).
The upside of this understand empowers you to avoid using a draft to find your premise. When your concept has already fueled a premise that meets the criteria for a story (see the previous paragraph), your draft actually has a shot.
But not until.
Click HERE to learn more about the definitions of concept and premise, and how to apply them to your story development process. Use the Search function (right-hand side of this home page) to find other posts on concept and premise.
Click HERE to read a post from a published novelist (Carrie Rubin) who recently sat through my full day workshop on this topic, and was moved to write about what it felt like to go home and apply this perspective to her work.
And click HERE to access a 90-minute video tutorial on this topic (see video #4 of the five shown on this menu).
Next up in this dichotomy series: character vs. plot.