The Flip Side of “Concept”

However you define it, “concept” is one of the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.  It is an essence of storytelling that becomes a powerful tool in that development process, as described ad nauseum here on Storyfix.  And in my new book.

And since we’re about to deconstruct “The Help” over the next few weeks, the book becomes a great example of what this is about today.

This post isn’t about Stockett’s concept for “The Help.”  That’ll be a big part of that series, as the book allows us to separate concept, theme and idea and premise in a clear and empowering way.

Rather, today’s post is about how concept, as a generic, universally-applied core competency – as a tool – breaks down into two available realms: the creative and the mechanical.

The Help” is a convenient and timely example of both.

The Creative Realm of Concept

At its most obvious, concept refers to the inherent proposition and invitation of the story on a narrative level.  It suggests that if you create a set of characters, then concoct a compelling situation, then smush the two together, literary hi-jinks will ensue.

And that without the smush, something is lacking.

A great concept is the stuff of thrills, chills, drama, tension, laughter, wonder, turn ons, emotions and life lessons that turn good books into great books.  Because, at its core, it is concept that gives great characters a stage upon which to show their stuff, which is the seed from which theme emerges.

When we think of concept, this is what we probably go to.  A “what if?” proposition.  The hook, that stage, the compelling notion of the fiction that is the source of dramatic tension, character arc and the prospect of engaging a reader’s emotions.

But that creative view may not be enough to fully seize the conceptual moment at hand.

Because there is another realm – another opportunity – that is by definition totally conceptual in nature and execution.  And if you don’t address it and optimize it (make the best possible choices in this realm), it will leave the station without you and both define and restrict your story in doing so.

The Mechanical View of Concept

As described above, concept deals with what the story could and should be in a dramatic sense.

The mechanical take on concept deals with how the story should best be told.

This mechanical side of concept is comprised of the choices an author makes about voice, tense, time sequencing, narrative asides and other little tricks and structures that reside outside of the simply linear.

Sometimes – often, in fact – the simply linear is ideal. 

But not always.  When it isn’t, you need a narrative concept (a mechanical concept) that does the job better.

As our first example, let’s look at “The Help.” 

That story is told in first person.  It was a choice, a decision – a concept – made at some early point in the story development process, as it is for any story.  But Stockett didn’t give in to the obvious choice, because there was a better choice on the table, one that wasn’t obvious at all.

She uses not one, but three narrators, all of them delivered in first person.  This, too, is conceptual, and by definition purely a mechanical one.  Third person omniscient narrative could have been used, but that’s a different concept. 

The book is also written in present tense, much like a screenplay (fair warning: don’t try this at home, it’s very risky business). 

Who knows how these mechanical decisions might have impacted the fact of the book.  What we do know, however – based on results – is that Kathryn Stockett’s choices worked.

I’m not talking about writing voice here (another of the six core competencies, one that is completely separate in context and execution), but rather, I’m labeling the means by which an author chooses to deliver a story – linear or otherwise – as conceptual.

Alice Sebold could, for example, have written “The Lovely Bones” as a musical.  Same story exactly.  Same hook, same conceptual underpinnings, same characters and drama.  And if she did, that would have been a conceptual choice that would have defined the entire future of the story.

Or you could have written “A Chorus Line” as  detective noir.  After the fact we – the viewers – take these mechanical choices for granted.  But staring at the blank page, taking them for granted can be fatal. 

Or it can make your career.

Which is why this realm of mechanical conceptualization is so important.

Mechanical concepts become creative by means of their effectiveness. 

Remember “Pulp Fiction”

How it jumped around in time sequencing, showing us what actually took place near the end at various times in the sequence of the story.  Nothing linear there.  That’s a concept, one residing in the mechanical realm of author decision-making.

Remember “The Bridges of Madison County?”  A totally mechanical concept, in that the story unfolded in two spheres of time, with narrative bridging (no pun intended) them to optimize pace, tension and emotion.

Structure, while guided by principles, is very much a conceptual decision, because what goes where defines your story.

Did you see the film “500 Days of Summer”? 

Each scene was labeled with graphic subtitles as one of those days, unfolding in what appeared to be a random order.  Day 365, for example, occurs well before, say, Day 21.

But it wasn’t remotely random from the author’s seat.  The story showed us what needed to be revealed in precisely the proper, optimized order, weaving backstory, false climaxes, abandoned hopes and rekindled passion together into a linear and artful love story that was more about how it arrived at its conclusion than the conclusion itself.

This, too, is a concept.  A tricky one, since a story still needs to unfold in a thematically and dramatically linear fashion whatever mechanical choice the author makes.

In my 2004 novel, “Bait and Switch,” I combined a first person protagonist narrative alternating with third person point-of-view chapters showing what was going on behind the curtain of the hero’s awareness (once again sending a legion of old school writing teachers into a catatonic frenzy).  According to the folks at Publishers Weekly that named it to the “Best Books of 2004” after a starred review, I’m thinking it worked.

A risky choice?  Not really.  I first saw that technique, by the way, in Nelson Demille’s The Lion’s Game (2002), and it blew my mind.  A whole new world of conceptual possibility opened up simply by seeing it done, and done well.

The enlightened writer understands that these two conceptual landscapes– creative and mechanical – are on the table at all times.  When seized early, even before a first draft, the storytelling is empowered and/or tested against a vision for it.  If it’s landed upon during the drafting process, that is an equally valid outcome of the story development process itself, because once that landing occurs, so does the vision for the story.

You can start a successful story without one, but you can’t finish a successful story without a vision for it.

So along with asking ourselves, what would my hero do in this situation?, and, what will make the dramatic tension in this scene go vertical? (these among a long list of other conceptual questions)…

… we should also be asking ourselves what mechanical options – point of view, time sequencing, dialogue style and even how the thing looks on the page – best suit the story and our vision for it.

This is where risk, creativity and courage collide in a brilliant explosion of exhilarating potential.

This is the essence of optimization

Awareness is a beautiful thing. 

Because in an avocation in which we can too easily begin to think that our stories are writing themselves… they aren’t. 

Rather, a story is like a child, tending to wander off to explore dangerous and wasted side trips and bad choices – one of which, I’ll grant you, yield valuable lessons – and it’s our job to shepherd them toward the sweet spot of dramatic optimization and literary bliss.

When that happens, know that both realms of conceptual decision making are in play… and that you have total control over the options presented by both.


Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

9 Responses to The Flip Side of “Concept”

  1. nancy

    Thanks for the clarification. You have discussed concept before. But breaking it down into its two aspects and then naming each one really makes my job easier when I go to apply what I have learned from your blog .

  2. Excellent. That is all.

  3. Interesting. I never would have thought of genre/subgenre choice as a function of the basic concept mechanics. I’m still puzzling over making “A Chorus Line” into detective noir!

    Do you think that the industry pushes a lot of these “automatic” choices? I write genre fiction, and I know that I would have an uphill battle with my agents breaking certain conventions — multiple first in a romance tends to make eyes roll back, while in a women’s fiction, it’s fine. Non-sequential timeline or too much genre-blending makes for some skirmishes, as well. Hopefully the rise of simpler indie e-publishing will help writers like myself get more comfortable with coloring outside the lines!

  4. I’d say all the Six Core Competencies (and the Story Physics) have a mechanical and creative part; a What we do and a How we do it.

    The What might simply be a checklist to run down to ensure your butt is covered. Choosing a POV, tense, and all that is mechanical and should be on the list.

    Once we’re looking at a particular What, it’s the creative/artistic part of our talent which can make it work. And only that talent will make it great.

    About the only part of doing a (new) novel in which the mechanical What outweights the creative How is the initial setup: Create a new directory, copy in the character, beat sheet and other templates, etc.

    Which comes first? Up to you; does developing characters come before developing the plot structure? Concept before theme? Nothing hard and fast here, only that we need to address them all so they can be aligned. To be truely workable, we need to look at all the Whats and How we do them.

    Now go write something great.

  5. @Cathy — you’re absolutely right about this. Genre is, in itself, a conceptual notion. So to land on a mechanical “concept” outside of genre is, by definition, choosing o switch genre. However, the use of voice and time-sequencing within a genre could be a way to push the boundaries mechanically… which quickly becomes confused with “creatively” because it’s, well, creative. A sticky wicket, this stuff. Sounds like you’ve got it, though. What agents say they want at the planning stage often differs from what they say about an end product, especially if its stellar. They mean well, but remember what Goldman said, and then factor them into the decision process, which always remains solely yours.

  6. Thanks for the perspective on concept, Larry. I mainly thought about concept from the dramatic tension standpoint (thanks to Story Engineering), but it makes sense that how you choose to tell the story can enhance or dilute the impact of that drama.

    I recently had a moment of consternation when I realized that my choice of using first-person POV made it difficult for me to incorporate important story elements (involving an interesting supporting character) that happened when my main character wasn’t present. I thought to myself “Aha! That’s why beginners shouldn’t write in first-person POV.” But otherwise, writing in first-person felt so right for the story. I was glum.

    I mentioned my conundrum to Victoria Mixon, and she suggested the same approach you took with “Bait and Switch.” Write the bulk of the story in first person, and use third person chapters for the isolated events that involved just the secondary character. My reaction: “You can do that?”

    So I took the mixed POV approach, and I’m very happy with it. Now I know that part of the reason this solution “felt right” is that it was the right mechanical/conceptual choice for the story!

  7. @Daniel — one word: bingo. Amazing feeling when it goes “clunk” in to place, isn’t it? Congrats on getting this stuff, the road is wider for you now. Keep going! L.

  8. Steve

    A lot to ponder here. In regard to genre: A simplification for experimentation would be to make a sort of “color wheel.” One wheel: genre, one wheel: mechanical execution. Children’s literature with supernatural sci/fi/horror. Clifford The Really Blood Red Dog.

    Using third person for just specific scenes works. Congrats. What about scene specific genre changes to expose a certain characters wild imagination, for instance?

    Screenplay into Novel: Develop a formula for what emotions and thoughts are ok to describe as action? Anger and Love are described but Lust and Jealousy are only shown.

    In regard to “stories writing themselves” mine just did last week…and then this week it went to therapy and asked “What am I? Why am I here?” Happy to report it’s all good (relatively speaking of course).

    Thanks Larry.

  9. Larry,
    Thank you so much for distinguishing these two sides of concept. Wow, it’s definitely the mechanical side that I did not really consider as part of concept when I conjured the term in my mind. Yes, the formatting, the layout, the pacing, the POV, all of these are a mechanical concept and I’m that much more in control now that I know this. I feel like you just added another dimension of competency that I can have over my craft. Thanks for the great examples from Chorus Line and 500 Days of Summer. Those really helped.