The Continuing Chaos of Concept

The challenge of this whole idea vs. concept vs. premise conversation is that anything can be regarded as a “concept.”

I want to write a love story”… is a concept.  It least if you don’t care about the differentiation between those three nuances.

Which you should, by the way, if you want to take full advantage of the story physics that are available to you.  That’s the point, the reason you need to care about this.

This single thing can save your story.  It can get you published.  Because just as true is the fact that the lack of, or weakness in, a strong concept is perhaps the single most common story-killer out there.

Look up the word mediocrity, and it should say: “a story without something conceptual at its narrative heart.”

A girl leaves home to find out who she is”… is a concept.  It’s not even a story yet… but still qualifies as a concept from this more pedestrian context.   And a weak one, by the way, but sadly, many newer writers begin and end with something just like that.

Differentiating idea from premise is easier than trying to jam concept into the equation.  Premise adds a character and some implication of what that character wants or needs, what they will do in the story.

Premise is good.  Necessary.  And always better when derived from an underlying concept.

I’m not going to rehash the definitions of the three players in this debate: idea, concept and premise.  Use the SEARCH function to the right of this post, it’s all in here.

But in an effort to illuminate and clarify… perhaps the better question – better than “what’s your concept?” – might be:

What is CONCEPTUAL about your story premise?”

That particular context – turning the noun into an adjective – is more illuminating.   It is precisely the solution to this problem.

Going to Disneyland is a concept.  Going to Disneyland on a private tour with the ghost of Walt Disney… that is conceptual.

When the ghostly Walt asks for your help in finding his lost journal, hidden somewhere in the park and reveals the location of a hidden treasure… that is a premise.

Here’s an example, paraphrased from a story recently submitted to me for evaluation.

When asked to state the concept of the story, the writer said this:

When a young man overhears a plot against his country’s new king, he must choose between advancing his career to erase his family’s debt and saving his sovereign, all without coming to the attention of the religious sect from which he’s been hiding for years. 

Here’s the problem, one that the writer – and perhaps many reading this – don’t perceive as a problem: this is a premise.

That’s all that it is.  A premise.

Could you begin planning and writing from this?  Certainly.  But what, the agent or editor will ask, makes it remotely worth reading?  What is inherently fascinating about this… idea… concept… or premise… pick the word that suits you, doesn’t matter.

What they’re really asking is: what is inherently conceptual about this story?

And so far the answer is: nothing at all.

In the casual, pedestrian, non-precise and non-professional vernacular of the unenlightened writer, or the cynical writer, this answer is also a “concept”… because from that uninformed context there is no difference at all between a concept and a premise.

Just like there is no difference between a person and a leader.

But there really is a difference… if it is your business to know there is a difference.

And when you grasp it, you add a powerful layer of compelling energy to your story… one that your premise may or may not have going for it already.

Read that writer’s answer again.  There is nothing about it that is conceptual.

It’s just a story.  With nothing that distinguishes it or even energizes it.

This story could happen in any place, at any time.  To simply add “what if?” to the front end – often the empowering tool to find the conceptual layer of a premise – doesn’t do the trick, doesn’t save it:

What if a young man overhears a plot against his country’s new king, and he must choose between advancing his career to erase his family’s debt and saving his sovereign, all without coming to the attention of the religious sect from which he’s been hiding for years?

Does nothing to add concept to this premise.  Big yawn.

So what would do the trick?  Try this:

What if a young man discovers that the religion he has grown up with is more politically-motivated that it is spiritually pure?

That version is two things at once: more generic, and more provocative.  It is an inherently interesting idea.  It pushes buttons.  It generates a tell-me-more energy… even though it actually reveals less about the story than the first version.

Because this is a concept… one that is not yet a premise.

It is something you can build upon.  It is something that your premise can evolve from, and be stronger because of it.

The cynic asks, so what’s diff?

The diff is the recognition of where the emotional and intellectual juice of your story comes from.  And then tapping into it in your story, beginning with your premise.

And thus the cynic remains unpublished.

I would say that easily half of the stories I evaluate have very little about them that is inherently conceptual.  The “concepts” of these stories are really more a premise, but without an underlying source of compelling energy that stands alone.

A premise without a conceptual source of energy driving it is already at risk.  Because it depends, almost entirely, on character and execution.

But when you add conceptual energy – an interesting notion, something that is compelling about it even before you invite a hero into the story – to character and execution, and have them responding to that… now you have something.

Now you have something that can get you published.  Or will sell your screenplay.

Much like story structure, once you wrap your head around this the more you’ll see it in play out there.

Concept isn’t story arc.  Not for writers who get it.

Concept is the source of energy for the story, it is emotional and intellectual fascination and magnetism.

It is the conceptual that we are looking for… something that stands alone as a compelling notion, something upon which you can build a story arc, with a hero, with a problem to solve and therefore a goal to reach, with something at stake.

What if you built your premise from a compelling notion that creates the stage, the context, for the story itself?

Now there’s a concept.

*****

Interesting in seeing how your concept and premise stack up?  Click HERE and HERE for more.

34 Comments

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34 Responses to The Continuing Chaos of Concept

  1. Sara Davies

    The concept is what gives the story its reason for being. Yes? But there’s still no guarantee people will like it.

    Case in point: I saw a bunch of mini-diatribes against “political” content in movies or books. I think what I’m writing about is pretty political, although not in an overt way. Not in search of converts. To be political, you don’t have to be heavy-handed. “The Help” is political. “Dune” is political.” “Minority Report” is political. I think a bunch of John Grisham’s novels are political, just not in your face about it. We all live in the world. It’s hard not to be, on some level, cognizant of the broader social context in which a story has to take place.

    “Conceptual” could be about social dynamics or about psychological issues…but I’m thinking even those issues, up close or intimate, unfold in context to an environment. No one lives in a vaccuum. At the very least, the context contributes to setting or serves as a back-drop for one character’s struggle and tends to color it with meaning.

    Does a psychological problem or quest provide enough juice to fuel a story? Maybe. Thinking of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” which is interesting because it explores the question of whether painful memories are worth keeping. Which is a question I think most people are going to have at some point.

    In the example above for a story, the problem I see is that the struggle of the character doesn’t take place in relation to a broader context – the “why does it matter” context that you bring to it when you ask “what if the religion is more politically than spiritually motivated.” With that question, the story is now About Something, not just About Something Happening. I don’t know if you would agree with this or if I fully understand your terminology, but I would say what is “conceptual” is also “thematic.”

    Which is another way of saying that a story with substance is inherently more interesting than a story without substance. A lot of people don’t get this, and don’t do it – yet inexplicably still get published. To me, their stuff is boring, yet they still have a fan base. I have no idea why.

  2. Sara Davies

    If someone wants to write a story about hunting demons, for example, my first question is: What do those demons represent? They could symbolize domestic violence, drug abuse, the paralyzing effects of fear, religious persecution, GMO foods, standardized testing in public schools, bad manners – it really doesn’t matter as long as the author feels, knows, believes, cares, experiences and connects emotionally with the meaning those demons have for him or her. My theory is, if you connect with your subject matter on that level, you don’t have to be explicit with readers about what that means for you, necessarily – the story can still have emotional resonance.

  3. Robert Jones

    Larry,

    You lost me for a minute or two reading this one. However, gong back and taking a second look at what the writer wrote, I saw the concept, as originally written, comes at the story backwards.

    Here’s the original version, just so people won’t have to go back and re-read:

    When a young man overhears a plot against his country’s new king, he must choose between advancing his career to erase his family’s debt and saving his sovereign, all without coming to the attention of the religious sect from which he’s been hiding for years.

    Now let’s look at again at what Larry wrote:

    What if a young man discovers that the religion he has grown up with is more politically-motivated that it is spiritually pure?

    Larry, being a whole lot more adept at this concept thing than the rest of us, goes right to the heart of the problem…which is the religious sect, which is the core of the hero’s drama, or dramatic threat, not the plot against the new king. The plot against the king is the moral dilemma facing the hero that could expose him to his enemy–the politically motivated religious sect–which has kept him in hiding for years.

    Every problem I’ve encountered in planning my story has taken me right back to the conceptual level. I’m still not sure I have my concept firmly in hand. It’s a story about a friendship at its heart, a recovery from drug addiction. There is a villain, who would very much like to see the hero dead, and the hero must eventually rise up to face this villain in the end.

    So conceptually, if both the drugs and the villain can kill the hero, which becomes my core concept? I’ve flip flopped back and forth because much like Hunger Games, without the friendship/recovery story, the villain is just a man with a grudge, a powerful man, but borrowing trouble nonetheless because he essentially blames the hero for murdering his brother. Likewise, without the threat of the villain hanging over the head of the hero (and potentially hurting others to get to the hero) the recovery would not be as meaningful, or heroic.

    Do I choose the villain simply because he’s the chief antagonist, or because he’s the human element that wants to harm the hero? Or the friendship/recovery aspect because it is the emotional seat that underpins everything else in the plot?

    It would seem I’ve nailed most of my plot, but where I put my focus defines the plot points. But if I make the villain the main threat simply because he’s human and the drugs aren’t, then that means the drug addiction isn’t all that life threatening if the hero is in good enough shape to pursue the villain first and foremost, thus making my story fairly mundane in terms of the emotional seat. Both aspects seem pretty interdependent, or codependent, each raising the stakes for the other. I chose the friendship recovery as core because in the end, it’s a story about two people who accomplish more together than on their own. It’s about a great friendship that became lost over time, a love story, though not a physical one. And if I mention the two friends are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, you may get some idea why a break in that relationship would make the two halves pretty incomplete, and Holmes’s recovery from an addiction gone beyond his control becomes less than hopeful. Yet, without a foe to rise against, Holmes’s ego isn’t going to accept help, or even admit he needs it.

    I believe my choice of the friendship/recovery story to be correct for this story, but every time I read other concepts that essentially place the emphasis on the exterior “human” antagonist, I wonder of the drug and is exterior enough. Without the friendship of Watson and the break in that relationship, I would say not. With so much of the story riding on that friendship reuniting, this would seem to be the factor that sets my story apart from most others Holmes stories, or most stories within that particular genre. Because without Holmes’s drug problem hitting bottom, it’s just another story for the great detective, another mystery to solve with an open ended drug issue for Holmes and Watson to bicker about.

  4. Robert Jones

    “I wonder if the drug angle is exterior enough,” I meant to say. Looks like my fingers got lost, or iPad filled in wrong words there when I hit something wrong.

    Sorry.

  5. MikeR

    As I read this post, I found myself =adding= Larry’s comments to the original premise, which I do find to be an interesting one. This seemingly small addition adds a subtle element to what’s going to be affecting the main character … as a human being … whether or not (your choice) the realization does anything to the premise, the nature of the task that’s facing him, or how he sets about doing it.

    After the story’s done and he’s cashed your paycheck and gone on to his next story-gig, this fictional-person isn’t going to be quite the same as he was. Discovering that the religious operatives in your life aren’t what you thought they were and/or should be, is a very unsettling discovery that a great many readers can relate to. This concept adds things to the story that aren’t deterministically driven by the imperative of the plot.

  6. Breck Toy

    That was one powerful concept, Larry. I was just finishing your post when my email pinged. Alt-tabbed, and there it was staring me in the face…Adventures by Disney Vacations. Ear-ie stuff.

    I’m still looking at how to take “A girl leaves home to find out who she is” and push her into the deep end of concept. Actually for me it’s “A girl leaves home to find a boyfriend,” but close enough. How about “A girl discovers she’s a clone and leaves home to find herself” – has possibilities.

    Looking at past successes: “A girl leaves home and finds herself at summer camp” – Walt liked that one so much he doubled down on it. Or, “A girl leaves home and spends the rest of the book trying to get back” – should’a heard the oohs and oz on that one.

    To make a short story long, it’s easy for us to glom onto the superficial “obvious concept” of a great story and miss the deeper (higher), more powerful actual concept. It’s just as easy for us to focus on surface ideas of our own stories for concept and miss out on developing a deeper, more powerful concept that will drive our stories above and below the surface.

    Thanks for the post; it’s starting to make sense. Right now, I’ve got a headache from wrapping my head around it. I’m going to take two aspirin and re-read it in the morning.

  7. ‘Look up the word mediocrity, and it should say: “a story without something conceptual at its narrative heart.”’ Haha I love it!
    Thanks for this post, Larry! Very helpful. These are tricky concepts, but thinking it through is definitely worthwhile.

  8. I can see combining the Larry’s ‘What If’ to the author’s description (maybe worded more concisely) to achieve a very strong pitch.

  9. Robert Jones

    @ Breck–I think the girl leaving home to find out who she is angle doesn’t work well because the idea is dedicated to the notion she will find something interesting, or adventurous, once she arrives at her destination. So unless that girl is planning something hugely and premeditatively exciting, or dangerous, I think we need to start by giving her a good reason to leave home. Otherwise she’s liable to end up working all day at the coffee barn and studying philosophy–or story engineering–in her rented room during the evening hours.

    Finding her genetic parent after discovering she is a clone, or leaving home and can’t find her way back, are both intrigueing beginnings, but neither tells us there is any type of danger, or urgency, other than the fact she feels a strong personal desire to do so. Is there some kind of health problem the requires finding her genetic mother? Is abducted by slave traders that prevent her ever going home again? In other words, what is at stake in either of these situations?

    What stands between her and her goal? In the clone idea, is she going to spend time trying to bribe lab, or hospital workers, for information about her genetic parent? Because that would be both boring and fruitless in reality unless she has a huge bankroll. Did she find an address that her parents originally had for contact and needs to know if leads anywhere? Did some mysterious person pass her a file containing information?

    And even these questions make no sense without thinking them through. Why would she follow through on some random address? Why would someone pass her a file filled with information? But at least it gives something to play “What if?” with.

    What if she really isn’t a clone? What if she was a fraud in some scientific scheme to get ahead, to win grants, or acolades for her arrogant genius of a scientist father. Maybe he was on the brink of something he has proven since, but needed money and took some crazy chance by faking things before he could prove anything. But her questions and persistence to know more about her genetic mother has brought her father dangerously close to being discovered. He decide that having this little fraud walking around might eventually expose him. His safest option is to kill her. But her foster mother, not wanting the bastard to kill her, but not wanting be implicated herself, mails her a file with enough information to find her real mother–who gave her up as an infant–and hopefully the girl can find her answers and put the pieces together before her father makes good on his threat.

    There’s still a lot of work to be done on the idea before it becomes a well thought out story. The point is, there is reason and danger beginning to surround the girl leaving home, a journey to embark upon. And with time and effort, it might become a story that promises something, that draws our curiosity. Without a very good reason, mission, or obstacles to impede, the girl leaving home is random, not specific. There are no stakes, no vicarious experience for the reader. Just vague possibilities served with a hearty helping of hope that something might happen.

    See the innitial clone idea as a movie trailer (something I always find useful):

    Meet Jane Doe. Witness her packing her bags? Why? Because she’s leaving home to find herself. She’s a clone, BTW. Sorry, we can’t tell you more, but please buy a ticket because we’ve spent a lot of time and money putting this picture together. TTFN, as Walt’s pal Tigger used to say!

    But when you try to get anyone outside of the local writer’s group to “OOH and AHH,” over the possibilities–like, say, a publisher–they really won’t. They’ll go to the next submission, and even if it’s a worse idea they’ll run it first because that person at least promised something interesting would go down, told us what was at stake if she failed. Life is about change and learning. People hate change and associate it with risk. But even if they don’t want to try something, they love to see others take risks. We are curious by nature. In fiction, those risks need to be apparent, or our curiousity is not sufficiently aroused.

    That’s not always easy. But it’s what we are all striving for. Hopefully that knowledge gets you even better “OOHs,” next time around.

  10. Sara Davies

    What if a girl who feels invisible runs away from a home (where her family defines her) to save the life of the one individual who truly understands her (her dog), and is forced to battle the dog’s nemesis (bully, control freak witch) in an alternate reality (Oz) before she can discover her inner strength (the magic of the transporting shoes) and return to her community as a fully integrated person able to love others as they are without feeling diminished by them? Or something. Because Judy Garland. Isn’t that about autonomy vs. social control?

  11. Bea

    Jessica, did you really say ‘concepts’? Argh!

  12. Bea

    Sara, I watched it every year on TV (they’d put in on at Easter time–why at that particular time, I never understood, but I never missed it either), and I must say that even looking back as an adult, the (ahem) theme seems a different one to me than what you highlighted. But I guess the meaning of a story is not by any means the same for everybody, and that’s just fine too.

    We digress, I think; but more to the point: I’m now reading “Story Engineering”, and I’m still on the many pages about premise vs concept vs idea, and so far, I wish I had a better handle on it all.

  13. Did anyone besides me see the utterly hilarious humor in Breck’s line: A girl discovers she’s a clone and leaves home to find herself? She’s a CLONE! She’s looking for HERSELF! I rolled on the floor laughing at that one. Thanks, Breck! I like the “ooohs and oz” too. 🙂

    @Robert: Those are marvelous suggestions. Very creative! I struggle more with what story to tell than I do with how to tell it. I wish I had your facile brain.

    @Larry: Thanks for further explanation of concept. I’ve rewritten mine five times, and I’m still not sure it’s right. One of these days, I might latch onto that $35 offer of yours. Just too busy right now – I have a 200,000 word scifi book to edit and another 10,000 word nonfic book on magazine writing. Doesn’t leave much time for my own writing. 🙁

  14. Sara Davies

    @Bea:

    I agree – the meaning of a story is rarely the same from one person to the next. So why does it work? Wizard of Oz had emotional resonance for you – and for me, and many, many other people – because why? An emotional experience that brings a sense of resolution.

    That sense of a story having meaning, even if we don’t agree or even know what the meaning is, I think of as the tarot card or fortune cookie effect. People bring their own history, emotions, world view, associations, memories, etc. and project them onto the mirror that is a story (or other work of art) and see themselves more clearly. When it works the way it’s supposed to work, as I see it anyway, art becomes a vessel, container, or receptacle for what each person brings. What matters is the ability of the story to evoke or conjure that type of response, regardless of the nature or content of the response.

    The more universally it evokes a response, the more likely the story is to have widespread appeal. But when a lot of people love something that leaves me cold, or I love something that does nothing for another person…the symbolism is not universal. Right?

    What a story is about superficially, in a literal sense, the plain meaning of the words, is not necessarily what it’s *about* in a symbolic sense. Yet in order to write a story, the writer must select the superficial, literal ingredients. I don’t know how to do that other than through metaphor.

  15. @Sara – first off, what you’ve described — in context to the post to which this applies — is way more a “premise” than it is a “concept.” We’re looking for the compelling notion/proposition WITHIN (that energizes) the premise. In this, the existence of an alternate reality where dogs can go to hide. Not being sarcastic… look at what’s interesing about your idea/premise that is separate from the character… that is often the concept. And often there are several stories that can be build from it. L.

  16. Robert Jones

    @Nann–200,000 words…YEASH! I’m beginning to twitch involuntarily.

    I haven’t watched Wizard of Oz in some time. I like the notion that Dorothy escaping social/familial oppression to discover her own strength. I can’t recall if any family prblems were established before she got whisked away or not. Could be an interesting subtext if the witch represented a controlling mother figure. If someone does a modern revival, then the disfunctional family angle will no doubt find its place. Which makes me wonder what Dorothy will do when she wakes up at the end…no doubt as one pissed of chick with newfound ‘tude.

  17. Breck Toy

    @ Robert – the “A girl leaves home to find out who she is” sequence was a tongue-in-cheek illustration attempting to highlight how easy it is to fall prey to the thick of thin concept using Larry’s on-going example (for those who missed the main attraction, see “The Seductive But Deadly Sin That Wants to Kill Your Story” August 24, 2012 – good for a chuckle…or a wince).

    The girl clone finding “herself” was taking a water film depth concept and increasing it to thimble depth with a play on words thrown in for levity.

    That said, you’ve done us all a service by highlighting the inherent weakness of this style of concept, pointing out missing elements and throwing out some great ideas along that storyline. Someone needs to scrape all the spaghetti ideas you’ve thrown at the wall onto a deep (high) concept plate and produce a great story meal. Till then, the girl will just have to bear it. Oh, bother.

    Note: “A girl leaves home to find a boyfriend,” is waiting impatiently for “A girl leaves home to save her grandmother from dying” (obviously, there’s more these stories than meets the page here). The latter just did round one with Larry and will be doing round two in a couple of months.

    @ Nann Dunn – Thanks, nice to know others share my warped sense of humor. You have my sympathy. BTW – I highly recommend the $35. It’s cheap education and you have an analysis on a story you’re intimately familiar with. Nice having an educated second opinion too.

    For those who seek an understanding of Oz, Alexandra Sokoloff (http://www.screenwritingtricks.com ) has a great act 1 breakdown “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Act I breakdown)” (http://www.screenwritingtricks.com/2013/01/the-wonderful-wizard-of-oz-act-i.html). Got me looking at it in a new light.

  18. Sara Davies

    @ Larry – that helps.

    Without the “conceptual” stuff, we’d have “Looper” without the time travel, “Minority Report” without the notion that crimes can be predicted before they happen, “Blade Runner” without an android who doesn’t know she’s an android, “LOTR” without a tiny ring that has the ability to corrupt anyone who wears it, “It’s a Wonderful Life” without an angel giving George Bailey the grand tour of what the world would have been like without him, “The Hunger Games” without children battling to the death on national television. Etc.

    In the example in this post, we’ve got a guy who wants to save his family from debt, but we don’t know the source or extent of the debt. We don’t know why saving his king is important. We don’t know why he has to make a choice between his family and the king. We don’t know what the evil religious people would do to him if they found him, or what he did to piss them off. If I were trying to work with that premise, the answers to those questions might help in the search for concept.

    @ Robert: You’ve heard of the musical “Wicked”? It is based on a book of the same title. The author, Gregory Maguire, posed the question: what if the witch were not bad but just misunderstood, the unwanted daughter whose dysfunctional family thought of her as a freak? He made her the star of the Oz story (and I think Dorothy the villain).

  19. I had to read through this post a few times before it would finally reveal its secrets to me(And at a little past midnight. Maybe my sleepiness unlocked the savant in me.) There is such a fine line between premise and concept in the modern mindset, but you knock it out of the park.

    A concept is the moral, the teeth, the hidden demons which the book throws back the curtain to reveal. Premise is the situation while concept is the dramatic tension.

    Personally I think it’s possible to have a great concept but botch the premise. You could have a concept about the struggle to balance the needs of one with the needs of the many and have it set on a children’s playground. The concept could end up being too big to fit in the premise, so there’s that to be careful of as well.

  20. @Kristen – well said. Your words led me to this: “concept” is the arena, the notion, the proposition, that your “premise” explores. Concept is not the story, it is the stage upon which the story unfolds, AND/OR the ambiance of its focus. Which, as you say, means it could be a theme, a time or place, or a specific situation (“what if you really could raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?”). They can all be “conceptual.” The fact there are so many facets and options is what makes it hard, along with the learned truth that the line between concept and premise is easily blurred (and when concept leads to premise, that can be a good thing.)

    One reader asked me why we need to care about this, suggesting I’m over-thinking it, that a “butt in chair” strategy is more effective and easier (I disagree; if “easy” connects to success in any way, then it’s not easier). But “butt in chair” effectiveness is totally driven by story sense and learning curve, and one learns quickly that a premise without a conceptual source of energy driving it is… too often trying to make something out of nothing. L.

  21. Robert Jones

    Larry,

    Based on your last statement about the concept being the stage, it sounds as if I also have things a bit backward in my own story. So the writer who wrote about the plot against the king taking precedence is far from alone.

    Is anyone else getting a brain cramp?

    Let me see if I am getting this right. It’s always easier to do this with other people’s stories than our own, so let’s return to Hunger Games. That’s about the closest thing I’ve found to getting two plot lines coexisting within the four part framework.

    This is the concept, the stage, the seat of evil:

    What if a reality television program pits children against each other, fighting to the death, as a means of asserting power and control within a futuristic dystopian society?

    That would make the love story the heart, emotional seat, A.K.A. the premise. Thus, if such an emotional seat is what the story is really all about, then it gets launched by the FPP. It doesn’t mean the evil (or antagonist) has to take a back seat, or be diminished in any way by the love story. In fact, one can truly apply pressure to the other, increase the presence of the stakes, and develop reader empathy (vicarious experience) to the Nth degree by having an A plot and B plot successfully intertwined.

    So if I read the riddle correctly, the two plots can be fully loaded, running side by side, so long as we understand which one is the concept (engine), and which one fuels its cylinders. The plot points and contextual shifts will therefore reveal which is the beating heart, and which is the disease that want to infect the heart, kill it, and will support both aspects of the plot–as well as propel them–from one mission driven quartile to the next.

    So, the riddle we need to solve up front in order to solidify our structural foundation is simply understanding which part of our plot makes up the stage and settings and write our conceptual statement from that aspect. Everything else (including all the baggage surrounding the hero) then becomes the emotional fuel that explores, flails, howls at the moon, does whatever it needs to do to survive upon this mine-infested ground. All of which are better known as “premise.”

  22. Shaun

    I swear the more you focus on certain aspects of writing, the more confusing it appears to get. I don’t know how many times you blogged about the concept vs idea vs theme but it almost feels like you’re making it more complicated than it really is. Even though it’s not, really. Does that make sense? Or perhaps I’m making it more complicated than it really is. It just seems like there’s more to think about than just what’s on the surface. What do I get from all this? Writing is no walk in the park. lol

  23. MikeR

    Maybe this: “a premise without a concept is merely ‘a yarn.'” Nothing wrong with a good yarn, but a yarn’s just there to entertain you for a few hours – not to make you think. It sets up a few characters like so many bowling pins, grinds through the plot, then ends. Like a cheap hamburger, it will feed you but you won’t remember the meal. If you ask, “so what?,” the yarn replies, “I have no idea, but, why do you ask?”

  24. Nicole Dimond

    Larry,

    I’m really glad you keep blogging about this topic. I have been studying this concept v.s premise thing for months now trying to get my stubborn, meandering right-brained self to understand.

    (By the way, since I’ve been reading and applying Story Engineering stuff, I’ve gotten mysteriously awesome at solving Sudoku problems. *shrug* I must have grown a new lobe somewhere.)

    All the posts have helped me move closer to getting it, but this particular one has finally done it for me. We get a lot of ideas when we write a story, and knowing what story you truly want to tell, what story excites you and thus will excite readers, really does come down to that core concept (juice) and the focus it will give you as you plan your plot points and scenes. Without this focus, you end up with a confusing and/or dry story, and I have several million words worth of drafts under my belt to prove it. I’m loving this stuff. Thank you, Larry, for your continued support of writers trying to “get it.”

  25. Robert Jones

    @Shaun–I believe that with all the different lavels of learning/mentality, it becomes pretty much a requirement (from the standpoint of many students) that such things be explained in numerous ways. Not everyone who is teaching, however, bothers to take the time and effort to come at a given subject from all that many angles. On that score, Larry is to be commended for his continued efforts.

    From a student standpoint, especially in terms of internet learning, we read all the informations, attempt to process it, but many are pretty much deciding over time and application if they understand…and to what degree. There is no classroom, just a website, and very little participation in terms of good questions from the students. Most just go their own way, and hope they get it over time. Hence, the continued chaos.

  26. Breck Toy

    (Comment re-post from Friday evening with links removed – looks like web site deletes comments with web links)

    @ Robert – the “A girl leaves home to find out who she is” sequence was a tongue-in-cheek illustration attempting to highlight how easy it is to fall prey to the thick of thin concept using Larry’s on-going example (for those who missed the main attraction, see “The Seductive But Deadly Sin That Wants to Kill Your Story” August 24, 2012 – good for a chuckle…or a wince).

    The girl clone finding “herself” was taking a water film depth concept and increasing it to thimble depth with a play on words thrown in for levity.

    That said, you’ve done us all a service by highlighting the inherent weakness of this style of concept, pointing out missing elements and throwing out some great ideas along that storyline. Someone needs to scrape all the spaghetti ideas you’ve thrown at the wall onto a deep (high) concept plate and produce a great story meal. Till then, the girl will just have to bear it. Oh, bother.

    Note: “A girl leaves home to find a boyfriend,” is waiting impatiently for “A girl leaves home to save her grandmother from dying” (obviously, there’s more these stories than meets the page here). The latter just did round one with Larry and will be doing round two in a couple of months.

    @ Nann Dunn – Thanks, nice to know others share my warped sense of humor. You have my sympathy. BTW – I highly recommend the $35. It’s cheap education and you have an analysis on a story you’re intimately familiar with. Nice having an educated second opinion too.

    For those who seek an understanding of Oz, Alexandra Sokoloff (screenwritingtricks) has a great act 1 breakdown “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Act I breakdown)” posted Thursday, January 24, 2013. Got me looking at it in a new light.

  27. Robert Jones

    @Breck–Thanks, good to know. Wasn’t sure if you were unsure, but figured it’s always helpful to someone if we throw some examples out there for further discussion. So I jumped on the wagon because it intrigued me at the time.

  28. Mike Lawrence

    Concept is such an elusive concept that I have yet to see an actual definition. We are told what it does and given many examples, but none of us seems able to define it such that one can point to it and say, “It’s a Hula-Hoop.” Instead, we say, “You know, for kids.”

    Owing to the arrogance enjoyed exclusively by unpublished authors, I will try. Concept is a scenario which is both interesting by itself and the potential source of many premises. Consider the premise: A man reluctantly accepts and then pursues his destiny as saviour of the world. Larry is tapping his yawn-meter because this doesn’t even register. Now, back that up with the concept: We all live in a world that is just one big computer program to entertain us while we fuel a world of robots. There are a few ways to to tell the story of a messiah, beginning with the story of Jesus Christ himself. They all have a man bearing a cross and sacrificing himself for mankind. (Maybe that yawn-meter needs new batteries?) Why is this premise, by itself, not interesting? Why is the same story, told in the context of The Matrix or Star Wars, interesting? I think it’s a simple matter of staging.

    A good litmus of concept is how many different kinds of stories you can extract from it. This does not mean how many ways you can tell the same story, but how many different stories you can come up with. Neo and Darth Vader are characters in the same kind of story. A man investigating the disappearance of his friends and discovering they are being possessed by agents policing the world for a higher power, is a different kind of story drawn from the same concept behind the Matrix: What if we all live in a computer generated world to distract us while we fuel robots? This is actually a weak premise from a strong concept, but the point is that a good concept can yield different kinds of premises.

    By the way, Larry never said you had to do concept first. I think most of us are inspired by something interesting happening to a character. We simply have to stop and dress the set somewhere along the way.

    The reason that just about any premise can be called boring is because it’s already been used. There is nothing new under the sun. That’s OK. That’s why concept is so important. You know, for kids.

  29. Robert Jones

    @Mike–That’s pretty darn good. You can get some good mileage out of that definition. But I’m thinking “setting” needs a bit more clarification…and possibly some expansions into the realm of “circumstance.”

    For example, you could retell the story of the Messiah in the same setting, but alter the circumstances. Like maybe he revealed much more about where he is from, how the earth was colonized by beings from a far off galaxy, or different dimension, adding layers that would change civilization as we know it. Hence, the political leaders of the time killed him and hushing everything up, hiding evidence, so they could maintain their rule, their power.

    Take that hidden evidence of an alien civilization, and have it discovered in modern times (different setting altogether), and maybe you’ve got “Star Gate.”

    Change the setting, and/or the circumstances in a way that arouses curiosity, intrigue, and you’ve added a new branch to the parent tree called “Concept.” And to my way of thinking, defining the concept in a given story is isolating that new branch, coming up with whatever particularity that makes it stand out as fresh and unique.

  30. Nicole Dimond

    Quoting MIke Lawrence:

    “By the way, Larry never said you had to do concept first. I think most of us are inspired by something interesting happening to a character. We simply have to stop and dress the set somewhere along the way.”

    I agree with this. Being a panster type, things don’t kick into gear for me until I have a character. From the character the story gets going and my concept emerges.

    However, while I AM of the panster breed, I’ve learned that it doesn’t take a whole flippin’ draft to figure it out.

    Very early on when I started my work in progress I had the concept and I didn’t know it yet, not by definition. After having tried out many other paths for my character as I’ve been struggling (happily) to implement story engineering stuff, I’ve come full circle back to that initial concept that was what got me excited about the book in the first place. I got back to it because I was getting more and more bored with my book until I was on the brink of letting the sandman have it. I asked myself why I was bored and it was because I was no longer telling THAT story anymore.

    Since I “had it” to begin with, why bother with this concept stuff and work real hard to state it just right? I ask this because I’m close to a loving left-brainer who was concerned I was wasting too much time on it. My answer to him and other left-brained friends is this: because, if I “had it” I would have had a full workable draft by the time the concept beast first knocked on my proverbial door. Which I didn’t. I had a mess–even if it was all in my head. Even after learning about story architecture, because I didn’t have my concept down I could not finish planning the book. I kept getting stuck, bored, whatever. Didn’t work. If you can’t state it, you can’t write it. There’s no kinda-sorta-ing your way through a book that will work, as many of us well know. My loving lefty takes this for granted I think because he can do this kind of thing in a blink. *sigh*

    Disclaimer: I’m sure I need help making my concept even better, which I will be sure to get before I write the book. My newby-ness notwithstanding, I believe a stellar concept lays where your passion to write your story lays, and defining in precise terms where that passion is coming from is the essence of awesome conceptualization.)

  31. MikeR

    At a church that I sometimes-attend, at the end of the day’s message they do a little thing called, “So What?” That question is asked, and there’s a minute of silence where you’re to reflect on what the message means to -you.- (I do confess that sometimes that answer is, “nothing,” but they try.)

    I usually don’t need much of an excuse to consume popcorn in a dark, cool room on a hot summer day. But don’t ask me next-day what the movie was about, and don’t presume that I slept through it if I can’t answer. There are some movies whose sole purpose in life is to sell a bag of popcorn, and there are days (90ºF at 90% humidity will do nicely …) when “somebody else’s air-conditioning” is ALL that I require.

    But not most days … and rarely, if ever, in the case of a book. I want to feel that your characters actually have lives beyond their “work day” (i.e. being cast-members of your diatribe), and that I get to at-least sense it. I can figure-out a puzzle on my own: if your characters are doing NOTHING more than figuring out the puzzle that you have set for them, at the pace that you have set for them, then, “so what?”

  32. @Mike – genius. Thanks for this powerful truth. L.

  33. I. Can. Not. Keep. Up.

    Though I THINK I’ve sorted out that what I’ve been calling my concept is the premise, and lacks anything truly conceptual about it.

    I have a LOT of reading to do.

  34. Hugo

    Hi Larry,

    just to be certain if i understood correctly the differences between concept and theme.
    For example, in The Lord of the Rings books (or movies):

    concept: What if the one ring, lost and wanted by the dark lord, is in the hands of a simple hobbit who bears the fate of the world?

    theme: Good vs evil; friendship; love, lost; courage (a lot of themes here)
    or
    would you be ready to leave your home and confront the rising of the dark forces? woul you have courage to go on and sacrifice your life to save the world? woul you protect, above anything else, your home and your friends?

    Am i correct?

    Regards,
    Hugo