Some things in life are not measurable.
Like, which tastes better, a fresh strawberry or a juicy fat beet. The answer doesn’t matter at all if the stakes are limited to you staring into your refrigerator, and while we can guess there is a vast majority leaning one way over the other in this preferential proposition, at the end of the day it means nothing to either side.
Until, perhaps, you seek to open an ice cream parlor and charge money for the dispensing of desserts that call for bright red toppings. Then you’d better understand not only the difference between a strawberry and a beet relative to flavor, but also the difference in how the immeasurable math bottoms out on consumer tastes.
Then again you can open a beet emporium – because you really like beets – and take your chances.
You make the call, and your future rides on how close you come to right versus wrong once you get over yourself. Even if you’re a big fan of beets.
As they say in the lottery business, adjust your dreams accordingly.
Writing a novel is much the same.
There are fuzzy little lines between a plethora of storytelling variables, making definition – if not outright measurement – an exercise in semantics and context. For example, in my experience as a story coach and workshop speaker I’d say that at least half of the working writers out there – including published authors and agents – don’t understand or even comprehend the difference between a concept and a premise.
And yet, the different is a career-maker/breaker.
Understanding isn’t the issue as much as the degree to which concept and premise, as separate story variables, end up on the page as a contributing factor. And that can happen if the author has no idea whatsoever what either essence is, because a keen story sense (or a half dozen drafts after a lot of harsh critique) can get you there.
Does this license ignorance? I think not.
Today’s first of two little mental models addresses concept vs. premise.
Think of concept as a contextual framework – a notion, a setting, a special talent or gift or curse, a time and place, a “what if?” proposition, an arena, a landscape – within which your story will unfold.
Example: a love story set in the Vatican. The setting is conceptual, it draws you to the story even before the story itself is introduced.
Concept is NOT the story. It requires no hero and no plot. When you begin describing hero and plot you are, in fact, talking about premise (which is the summary description of what your hero wants and needs in the story, within the conceptual framework, and why, as well as what blocks that path. Which is a PLOT).
Here’s a quick way to know where you stand on this issue, by asking yourself this:
How COMPELLING is your concept? Or did you skip it altogether, jumping right into premise instead?
In a great pitch, concept should be the first thing out of your mouth.
This matters because readers, agents, editors and book reviewers are looking for something fresh… story landscapes and notions (known in the trade as “conceits“) that are new and exciting and scary and seductive and provocative, even when the premise is familiar.
Aren’t all “love stories” familiar, to a great extent? Sure they are, unless you’ve already rendered it fresh with something conceptual (like, a love story between enemy spies). And if so, how do you bring something fresh to your next love story? Answer: by having it emerge from a conceptual framework.
Here’s the mental model for concept:
An empowering concept, because it has no protagonist or plot yet, can become the landscape for any number of stories (because it is not, per se, a story in and of itself) that are rendered fresh and exciting… precisely because of the concept.
Need an example? A guy in a blue suit with a cape, named Superman.
Think about it. Clark Kent is the hero, not the concept. Superman, as a proposition and notion, is the concept. Hollywood has already made ten different stories (different premises) from this one concept, with more on the way.
Need another example: A murder mystery narrated by the 14-year victim, speaking to us from heaven (The Lovely Bones).
Did you wince when you read the word PLOT?
It may not be half, but a shocking number of serious writers (indeed, this seems to lean into writers who declare themselves as serious) don’t truly understand what the word “plot” means in the context of commercially-viable fiction.
Is there any other profession you can think of where the practitioners don’t even know the key principles of their craft? That get to make it up as they go along, or backed into it after a series of swings-and-misses? And yet, writers stumble into stories that work all the time, often after years and a great many drafts, sometimes without ever truly grasping what finally worked for them.
Any writer who explains their success by saying something like this – “Well, I just showed up and let the characters lead me to the next page” – is a case in point. They are talking about their process, and in that case it is a blind one.
You don’t have to do this work wearing blinders, folks.
Do you have years to invest in a story? Wouldn’t you rather know what works? And then write your story in context to those principles?
I’m thinking you would.
In commercial genre fiction, what works is called a “plot.”
If you’re truly writing literary fiction – Jonathan Franzen kind of novels – then plot may indeed be a ways down your list of narrative priorities. But most of the writers crowding into the conference room are writing romances and mysteries and fantasies and Young Adult and historicals (which absolutely DO require a plot)… and for all of those, you need a PLOT, pure and simple.
The notion of writing a “literary mystery” or a “literary YA” is an example of where so many writers shoot themselves in the foot, believing that their literary aspirations trump the need for an actual conflict[-driven plot. They are so character-focused that they unknowingly drift out of their genre lane to tell an episodic life story of a fictional hero… which pretty much never works in commercial genre fiction.
Think of plot and genre as being synonymous.
That will keep you in the right lane as you construct your narrative sequence. Backstory, episodic narrative, inner demons, and the ultimate story goal of “being happy” or “resolving their childhood”…
… that’s not the recipe for genre fiction. It’s a recipe for failure, because until you add conflict and confrontation leading to something – a plot – the story is incomplete.
It’s like a graduate with a nice suit with no job… nobody is getting paid.
Backstory is good, but it can be toxic in genre fiction when it is over-wrought at the expense of plot. Same with inner dimensions and demons.
But wait, I hear you saying. I read episodic “life story” novels all the time.
Yes you do. But when you look deeper – a process that doesn’t work until you know what to look for – you’ll likely find such stories building toward a resolution, giving the reader something to root for and the hero something to resolve.
If you don’t, you’re reading “literary fiction.” Many highly literary genre novels are indeed character driven… but if they’re published and successful, they will be something more than the life and times of a character. They’ll have a PLOT that gives that character something to do – which is the best way to demonstrate character in any genre – every time.
The dirtiest word in fiction is “episodic.” When you hear it about your story, that sound you hear is the drawing board calling you back to it, hoping you’ll find a plot that will save the thing.
Which leads to today’s second powerful mental model.
Plot is the creation of character and dramatic dynamics that lead to, point toward,that call for, that require… resolution.
A story in any genre (other than literary) that asks the reader simply to observe a character or his/her life… a story that episodically tells the life story of a fictional character without it leading to something that must be resolved… a story that exists to show us eras of a character’s life, novels that read like a collection of shorter stories, moving from one period in that life to to the next… if they are in any genre other than “literary fiction,” the project is at risk.
One of those just crossed my desk, from a graduate of an MFA program, where the word “plot” is likely never uttered aloud. It was a YA, and it was nothing other than “the adventures of” the hero. Unconnected “stuff that happened” to this protagonist, peppered with backstory and inner landscape.
There are magic words found at the bottom line of this issue: genre fiction needs to give readers something to root for… rather than just something to observe.
Ask your reader to care about where it is all headed. To root for someone and/or something, to fear something or someone that is antagonistic blocking your hero’s path along the core story spine. To engage them emotionally, not just because they sympathize with the hero, but because feel and relate to the stakes of the story.
Genre fiction is the antithesis of “slice of life” storytelling.
Plots are driven by stakes. Even in YA and romance, where any and all of the available sub-genres are available fodder.
In closing, remember this:
Good stories are never simply ABOUT something. Rather, good stories are about SOMETHING HAPPENING. Because there are STAKES, because something must be RESOLVED.
These target contexts will be there when your story finally works. It may be an early draft – even your first draft – depending on how well you understand these principles. Or it may take years and many drafts before you evolve the story.
Criticism, other than voice, almost always touches on weakness relative to these issues: concept… premise… dramatic question posed… proactive action taken… pace… conflict… empathy… all leading to resolution of a singular plot proposition.
The sooner you truly understand this stuff,the sooner you will be the driver, rather than the passenger, of your own writing journey.
Click HERE if you’d like to see if your concept, relative to your premise, is in the right storytelling lane.