“Side Effects” (Deconstruction 1) – The True Concept

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by Larry Brooks on February 25, 2013

Wherein we differentiate a killer concept from its lesser forms.

Welcome to the first installment of this analysis of “Side Effects,” the currently-playing film by Steven Soderbergh.  Look for it as a Best Original Screenplay nominee next year… I’m calling that one now.

The context of these posts will be to create learning by using the film to illustrate the core principles of storytelling excellence – the Six Core Competencies, and the Six Realms of Story Physics that empower them.  I haven’t interviewed the screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns) or the director (Soderbergh), so I can’t speak for them regarding the process of developing the story, including how and where where they started.

But that doesn’t matter here.  For all I know (though I doubt it), they backed into this brilliant premise after years of hit and miss.  What matters is what this story teaches us about how to wield tools – such as Concept – to reach a compelling end result, without years of hit and miss.

The Importance of Concept to This Story

And to YOUR story.

The notion of “concept” has been kicked around on this site over the past two weeks, as well as in over 200 Storyfix posts (for the several folks who answered my recent call for topics with “could you explain more about Concept, please?”… use the search bar to find them, listed in reverse chronological order).  The precise definition of a “story concept” remains imprecise,  as does the minds of many on what it means to a story in development.

The mission of a concept, however, it crystal clear.

In my opinion, it means everything.  In general, and to “Side Effects.”

A properly rendered Concept identifies your CORE STORY, without actually exploring.   It is the end-game of the narrative strategy you are about to put into play.  And thus, it fuels every scene with CONTEXT.  When you watch the film a second time (or after this series), you’ll see that context, often sub-textual, in each story beat, even those that appear before Channing Tatum’s body hits the floor.

That’s the first take away, from this or any other story that works: the narrative unfolds IN CONTEXT TO THE CONCEPT from page 1.  (And yes, I know I’m repeating this… and I will again… this point alone can literally cut decades off your learning curve.)

So what IS the concept of “Side Effects”? 

Let’s play a little game with that, starting with what this concept isn’t.

The point is to recognize when – and how – a statement of story concept comes up short, when it’s not good enough, deep enough, or compelling enough… even though it’s not technically off-topic, per se.  For example: you say The Davinci Code, novel and film, is “about paintings by Leonardo Davinci.”   That’s your tale on the concept.  Are you wrong?  In the context of a writer trying to identify the core conceptual story and USE that as a story development too… that’s absolutely a wrong answer.

I see this ALL THE TIME in the stories sent to me.  Which is why I’m pounding on it here.  Concepts that, a) aren’t really concepts at all, and b) seem to be a discarded and wasted tool, a placeholder, because the core story that follows turns out to be something else entirely.

Usually, that’s dramatic suicide.

The following statements of concept all pertain to “Side Effects.” 

I’ve categorized them as either:

-         NOT so good.

-         Okay, but without a compelling story emerging.

-         Sufficient, you can sniff a story here, but it could be better.

-         Nails it.

That last one is the killer concept.  The one they made the movie from.  The one YOU should shoot for AS SOON AS POSSIBLE in your process (ahead of time if you plan, or if you’re a pantser, as quickly in the drafting sequence as possible, so you can start over on a new draft that will be written from this higher/better context).

Because – and feel free to tattoo this to your forehead – this, when you find it, is WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT!!!!!

Let’s be clear, the core story in “Side Effects” is NOT, at its core, a look at the dark side effects of prescription drugs.  That’s a by-product of what IS the dramatic concept, which, as it turns out, is a murder mystery.  That false start is purposeful and strategic.  Be very clear on this: it’s not there because the writer started down one road and took a dramatic turn elsewhere.

One more thing before we begin.

Let’s review the mission, the purpose, of a killer story concept.  It is much more specific and dramatic than defining a topic, a subject, an arena, a setting or a theme.  It is more specific than “the adventures of” the protagonist (the most common shortcoming of too many non-fucntional concepts).

Concept is, rather, a compelling proposition, a question that demands an answer (even if not stated as a question, it implies one).  It brings something inherently interesting and urgent to the story arena.  It is inherently interesting and fresh.

It promises, even by implication, drama through tension and conflict.  It is about something happening.

It is not necessarily focused on the hero, but rather, about the forthcoming implication of a hero’s quest… something the hero must do or achieve.  A problem or a goal.

It doesn’t go anywhere near trying to answer to the question it poses.  That’s not part of the concept’s job.  That’s YOUR job, via the narrative sequence.

And, it does it all in one sentence, or one efficiently stated question.  It’s always a matter of depth and degree… you get to decide on that count.  But the goal is ALWAYS the identification of the CORE DRAMATIC STORY, rather than just the arena or theme or character.

“A story about a blind orphan” is not a concept.  Yet.  “A story set in Ireland in the 1300s, about a ghost and a descendant” is not a concept.

A compelling question leads to a itch for an answer, which becomes the story itself.  You’ll notice that not all of the preliminary “Side Effects” concepts below have such a question… for the simple reason that the insufficient ones don’t really lead to one, other than… “So what? What the hell happens?”

So let us begin. 

Here is the evolutionary thread for the concept for “Side Effects,” beginning with a few story ideas, technically relevant, that DON’T PROVIDE SUFFICIENTLY ROBUST CONTEXT for a dramatic story.

NOT SO GOOD

A story about the dangerous side effects of depression drugs.

A wife kills her husband with the help of her lover.

A story about a shrink and his depressed patient.

A story about a stock market scam.

A story about a broken legal system.

All of these are ideas.  Fodder.  None of them imply conflict, and all could be a documentary on PBS.  None of these are STORIES yet.

OKAY, BUT NOT COMPELLING ENOUGH

“What if a woman on prescription antidepressant drugs kills her husband and blames the side effects of her prescription?”

“What if two lovers conspire to murder the husband of one of them and get rich in the process?”

Why aren’t these good enough, even when combined?  Because a story told from either of these context’s could easily be episodic.  It needs more drama, more layering, the promise of a twist and an emerging hero.

SUFFICIENT, BUT WITHOUT A COMPELLING STORY EMERGING

A story about a wife who kills her husband and tries to cover it up with a profitable market scam involving prescription drugs, diverting the blame to her shrink.  (Which can be framed as a question…)

“What if a woman fakes dire side effects to the antidepressants she’s been prescribed, claiming the side effects caused her to blackout and murder her husband while sleep-walking?”

Notice how this covers it, the whole story is in there, conceptually, even while leaving some plot threads out.  That while this is good, but not great.

NAILS IT

“What if a wife and her lover conspire to create the illusion that her use of prescription depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him  while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”

Each story point, each twist and shift, that you saw in the movie is birthed FROM this highest hierarchical level of concept.

Why is each succeeding iteration of this concept more effective than the one before it?  Why is the last one the best one?

Easy.  The answer is the point of all of this, so please get it: because these are aspects, nuances and focuses the WRITER MUST UNDERSTAND FROM PAGE ONE of the story being written, in the draft that will ultimately work best.  And, it has taken on a compelling essence that was missing, in specificity and degree, from the earlier iterations.

This is the CORE story.  Not the thematic message about antidepressants.  Not a depressed woman driven to desperation.  This is a MURDER MYSTERY, with THRILLER elements driving it.  The fun of seeing this film is in believing you are experiencing one core story, itself compelling, when it fact it’s something else entirely, and has been since the opening credits.  You were fooled… not by trickery, but by masterful storytelling that immerses the audience in the dramatic experience in a visceral way.

Each scene in the Part 1 SETUP is in context to THIS concept.  The movie even flashes back to show you that context, which remained almost completely cloaked in stealth until… the MID-POINT.

Right on schedule, I might add.

Imagine trying to write this story without knowing, a) the drug thing was all a scam, a setup, from the very beginning; b) that there were two women behind it; c) that the killer’s real doctor (not her lover-doctor) had a sketchy background that might implicate him, and d) that doctor (Jude Law) will set out to correct it, with is own character arc at stake.

That, in fact, JUDE LAW is the hero and protagonist of this story.  Try to wrap your head around not knowing that, as the writer.  Imagine trying to PANTS this thing.

You couldn’t   You could use the organic pantsing as a MEANS OF STORY DISCOVERY, but from that point on you AREN’T making it up as you go along.  Because its all now IN CONTEXT TO SOMETHING.

And that something is the CONCEPT.

You must, at some point, come to KNOW what your CORE STORY is… what your story is REALLY ABOUT in a DRAMATIC context.  Your own original “idea” just might sabotage you if you don’t.

You can’t manipulate your reader to optimize story physics, you can’t execute that narrative strategy, without KNOWING.

And how to you know?  Your CONCEPT tells you.

So DON’T SETTLE on this, the most empowering element of your story development.  “The adventures of…” won’t be good enough.  The arena won’t be enough.  The theme won’t be enough.

DRAMATIC TENSION, emerging from your CONCEPT… is what you need.  It is, in fact, the very thing that will EMPOWER your theme and setting, perhaps where your passion for the story began.  Without this concept, “Side Effects” would have been a linear character profile of a depressed woman, more suited to PBS than a mass audience.

You need to fully understand what your CORE story is ultimately ABOUT,… dramatically (versus thematically)… both internally and externally (to the hero)….  beyond its theme.  Beyond its character arcs and internal struggle.  Beyond it’s plot points.

The concept and the core story it tells are what FACILITATES all of those important things.  The theme and the character arc EMERGE from the core story, they AREN’T the core story.

Which is also to say: you need to know how your story will END before you can write a draft worthy of having FINAL on the cover page.

Your statement of concept may not tell you that, but it will tell you what road to take – the most compelling and rewarding road – to get there.

Click HERE to read Part 2 in this series.

NEXT in this series: evolving the concept into a narrative sequence… what decisions are involved, and where to put those story points, using “Side Effects” as an example.  And… it may not be what you think it is, thus illustrating a very advanced and brilliant storytelling strategy… one YOU can emulate in your own work.

Also, I’ll provide a scene log (sequential scene summary) of the entire film, with major story milestones identified.

{ 27 comments }

Robert Jones February 26, 2013 at 5:46 am

Well, my idea of concept just got refined…or boiled down to a single sentence.

Ah, to be a concept, or not to be a concept–’tis the noble question. Now if someone could just explain, “Who would fardels bear…” I think this whole thing would become clear to everyone in a jif.

Sharon Leah February 26, 2013 at 7:55 am

Excellent beginning to the discussion on Side Effects. I saw it twice (the 2nd time, I took notes) and have been looking forward to this deconstruction. As I read your post, I tried three times to identify the CONCEPT. I said that the
concept in Side Effects is:

1st try: The unintended consequences that occur outside of our control.
2nd try: Can they get away with it?
3rd try: Can the imperfect, but good human being prevail in confrontations with evil forces?

My self-evaluation of efforts: I identified themes, but not concept.

As I am in the very early stages of writing a novel, this series is timely. Thanks for your continuing effort on behalf of all writers (including pansters)! I used to be one myself, but gave that method up after one Nanowrimo effort.

Chris February 26, 2013 at 8:27 am

Brilliant as usual, Larry. Keep pounding on killer concept vs. theme, idea, and ho-hum concept. I’ll get it one of these years.

Joel D Canfield February 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

This deconstruction is the most helpful thing I’ve read about the concept of “concept.” This is my year to push my craft from amateur to pro. This series will play a role in that, no doubt about it.

Ron Estrada February 26, 2013 at 10:05 am

You know, Larry, when I got to the last one, the real concept, that was the one where I thought, “I could write the story from this.” It’s only a few lines, but it may take longer to nail down those few lines than anything else in the book. And it’s worth it. Getting the concept right would have saved me from a couple of dead-end plots.

Sharon C. February 26, 2013 at 10:48 am

Larry, Wow, talk about “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I finally get it! To get Concept right, it must be refined and honed and thought through at a level of specificity that enables you, the writer to see the outcome and the reasons for being. I had a career in business, in training and instructional design: I’ve always said that the quality of a program is directly proportional to the quantity of effort put into the purpose and objectives. Know what you want to accomplish – and why – then go out and do it. Your explanation of Concept is the closest thing I’ve seen to what I used to do with Purpose – I’ve been searching for a way to do just that in the world of fiction. It wasn’t easy for me to translate the concept of purpose to fiction, but now with your explanation (and this movie, of course) I see it clear as a bell. Thank you. I look forward to the discussion and further deconstruction.

Olga Oliver February 26, 2013 at 4:28 pm

@Sharon C.
I’ve studied your input, but it raises questions – .”know your purpose, then go out and do it.”
Perhaps, I’m in the shadows of what you’re saying and am not getting it, as that’s easy to do with concept. Ah, yes!
What if my MC doesn’t know her real purpose. She is simply seeking relief from one severe belief and then whamo is confronted with a severe personal betrayal. She is now on overload experiencing this pain and confusion, but she somehow falls onto a route that leads her into a correct unknown. This unknown is her true purpose. What leads her to choose the route she follows?

Dizzy with concept, theme, premise, I just this morning discovered I had watched a DVD of Side Effects that isn’t Larry’s Side Effects movie. Larry was speaking of Side Effects No. 1 and I was into Side Effects No. 2. Judd Law was not in my Side Effects No. 2. How crazy is this? What could such an adventure add to my concept, theme, premise dizziness? So, Sharon, I’m not reading what I just said above. My words might be dizzy, but I can still spell concept. C O N C E P T is correct, isn’t it?

Robert Jones February 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm

@Olga–I’m feeling a tad dizzy myself. But not so much in terms of concept. This post really helped me on that score. I’m dizzy over my ending. And since I don’t want to begin writing, and can’t really complete my questionnaire until I’ve put the final nail in my villain’s coffin, I’ve been at a standstill for several days here.

I think I finally have most of it, and it falls fairly close to everything I originally intended. But after several days of running in circles with it, “dizzy” seems a very apt term.

Tony McFadden February 26, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Very, very timely. I’m plotting my next one, #8, stepping out of the genre I’m comfortable with. Concept is key to this one. I have a feeling ill be spending more time in the planning than the writing this time.

Thanks again, Larry. As always, gold.

Rachel February 27, 2013 at 4:10 am

Thanks Larry – I really like the way you broke this down; especially the “not so good” …up to “nails it” levels. They really help you see how to develop the concept further by combining several story threads to bring out the most dramatic conflict.

Looking forward to the next post.

Sara Davies February 27, 2013 at 11:58 am

Wait – what?

You’re saying the core dramatic story/plot thread is the generative force, and theme is a by-product, something that happens more or less by accident? Concept is in the driver’s seat, and everything else is just along for the ride?

My mind doesn’t want to bend like that. I think about theme before I think about anything else – not “what is it about” in the sense of “what if a man abducted by aliens uses their technology to kidnap other people and sell their internal organs on the black market, all the while unaware that this is exactly what the aliens intended for him to do” but “what is it ‘really’ about,” as in, “a commentary on the trajectory of Hegelian thought from Marx to Habermas.” I would start with that trajectory and try to come up with a metaphor or symbolism for it. I would know what I wanted to say, what I meant to communicate, before I thought about the form the story would take.

Do I have this completely backwards?

Larry Brooks February 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm

@Sara – You’re not getting. “By-product” is your word, I didn’t say that. And, you can think of it in any order you want, doesn’t matter which comes (to you) first, the theme or the concept. In my book I make it clear, you can begin with ANY of the core competencies, but you need to nail them all before the story works. So if you begin with theme, that’s fine. But theme DOESN’T trump the others in terms of necessary elements for the story to work.

What I did say is that if theme does try to trump drama, trouble happens. Imagine The Davinci Code (about as intense a thematic story as there is), without the bad guys trying to kill the hero (dramatic tension). Imagine “The Help” without Skeeter’s book project. Dramatic tension is the thing that allows the theme to be fought for, debated, and to show consequences on both sides of it. If theme is all one cares about, write an article or make a documentary. If a novelist cares about theme, though, they come to understand that theme EMERGES FROM a dramatic story. Even if it came first. Hope this clarifies. L.

Robert Jones February 27, 2013 at 12:59 pm

@Sara–I Love reading your posts. You are not easily satisfied, and I find I look forward to hearing why. And I mean that as a compliment because I believe most of us should think more and settle less, as a rule.

I personally don’t think you have this backwards. But then, you have training and experience in the arts. You can view a story from a larger window, such as theme, and narrow it down to its symbolic components by bending and stretching it to fit your canvas.

I think most people come at writing through what I call the “Stephen King Method.” They have general bits of scenes and ideas, then through writing (locating their story through either planning, or pantsing), they attempt to discover theme by viewing that core story and asking, “What’s it really all about, Stephen?”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read “On Writing,” by King, but he explains how after reading over his novel “Carrie,” all that blood present during every important incident became an obvious theme for the book. It sounds a bit happenstance, I agree. I would’ve probably been looking at the larger issues of peer-pressures, or how as a society we breed antagonism early on, a condition that always finds a way to reap a harvest against those who perpetuate it–but I’m not Stephen King, as my sister-in-law once told me rather exuberantly. I really didn’t think I was trying to be, but I digress….

I think the reason King attempted to simplify theme, is because most people look a bit dazed at even having to think of the notion. They flash back to high school english class and shake their heads in dismay. They didn’t get it then, and want no part of it now. So Larry’s approach at leading folks to theme through finding the core meaning behind their story seems like a valid approach. One that can certainly work a whole helluva lot better than the happenstance (dare I say “King’s”) approach.

Or so I read the method behind the madness. Not being Stephen King, however, there’s always a chance I could be wrong :)

Sara Davies February 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm

@ Larry:

I’m not asking if story is more important than theme in the final product, but which is dominant in the process of generating a concept. Sequence, not hierarchy. Or if hierarchy, only in terms of evolution, not relative value. If it doesn’t matter which comes first in the process, if it’s a chicken/egg kind of thing, that’s good to know.

What you say about dramatic tension allowing the theme to be debated makes sense. I hadn’t thought about consequences on both sides, or a debate, because when I think of “theme” (my past usage of the term as it relates to my experience in media other than story-telling, probably not how you would define it), I think of the emotional core or message, expressed as a statement or as a question, rather than as a discussion (for the simple reason that one image lacks the dimension of time that would allow for a discussion – snapshot vs. movie.) It makes sense that “theme” can’t work that way in fiction. So you’re right, I probably don’t get it. What the consequences are on both sides is a good question to take into my outline.

@ Robert: It depends what you’re used to. When I was painting, which is the only thing I have to compare this process to, I would think first about what I was trying to say. Then I would think of visual metaphors for that content. That’s just how I’ve always done it, what’s familiar, comfortable, and easy for me to understand. Coming out of fine arts into graphic design, I struggled for a whole year because I kept trying to think the same way about solving design problems that I thought about art problems. Because the instructors knew intuitively what they were doing, they didn’t stop to analyze the steps. They couldn’t explain the essential components of page layout because they took them for granted as obvious, and as a result, focused on other things. So I had to learn from someone who could distill the components into a simple checklist: Everything on the page should line up with something else on the page. Does it? OK. Group intellectually related content together. Did you put the phone number next to the address? Good. People see high contrast first, so make the important stuff high contrast. Less is more. You don’t need those extra lines or boxes that aren’t doing anything. You don’t need more than 2 or 3 colors, and you can’t have them. Don’t let your body copy run more than three alphabets long, it’s too hard to read like that. Etc. I can work with specific criteria that describe a measurable and verifiable outcome, that also highlight what the nature of the problem is – what exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve? How people get to theme in their fiction seems like it shouldn’t matter, but if it does, I need to know about it. It’s like I have a map in my head of Wyoming while trying to navigate Florida. Need a map for the territory I’m in, not the territory I was in yesterday. I want to know what all the pieces are, how they fit together, how they work, what they do, and above all, why they work. Not because I’m trying to be challenging for the sake of entertainment, but because I have to work with the brain I have, not with the brain I wish I had. ;)

Seems like Stephen King’s themes include coping with the after-effects of domestic violence and oppressive social dynamics, but if he didn’t think that stuff through and it just came out that way as a natural extension of what’s built into his head whether he’s conscious of it or not? Makes no difference in the reader’s experience. And even if he sat there and decided that was what his stories were going to be about, the filter that each reader brings to the text is going to alter how it’s received. You can’t control how people interpret anything, because they’re always going to bring their own whatever. I mean, don’t you think? It would be a mistake to think you could control that? Direct it, sure, but control?

Robert Jones February 28, 2013 at 10:12 am

@Sara–I think you’ve made several really good points. The differences vs. parallels in going from one art-form to another is something most people are going to take for granted. Even other artists, writers, etc., many of whom stick with one thing they like (or are good at). This can be both confusing and surprising to those learning and teaching. Unless you’ve had the experiencing of switching up yourself.

It took me a while when I first attempted writing a novel to translate visuals into writing from drawing. There are distinct parallels, but I was so busy trying to figure the ins and outs of writing that I didn’t get that I already had probably a better grasp of describing detail than many writers who just came at it through words. I had spent my life observing details, it was just that in doing so, human nature became a greater fascination and writing a better medium for delving into that.

I always have my theme because it seldom changes. It’s usually some aspect of fear because fear–due to my observations–is the greatest of human motivators, tools, and to a large degree, has become a religion onto itself. Most people aren’t living the lives they were meant to live due to fear of failure, loss, or just not measuring up to what’s expected of them by their family/peers. Others can’t move forward due to fear of being cheated, or convinced themselves the world has become too corrupt to even try to learn a new MO.

And if you look back through history, hatred, paranoia, any number of petty prejudices are passed along from grandparents, to parents, to children–and though the anger and general bias is alive and kicking, most of us are fighting battles today that were never ours to begin with, we’ve just borrowed aspects of fear from a time less educated. But how far have we come if we can’t recognize this, or begin to think for ourselves, stand in our own shoes and make our own choices?

And I won’t even get into being supported if you do step out of the box life has put you in. Because while you’re attempting to conquer your own fears, family and friends will be afraid for you. Be it good intentions (the world is rife with “good intentions”), fear you will bring those close to you down as well with your doomed plan, or just plain envy that you might be doing what they have always wanted to do but were afraid to try.

Or maybe you’re just afraid that the world is going to be blown to bits, or taken over by terrorists. Afraid to miss the next installment of news–even though all the violence is depressing you–it just might save you from some unforeseen apocalypse heading your way.

Fear. We all hate it, but allow it rule our lives. And yet, no one is saying, “Stop, I’m done with all this nonsense.” Instead, we give the media higher rating for escalating fear while doing nothing. Remember the big Y2K disaster? Remember how so many people bought new heater, stoves, electronics, because the glitch was going to send us a new dark age? Then when all those objective reporters and anchor-people laughed and told us it was all a hoax we did nothing. We should’ve been sending all the media moguls a massive bill for everything they made us buy in protest. Why weren’t we outraged at the lie? How many other lies are we being told that allows our lives to be controlled?

So fear, it’s my theme. And yes, I’m a tad passionate about it. I’m a tad passionate that many people aren’t, that we allow so much of it to exist and give good reasons, make up rules and religions around it. Make it necessary to keep our social and economic orders in tact.

I doubt I will make everyone who reads my words understand it, or care. But it’s key motivator to the conflict between the characters in my novel. And when it’s boiled down, ever hero and villain ever written will fall on one side or the other of this fence. One for, one against. From the school yard bully, to the arrogant CEO, to the corrupt official/politician–one is acting out their fear/anger of being controlled, while someone else is becoming the victim of their actions. One believes strongly in freedom, the other believes total freedom would bring about chaos.

So when looking at CONCEPT and THEME, and which comes first, I really do believe it is a chicken or the egg scenario. If concept is the core dramatic conflict, then themes becomes the grounds for that conflict–whether perceived, or not, a realized POV, or borrowed trouble handed down from our forefathers–it all stems from the fence of fear. Which divides.

Concept/theme might also be summed up as cause/effect in your conflict. Giving a strong argument for both sides of the fence will strengthen both characters and their conflict. Readers may not grasp all the machinations, but I think every time someone feels the characters are emotionally engaging in a story, it is because the writer has understood the battleground and the reasons each has a stake in the outcome.

Okay, enough babble for one morning.

Sara Davies February 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm

@Robert:

Thanks for playing.

Sounds like a good theme, one with sustainable energy behind it in addition to being a renewable resource that you could come at from multiple angles. That “passionate” quality is what translates to the page. In my experience, it’s only possible to write about something I care about, something I’m invested in emotionally – without that, I got nothin’. It has to come from a real and living place, IMO. Too many people seem to try to paste that on from outside, which is hard for me to relate to. I like your “church of fear” idea. If you have one character on the “order and security at all costs” side of the fence and another on the “live free or die” side, then maybe that is the beginning of the “debate and consequences” stuff Larry is talking about, if we define “dramatic tension” or “conflict” as two sides of the same issue embodied by different characters.

My themes run closer to power, control, ownership, autonomy…all fun stuff that hinges upon the ways people are driven to treat others as instrumental (obstacles or vehicles to goals), and are self-serving (what’s in it for me, 24-7). My story involves the interactions between three groups vying for possession of the natural resources in one country, which is the backdrop for a more up-close-and-personal exploration of enslavement (both outer and inner). The #1 “bad guy” in the story is trying to create a superior race of human being in order to bypass much of what you describe. The rest of them are looking for ways to get more pie to themselves. I’m a little concerned about getting too heavy-handed, because how many betrayals can you put in one story before it becomes a parody? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but not the effect I’m going for.

Would it be fair to say that dramatic conflict is a battle between opposing sides an issue, and if so, is theme what the argument is about?

Robert Jones February 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm

@Sara–I will defer to Larry for the official explanation, since I am still learning all of his definitions and precpts myself. But “argument” seems like a good way to put it from my POV, provided that argument is strong enough to underline and infuse every scene in the book.

Sharon C. March 1, 2013 at 9:32 am

Hi everyone,
My two cents on this fascinating discussion.

@Olga … I see the Concept as the overriding purpose of the piece, it presents my view of what I see the story to be, in a nutshell. It’s not something that can be written in one setting. Just this week I’ve written and re-written the Concept about five times, each with much time in between. Each version leaves me thinking about the overall story arc, and the character dimensions, and what I see the story to be, in other words what can work and what probably won’t. As I understand Larry’s post, Concept is necessary for me to have a cohesive “vision” of the overall story/plot. Writing to a Concept (or purpose or vision) lends itself to a tighter, more logical flow of thought and content.

I think back to all the short stories I’ve written, and one of my big issues was not knowing where to take the story. I had no Concept. Now I want to return to a few of my favorites and think Concept, see where it takes me. I believe that with a Concept in place – as Larry posits it – I will be able to see the story arc and know what where my characters can lead me.

As for my novel … I had the plot worked out, wrote a few chapters, got stuck when I reached the place where I didn’t know how to get “there” from “here” without a whole lot of “dull and boring” in place. Now that my mind is into Concept, I’m seeing more clearly that I need to change the place my story starts.

@ Sara and Robert … IMHO, there are writers who come with a theme and make the story fit it. And there are writers who get the first draft out then see what themes emerge, then in future drafts they edit and rewrite and edit some more to make the theme come alive. I had one instructor each tout the virtues of writing each way. For me, I find the latter is much easier. Get the story out, see what it contains and where it flows and what seems to emerge, then get to work and make it all cohesive. If you haven’t already done it, it may help to read up on themes; I find that I think of them much differently after reading what the “experts” say.

All this said, it may also be the function of the way my brain works. In a right-brained activity/art, such as writing, I tend to be a more left brained writer. I need a plan, I need to know where I’m heading, then when I get something on paper I can analyze its individual elements and get to the real work. I also know from experience that it is much easier for me when I have something to work with (as in a first draft) than it is to sit down to the proverbial blank sheet of paper and start creating.

Larry March 1, 2013 at 10:51 am

@Sharon – thanks for this, brilliantly stated and very helpful. I’m sitting here working on Part 2 of this series, which I’ll post later today, and you’ve inspired a major clarification that I think will help folks focus on the true power and rationale for Concept. Thanks for that nudge. L.

Monica T. Rodriguez March 1, 2013 at 11:44 am

As many people here have said, this post is right on time! How do you manage to always be timely–for everyone (just about)? Methinks there’s a bit of magic involved. ;-)

I’ve been working on the outline to my sequel, as I revise my WIP, and I’ve been struggling to flesh it out fully. It’s definitely lacking subplots, and while I have my major points worked out, it needs more.

Your post made me realize I need to revisit my concept. I did do a little what-if thinking, but I obviously need to develop the concept more fully. Then I’ll be clearer on the direction I want to go with the story.

Looking forward to the next post for some more help with developing that concept! And this proves it doesn’t matter how many times you talk about concept. Even those of us who’ve read about it the first (few) times–and have grasped it–benefit from a return to the issue.

Thank you again!

Morgyn March 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm

One of the interesting things I came away with was start listing your ‘loser’ story ideas. Put on stove and boil down.

It would help immensely to see you do the one sentence/paragraph deconstruct on Hunger Games and/or Harry Potter!

Monica T. Rodriguez March 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm

I’m back with a question. I’m trying to improve my concept statement for my sequel, so I reread your post. I’m trying to grasp everything that’s encompassed and included in the final “best” version of the concept. You said, “Each story point, each twist and shift, that you saw in the movie is birthed FROM this highest hierarchical level of concept.”

Do you mean that all the main plot points of your story should be represented in the concept statement?

Robert Jones March 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm

@Sharon–I totally agree with your statements. Believe me, I’ve refined my concept many times, and just when I thought I nailed it within about three sentences, I had to take the key element from each and boil it down some more into s single sentence.

I think the end result is much like a coat of arms for your story, everything it stands for is symbolized and presented within that sentence.

I’ve come at writing each of my novels–and there have been several–in a slightly different way. I understand why people say you have to find your own way. And you can only do that through practice and experimenting with different techniques. An artist might have a choice of brushes, but here we have only words. I think that’s the folly of many because there are more ways to express a thought than there probably are brushes. And there are certainly numerous ways of approaching a story, not to mention how to plan and undertake its design.

In the end, however, the laws of structure will out. And grasping these tent-poles have certainly been helpful.

I’m finally finished with my questionnaire, but still have to wonder if I’ve refined each of my core competencies enough. Though Larry might be tired of having to tune everything to a fine point, I think it goes with something I once heard about learning. We all have slightly different receptors, and a dozen different teachers/explanations might be made on the same topic, each one conveying the same basic message stated in a slightly different manner. But only one rendition out that dozen will make us say, “Oh, I get it now.”

For concept, I’m glad it has gone through the evolution of each explanation. Because I fine-tuned it a little with each one–even after I understood the basic gist of it. So thanks, Larry, for driving that nail a bit deeper each time. One can only hope you are being forced to refine your own skills and will also be the better for it on some level.

If nothing else, you’ve proven there are many, MANY ways to express a thought through words :)

P.S.: I’m going to allow my questionnaire to sit over the weekend and rad it over early next week and see if I think anything needs further refining. We are all going over these things multiple times. If anyone can get all of those competencies right by not reworking half a dozen times, they are either a master, or a fool.

Rahnia Devire March 4, 2013 at 5:58 am

Hi Larry, I’m watching and learning and loving every minute, thank you.

And, I want to put into play something I’ve learned form you and reality check it. The core competencies need to be integrated, right? So, would it not be better to put the hero at the core of the concept articulation rather than at its edges?

Istead of:
“What if a wife and her lover conspire to create the illusion that her use of prescription depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”

how about:
“What if a shrink find he’s been set up by a wife and her lover who conspire to create the illusion that his agreement to prescribe her depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”

Larry March 4, 2013 at 7:46 pm

@Rahnia — you’ve just hit on something at the 404 level, not the 101 level. And that is… writers who are in complete command can take more risks that writers who aren’t. You’re right, the Jude Law character isn’t at the center of this… until he is. He’s a victim. Collateral damage, at first. But the moment he takes it on, begins a quest to not only vindicate himself, but bring the perps to justice and expose the truth when the cops and everyone else has bailed… only then does the become the hero. Every story needs one, and in his case, it isn’t a tradition path to get there. I’d say… “don’t try this at home,” but do learn from what it teaches us. L.

Ronny Whited March 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

Greetings. As a thought experiment I decided to find out what it would take to turn one of your ‘not a concept’ examples into an effective concept.

I chose to use “A story set in Ireland in the 1300, about a ghost anf a descendant.” It is very rough, but I could draw some drama out of a ghost interacting with his still living family.

Here is my first attempt at a rewritten concept: “In 13th century Ireland, a ghost and his descendant must uncover the secret of his death before it claims another life.” That is a decent, but not great concept. It has the start of some drama, but it could use some work to kick it up a notch.

Finally here is my final rewrite: “What if a man in 13th century Ireland is warned by an ancestral ghost that if the secret of his death isn’t uncovered it could claim the life of the man’s young son, while the man’s wife will do anything to keep her husband from discovering the family dark secret. ”

That is a solid concept to me. What to do you his think?

Larry March 8, 2013 at 10:46 am

@Ronny – what do I think of this? I think it’s a great example of working from “an idea” to a fully robust concept that opens the door to both conflict and stakes. Really solid thinking, a really rich concept. Now go write it. Thanks for sharing this, I think it’ll help the conversation. L.

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