Since we’ve been all over this subject lately, I think this is timely.
A reader contacted me about going deeper into an exploration of the differences between IDEA… CONCEPT… and PREMISE. The differences are huge, and critically important in context to story development.
And yet, in casual conversation – even among agents and editors – the lines blur to the point of being synonymous. They may not know or care… but we absolutely should.
The following is a chapter from my new writing book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” which comes out in June (Writers Digest Books).
Below that there are five links to prior Storyfix posts on the topic. Use the Search bar (to the right) to find even more.
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Idea vs. Concept
Wherein we acknowledge that there is a difference, and it is everything.
Every spring, professional baseball players gather in Arizona and Florida for Spring Training. Every single day they drill on basic fundamentals: fitness, batting practice, game situations. And every day they improve.
This chapter is like that. We’ve discussed this topic before, but now we’re going deeper, to a professional level of understanding. This is a potential deal breaker.
I had lunch recently with a writer friend who is awesome. She brought her lovely sister, and I brought my lovely and awesome wife—the prevailing awesomeness was almost overwhelming—and over omelets and gluten-free bread we had a grand time commiserating the experience of writing serious stories seriously.
Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the conversation turned to the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars, the kind where all the women look like they’re on the opening episode of The Bachelor and all the men look like the buzz-cut, cheesy, golf-shirt-wearing guys whose reality television housewives are, for some reason, always chasing down. It was their story, but it resonated with me as a potential idea.
At first blush it looked like a winner. There was a time when I might have actually gone home and started writing it. Because I believed that, if I did things properly, applied the right dramatic forces in just the right places with just the right touch, I could make any idea into a winner.
Hear this: You cannot make any idea into a winner, any more than you can make any kid into a professional athlete, any tune into a chart-topping hit, or any honest Joe into the President of the United States. An idea that doesn’t have winning DNA needs to be morphed into one that does.
The good news is that DNA is ours to breed into the idea, by turning it into a concept with massively inherent potential.
The ladies talked about a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at that famous local club for the past ten years. This woman was beloved by all who had washed their dainty hands or reapplied makeup there. I immediately pictured Viola Davis in an Olive Oyl (not a typo) pillbox hat, dishing out towels and smiles and sage advice for dollar tips.
Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she must have heard. She, it was suggested, should write a book.
A book of anecdotes and lessons learned. An episodic book without an over-arcing plot, which I would have to totally dream up. (See how easy it is to be seduced by the belief that this type of story can become a novel?)
Not yet discouraged, I went in that direction.
A “what if?” descended on me: What if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard? What if she overheard whispers about someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, doing things that shouldn’t be done? And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who knew who might be at the center of it all?
Suddenly Viola Davis (I find myself always casting novels with stellar actors, even at the very first spark of inspiration) was the heroine running for her life while working to help the bumbling detectives find the bad guy before they found her in a dumpster.
I pitched the idea to the table, and resoundingly heard what most writers hear when they spout an off-the-cuff idea, especially to people who aren’t writers (although one of the three is, in fact, a great writer): Oh my God, you should write that! Really! That’d be so cool!
It was breakfast, mind you. No alcohol involved.
Notice that while the initial idea energized them, it was the addition of a concept that got them out of their chairs.
We brainstormed for a while—always a fun exercise—taking it through the First Act to a proposed First Plot Point, at which time the food arrived and we turned our attentions elsewhere: to why some writers drink and others simply go mad. Sadly, these sometimes seem to be the only two available options.
But notice what happened here: The original idea was quickly subordinated to a conceptual story idea. I had no guarantee that the ladies would have been as enamored with the latter as they were with the former, which—wait for it— wasn’t a story at all. It was just an idea. A door opening to a path that led to something else.
We had to turn the idea into a concept before it was worthy of consideration as a project. And that, dear writer friends, is precisely what you need to do each and every time an idea explodes in your brain, before you start writing something from that idea. Getting to the point where you can recognize this paradoxical moment is entirely the point of your writing journey.
This is the most common mistake I see: manuscripts based on ideas, rather than on concepts.
On the way home my wife asked me, “So, are you going to write that story?”
I didn’t have to think about it. My answer was a firm, no-looking-back no. The reason had everything to do with story physics. They just weren’t there for me.
Ideas are just that, and nothing more.
They are aromas, not foods. Promises, not deliveries. Seeds, not gardens.
Ideas acquire value when they point us to something more substantive than whodunit gratification, when they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide.
Ideas should scare the crap out of you. Or, at least, they should excite you to the point of obsession. When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion … now you’re on to something.
That’s the story you should write.
And while that first idea of the bathroom hostess did indeed lead to an idea about an innocent woman overhearing something dark, that idea was, for me, still void of anything magnetic or compelling enough to keep growing it. I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, nor for the social dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story, which was the story’s original energy. I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars—and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting, I admit—but who am I to write this story?
If you happen to like it, have at it. It’s all yours.
If I’d been harboring a thing for ladies restrooms … maybe it could have flown. But no. Perhaps someone who does have that closeted fascination could have grown that idea into something workable.
Great stories demand our passion.
Not that you have to have lived every story you tell. What I’m saying is that you should bring a longstanding, or at least overwhelming desire to have lived it. Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the checkout line at Costco.
It happens. It never ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.
The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the landscape upon which the story will unfold. That’s what makes it work. In Nelson Demille’s Night Fall, for example, he brought back his iconic ex-military hero to investigate the hypothetical cover-up of an exploded airliner (this was based on a real case, TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, claiming 230 souls and igniting conspiracy theories about a cover up). There was only one reason to do that: Demille had a passion for it. Perhaps he was furious about what he thought was the truth.
What floats your boat? How would you live your life differently if you could start over, what would you do, who would you be, where would you go, what would you embrace? These are the questions a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously. Consider hatching an idea from your passion, and then develop a concept that allows you to stage it and explore it.
This crystallized for me one morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show, Alcatraz, in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island fifty years ago show up in present-daySan Francisco and start killing people. They’ve traveled through time. They might be ghosts. But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and they must be found and stopped.
Now that interests me, both on a “what if?” level and a time-tested passion level. I wish to hell I’d thought of it. Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of … and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.
Hmmm. I should look at that. Because the passion for it is there. All sorts
of thematic, dramatic possibilities await within this realm. All I need now is a killer “what if?” proposition that keeps me awake at night. (A side note: Alcatraz tanked, cancelled after one season, despite the strength of the idea and the craft of the people who made it. As William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.” That said, we should pursue that which interests us to the point of obsession and leave our passing fancies on the shelf.)
The books I’ve published were all, to some extent, grounded in something I have an obsessive, passionate interest in. Something I know.
Don’t jump too fast at your “what ifs?”
They are like items on a menu … the picture is appealing, and you know it’ll taste good. But will it nourish? Will it fill you, does it check something off your bucket list, will it give you focus and joy and challenge? Is the idea worth a year of your life? Do you want to be remembered for this story?
These are the questions you need to ask, relative to the initiating idea, before you ask “What if?”
Write from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiosity, a place where issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the drama as much as any characters you can place within it.
Write the story you should be writing. If a story is worthy, you should be feeling the story physics tugging at you even before you write a word.
Copyright © 2013 by Larry Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means.
Story Physics is published by Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
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