Novelists and Screenwriters: Concept Equals “Situation”… and Then Some

Concept is, bottom line, more a CONTEXT for the premise-driven story that emerges from it.

 

Sometimes the context of a story is indeed situational.  Sometimes, though, it is merely a contextual framework that could apply to any number of situations.

“Concept,” as a powerful storytelling tool, continues to befuddle and amaze. 

I’ve heard from two readers on this recently.

One of them dismissed the whole conversation with an oversimplification: “Concept is settingNothing complicated about it.”

That’s true. Until it isn’t true.  Because there are several other contexts that offer a story a compelling source of richness at the conceptual level.

The other reader, less sure and dismissive, suggested that concept is “a situation.”  This is also often true… but sometimes a concept is less situation and more a description of focus and topical or issue-driven arena.

I’d like to share my response to the latter reader here.  Hope it helps clarify.

Hey (reader) – I wanted to respond to your comment about concept equals “situation.” That’s certainly an accurate statement in many instances. But consider this, as well: concept can be something other than “situational.”
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The reason concept is tricky, hard to grasp, is that it can reside in several camps… each of them creating context before a plot or even a protagonist is added to the mix.
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The primary criteria for concept is this: the conceptual “idea” is something that causes someone to say, “now THAT has my interest… haven’t really seen that before, or if I have I want more… so I want to read whatever story arises from that.”
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Notice there is no story yet. Just the context for one.
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It can be a thematic concept, such as “The Help.” What if we set a story in the 1960s deep south, from various POVs of domestic employees? You could argue that this is a sort of situation, but really, it’s not situational yet.  It’s more contextual.
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It can be a speculative proposition, such as “The Davinci Code” – what if the largest western religion on the planet is actually based on a historical lie? Again, not yet a situation, though richly contextual.
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It can be an “arena” – a love story among US troops stationed in Afghanistan. This is only loosely situational, yet completely contextual. This is setting plus context, yielding a concept that is rich with situational potential.
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Concept can strictly be a location or setting: a historical novel set amidst the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The premise could be anything at all. There is no specific situation in this concept, as stated it is pure context derived from time and place.
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Concept can also be a character attribute: what if a rich kid adopts a superhero persona to fight crime in Gotham City? Again, more context than situation.
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While these are, technically, “situations” in the loosest sense, I suppose, most of these are more CONTEXTUAL than situational… they present a compelling context to a story… or many possible stories… that are set within that context.
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From this we can conclude that, as a truism, it is PREMISE that offers up a situation, because within premise there is a problem and a goal and an obstacle, which is the very essence of situation.
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A situational premise, when it works, emerges from within the CONTEXT of the concept itself.
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The risk is having nothing much at all that is conceptual, in any of these contexts. That handicaps a story right out of the starting gate. Just as true is a premise that isn’t situational, which means it is more or less void of dramatic tension, which almost always renders it DOA.
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