Navigating These Four Writing Dichotomies Will Dramatically Increase Your Effectiveness and Efficiency as a Writer of Fiction

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.

12 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Navigating These Four Writing Dichotomies Will Dramatically Increase Your Effectiveness and Efficiency as a Writer of Fiction

  1. Excellent breakdown as always, Larry. Umm, where did your sharing buttons go? They seem to have disappeared.

  2. Martha Miller

    I THEEENK I finally got it, Larry. This is an excellent explanation. Thanks!

  3. Robert Jones

    Hi Larry…and fellow Story Fixers,

    This post is really very timely. I’ve recently discovered (within the stew of thoughts souping my brain) a genuinely horrifying concept. I should say that my usual discovery of a story comes through its characters. Sometimes seeing those characters in scenes that show me hints of larger discoveries to come. And in pursuing that search, I will eventually come upon the “Aha moment” that transcends the indiscriminate to specificities which reveal the story’s conceptual personality.

    Tripping, however haphazardly, over my current conceptual notion, I wanted to populate it with characters and a setting. So while I was out and about taking care of life’s business yesterday, I thought of a couple of intriguing ideas. By the time I came home, I had in mind two potential characters, an unlikely couple, possibly two people who were attracted to one another for reasons that were questionable, set in modern New York City. “So far so good,” I thought. But sitting down and running with the ideas that originally presented themselves to me, at the end of the day, I had what would’ve made an interesting short story at best.

    Then I got online and checked out SF, saw Larry’s current post, and just started laughing. I recalled one of his definitions of premise being (and I’m paraphrasing) that it is the stage upon which concept gets to play out. Everything that populates that stage ties into premise, and I had married my concept to characters and a setting that were not large enough to do the concept justice—at least not for the length of a novel or series.

    Moral: The marriage of concept and premise is either a relationship that incites growth, or divorce is imminent.

    In the privacy of your own head, you can approach your story any way you like. But if you don’t understand what Larry is getting at in terms of Concept/Premise, it will become a pitfall for your story until you do. Most likely these things will surface as that nagging little presence you know isn’t quite working in your overall plot. Something you just can’t put your finger on. Those kind of problems always come back to foundational issues. Issues that few writing books and web-sites are discussing. And I dare say there’s no place better to learn about those things than right here on SF.

  4. MikeR

    “Yeah, these days you can get a life-lesson in practical (TV …) story production, from Amazon (of course …) … long out of print (of course) …for less than two bucks.”

    Search for: “The Trouble With Tribbles David Gerrold”

    This long out-of-print volume, along with many others that today are still prized constituents of my reading library (such as Gene Coon’s original “The World of STAR TREK”), today serve as bluntly-candid descriptions of the ACTUAL story-making process that existed at that time. (And which, I assure you, still exist today.)

    “Absolutely no one(!) ever(!!) pitches ‘a script’ to ‘an established television show!'” In fact, they must blindly pitch a not-more-than two-page “premise” in hope of getting to subsequently pitch six pages.

    “Let alone … ‘OMG, a Script!’ … which turns into a Rainbow(!!) of ‘Shooting Script’ pages” on its way to what the finally, at last gasp, appears on your black-and-white television screen.

    So, maybe there’s a lesson in this: “Can you ‘sell’ your story-idea to me in just two pages, such that it somehow bubbles to the top of The Pile?” Then, “can you do it again in Six?” And so on.

  5. MikeR

    Here is a YouTube link to a specific interview that was recorded, by the University of California, with David Gerrold, the author of “The Trouble With Tribbles” (the original STAR TREK episode), and of the subsequent books that he has authored about it … now, “so long ago.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oNROwO6n0w

    I cordially suggest that it is still extremely-informative, because it still reflects the challenges that our creative works still actually face, on their way to commercial, revenue-producing, production.

    “Yeah, of course ‘we all loved watching those fuzzy-things raining down on Captain Kirk.’ Now, this is how it actually happened … in the 1960’s.”

  6. After having to do multiple draft revisions for my first novel, where I winged it because I thought that was how it was done, I now don’t begin any first draft before putting plot elements in place. Although I’m a big outliner, what I like about your differentiating between concept and premise and encouraging writers to at least have that worked out before the first draft, is that it allows writers who consider themselves pantsers to still write much of the story on the fly. If they’ve at least fleshed out their premise, then they’re free to pants away on their way to fulfilling that premise.

    Thanks so much for the mention. I enjoyed the workshop a great deal.

  7. MikeR

    Carrie, still-forever burned into “my memory of writing workshops” is this (recollected) comment:

    “If you call yourself ‘a pantser,’ for just how much actual support do you care to rely upon it? For ‘the entire support system for your posterior,’ or ‘just the color of your belt?'”

  8. Mike and Carrie… to your point, so far nobody has lambasted me for saying this in the post:

    “Just consider the anatomical source of your voice when your seat-of-the-pants is doing the talking.”

    Sometimes we have to make ourselves laugh, even if nobody else is.

  9. Kerry Boytzun

    I’ll add to the excellent post and comments that make sure your concept is compelling enough to attract an entire book?

    Concept: family of addicts struggle in Chicago. (Shameless). While this show is very popular, allegedly, myself I can’t watch the show. “Loserville” should be the title. Sure it has laughs but in real life I can attest that there is nothing funny about it. Nobody wins, they always lose–miserably. Do people get off on that?

    Creating a killer concept as in compelling. A concept is an idea. What ideas out there TODAY are compelling much discussion and debate? Is there a story that can be developed?

    Hot debated topics bring emotional heat to the table which is like creating a premise out of nitro–it’s exciting! This doesn’t mean it’s a thriller, but the conceptual framework world is thrilling!

    The trick is to make the premise force the characters to trudge through the muck of the hotly debated concept–this just can’t be a picture on the wall and it’s back to when Harry met Sally (snooze).

    I always glance at the books at Krogers…Patterson must be paying for half the books. His stuff looks the same always–serial killer on the loose…ho hum. Terrorist on the loose…will they catch him…ho hum. Mythical creature lonely, meets human, falls in love…ho hum. Sex in the City…where hedonism is a goal…snore.

    Think of Disneyland. Did I just describe rides you want to be on?

    There is a lot going on in the world that should excite you, positively or piss you off. Can you find a story in that?

    In other words, you can’t make an amazing mansion-premise out of a vinyl tiny house-concept.

    As the girl said in Pretty Woman, “Work it, work it!”

    Kerry

  10. Robert Jones

    @Kerry
    I would argue that all of those are concepts that have proven themselves to work well. You’ve probably been compelled by at least some of those base concepts, yourself. People want to see the bad guys lose, fall in love, see mythical beings and humans interact. Where the above ideas fell short for you is within their premises, the components used to build upon those elemental foundations.

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