Part 1… of a 10-Part Crash Course on Story

Welcome to the 101 of writing novels.

One of the reasons writing a great novel is so challenging is that there is no obvious starting place.  Is it a character?  A premise?  A theme?  A single sentence that won’t get out of your head?

While that argument continues to rage, what remains in less dispute is this: there are a set of principles and essential elements that, before the story works, you need to get right.  With that in mind, this series introduces – reintroduces, actually, since these are the foundation of this body of work, and my three writing books – ten of those essential elements.

Today’s post defines and explores the one that is in the running for that Square One focus…


It’s amazing what can happen when you look at a noun from the context of an adjective.  Want to be thought of as a hero?  Do something heroic.  Want to be a leader?  Be more likeable.

I know, obvious, right?

But when it comes to the “concept” of our novels, eyes cross and shoulders droop.  The reason is that the word – which has a very succinct definition and role within the story development process – is often confused with other important words in the writing vocabulary.  Like, premise.  Or theme.  Or idea.  And yet, it is something different and essential, just as critical as the words it is often confused with.

But watch what happens when you flip the word “concept” – a noun – into an adjective: something that is conceptual.

Boom.  That’s clarity exploding all over the place.

What some writers don’t yet realize is that concept and premise are different things.  Which gets confusing when we consider that concept is a subset of premise.  Actually, you could say (and you would be right) that concept is what fuels a premise.  Because it is entirely possible to put forth a premise that isn’t conceptual – it lacks a compelling essence at its heart – which usually results in a weak or even a lame premise.

But when a premise is fueled by something that is conceptual – a notion, a proposition, a fascinating character (often defined by what the person does for a living, like a detective or a mind-reader), or even a time or place (for example, in “The Help,” the concept was setting a story about racial tension in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi).

The best criteria for concept?  There are two, actually.  First, when a concept works, when it imparts rocket fuel (or steroids) to a story, it stands alone before you add a character or a plot.  And then, when you pitch it, the listener goes, “Wow, now that sounds interesting, I’d love to read a novel built around that notion or set in that place!”

Remember, in this context there is no character or plot in play yet, just a conceptual proposition that becomes a framework for them both.

Want more?  Want to go deeper into the essentials of craft?

Join me (and story coach Jennifer Blanchard) in Portland April 3 through 7, to learn more – definitions and criteria included – about this and many more elements and essences of a successful story… a story so powerful it’s almost as if it’s on steroids… all presented in context to your writing process, whatever that might be.

Click HERE for a description of the workshop, and a link to the enrollment page.

Or click HERE to go straight to the workshop’s website.

If you enroll before February 1, you will receive a TEN PERCENT DISCOUNT on the workshop tuition.


Click HERE to read Part 2 in this series, on Premise.

Next new post, coming in a few days: Dramatic Arc.



Filed under 10 Part 101 craft series

6 Responses to Part 1… of a 10-Part Crash Course on Story

  1. Stephen Stuart

    I think many readers still find your explanations of concept and premise hard to follow. One problem may be that you can’t use the word “conceptual” when defining “concept.” It’s a circular definition.
    In one of your case studies you wrote clear explanations, and then never repeated them. I believe they can be boiled down to equations:
    Start with an idea.
    Concept = idea + potential for drama and conflict.
    Premise = concept + character + story.
    If these are true statements, it would be helpful if you would reiterate them somewhere.

  2. John V

    The real-deal stuff, Larry. THANKS again for your insight… concept and premise–the steroid and steering mechanism of any successful rocket launch.

  3. An excellent refresher. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Part 2... of a 10-Part Crash Course on Story -

  5. Best article in this post its very helpful for me thanks to share this post.

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