Don’t Let It Sink Your Story Before It Leaves the Harbor
“Idea” is one of the most dangerous words in storytelling.
Every story begins with one, in some form… so what’s so dangerous about that, you ask? Ideas are wonderful things, right?
In the most obvious conversational context, “idea” is a generic term for a creative unit of thought… certainly a good thing. Bring on those creative units.
“I want to set a story in the future, on the moon,” is an example of an idea… that isn‘t a story yet. It requires many more units of creative thought to become an actual story. “Make it a love story…” that’s yet another idea, but still not a story.
Let’s allow that one to sit there undisturbed in this obvious and worthless generic context.
Because there’s another take on idea that can, if not fully grasped, kill your story. In fact, this one explains a significant percentage of stories that don’t work or at least don’t distinguish themselves, leading to a preponderance of rejection slips and bad word of mouth.
In this other more complex and critical context, the one serious writers need to wrap their head around, an “idea” is a loaded gun: what you do with an idea, what you understand about it as a storytelling asset, and most of all, where you point it, determines whether your story lives or dies.
By “do” with it, I’m not talking about how you write a draft. Rather, I’m talking about what you put in the draft that exceeds the limited scope of a simple idea, or even a multi-faceted idea.
Add enough facets to your idea, and sooner or later you’ve reached the level of story treatment. Which is closer to what you need, provided the criteria for a compelling treatment have been honored.
Seriously, there is a certain percentage of writers out there who would take that previous idea I just mentioned – set a futuristic love story on the moon — and start writing a manuscript from it. Hoping to discover the story along the way. And, a depressingly large percentage of those writers won’t understand what they missed along that path…
… which will be something called concept, and something called premise.
Now, before you send me a nasty note… drafting as a means of story discovery is just fine, that can certainly work. How you evolve an idea into a story isn’t the point today. What happens to the idea in your process, whatever your process, is.
There is a preliminary layer of story awareness that resides between the idea and a draft.
Some writers dwell on it, creating notes and outlines, other skip it altogether in terms of writing it down. But no writer can afford to ignore it, because right there in that middle space is where the story takes form. If the idea is the story’s conception (seed meets egg) and the draft is birthed from that essence with an added layer of premise… then this idea-incubation phase is the nine-month long process of creating a life inside of you.
This true for any draft that finally works.
What happens in that incubation phase is this: you summon a concept that defines the contextual landscape of the story (something conceptual in nature), and then you develop a premise set upon that concept.
Write a love story: that’s an idea. Set it in a nunnery: that’s a concept. Tell the story of a nun and an up-and-coming cardinal squaring off with their emotions as he fights off an accusation of child abuse… that’s a killer premise.
Why is it killer? Because the premise adds inherent dramatic tension and heavy themes. The concept only defines the landscape for either of those qualities. And the idea that started it… that was just a door opening.
An Example You’ll Recognize
In The Hunger Games, the dystopian world and the Games themselves are the CONCEPT. Katniss’s journey relative to the Games, to Peeta and to her ultimate role as the poster girl for rebellion… her confrontation with the President… that is the PREMISE.
So what was the author’s idea in the first place?
It wasn’t the concept, and it wasn’t premise. Those were brought to the party after an idea captured the author’s fancy. That’s how it works, even when the idea is itself more concept or premise… you need to work backwards and forwards in that case. As for Suzanne Collins, she was watching Survivor on TV when the Big Idea hit her. She decided to develop a story around the idea that the most dramatic trials of human beings might someday be televised to the general public, live.
That was the idea. Which wasn’t the concept, and which wasn’t the premise. Which, considered alone, is merely a grain of sand on Idea Beach.
This idea-to-concept-to-premise sequence (those last two are interchangeable in terms of which begets the other) is as true for pantsers as it is for story planners. Unless your original idea IS a concept or a premise, chances are it lacks the depth and dramatic potential of a vivid or thematic story landscape. Whether retrofitted back into a story after a draft or two (or more), or leveraged as the opening vision for the story itself, it is the concept/premise level of story richness that makes or breaks you.
It is what turns an idea, any idea, into a story worth reading.
But not by writing the idea. Rather, by cooking up the concept and premise that are inspired by it, and then writing a story.
I’ve been fried for suggesting that writing a story without an outline in place is… let’s call it inefficient.
So be it. It works that way for many, I have no problem with that.
But I’ll stand firm on this one: writing a story without a solid concept and premise in play is simply a recipe for one of two things: failure, or a massive rewrite.
Building Your Story On Idea Beach
If your target is high and you seek a publisher for your book, as well as a readership for it when that happens (or if you hope for viral word-of-mouth upon self-publishing), here’s an ugly little truth: it’s almost impossible to turn a bad or even a vanilla story idea into a great story through the application of craft.
Which renders the “story idea” itself a major metric of the story’s inherent potential, even when it is unremarkable. Where does it lead? Have you given it enough rope, considered enough options, to make sure where it does lead is the best possible destination?
Like Suzanne Collins did with that Survivor idea?
Or did you just bang out a draft, propelled by the idea only, in the hope that something good would happen?
It challenges the writer to know what makes an idea rich and compelling (answer: concept and premise), and then what to do with it once that verdict is in. Of course, in the privacy of our writing space we are alone with that determination, and thus is explained why so many books from good writers don’t make the cut: we may or may not be good assessors of what others will deem to be a good story idea.
We live and die with our acumen in that regard.
The playing field is huge, thankfully, there’s a story landscape for everybody… but even then the writer needs to understand what must be done with and to an “idea“ before it has a shot at becoming a viable, compelling story.
I read and evaluate story plans (many of which represent drafts that have already been written) that are always executions of an idea… but too often of an idea only… without either a compelling concept or premise in play. Or on the horizon.
This is fatal, almost always.
I’ve written about it here at length. Stories that are nothing more than collections of anecdotes illustrating a theme or an issue. A tour of a history place or the observation of something that happened. A character trying to “find herself” through a series of occurrences. The biography of fictional lives.
These are all just ideas. Too often there isn’t a story yet. Because there is nothing (or too little) that is conceptual, and there is no dramatic opportunity or conflict that challenges a hero to earn the name tag (premise).
This type of thing is a story killer. The relationship between an idea, a concept and a premise defines the Bermuda Triangle of storytelling, where well-intentioned writers too often set sail without the right navigation, sensibility or awareness to avoid being swallowed alive.
Surviving this Story Bermuda Triangle requires more than knowing how to swim (write nice sentences), or an interesting idea. It’s knowing how to navigate the waters of a story, with a vessel that is strong and sea-worthy.
How good is your idea? Wrong question.
How compelling, how rich, how inherently dramatic and thematic is your concept, and the premise that springs forth from it? That‘s the question you need to consider, to spend as much time as you need seeking answers to.
The key awareness here is to understand not only the difference between these three manifestations of storytelling intention (idea vs. concept vs. premise), but how they empower a story (or, when weak, cripple it) long before the manuscript itself is even written.
Remember, idea at its best only serves to send you toward something… either a concept or premise.
But unlike your idea… the concept and premise need to virtually glow in the dark to get you where you want to be. There are criteria for that, you don’t have to (or get to) make them up.
Trying to make an idea work, without considering either concept or premise… that’s a sailboat without a sail at all.
Trying to make a concept work without a premise… that’s a sailboat going in circles hoping to bump into something before you run out of fresh water and beans, or before a wave flips you upside down.
Trying to make a premise work without a concept… that’s setting out to cross an ocean without the boat being big enough.
Do you have a story idea, concept and premise you’d like evaluated? Try my $50 Kick-Start Story Analysis, perhaps the best value on the story coaching planet. Because if your story doesn’t work at that level, you’ll discover that any draft written from it will be screaming for rescue, and when it comes it’ll be in the form of a stronger concept and premise.
As for the full Story Plan Analysis ($150), book now for a late March/April slot. This program looks at where you’ve taken your concept and premise through the four parts and major milestones of story architecture, either as intention or in a draft.