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.