The Secret To a Successful Concept

Here it is, right up front. No elaborate setup. Not even a needs-analysis as a lead-in. We’ll get to that once you know what a successful concept is… and what it isn’t.

The secret of a successful concept is to move from the situational to the actionable.

From a state-of-being to a call-to-action.

From a snapshot toward a moving and evolving set of images and possibilities.

From an explanation to a proposition.

From a character to a journey.

From a story about something to a story about something dramatic.

That last one is the whole enchilada.

Because it forces you to understand what the term “dramatic” means in the context of storytelling. What it means to you, as the writer. You’d be surprised how many writers don’t understand that term.  I see it all the time in the story coaching I do.

In fact, it is this particular understanding that separates the published from the unpublished. Right there, squeezed into that little metaphoric tortilla. The whole meal deal… is drama.

I’m not referring to “high concept” versus character-driven stories.  Both require drama, summoned to the narrative through conflict.

What drama means leads to one thing, above and in addition to all else. It leads to the possibility and implication of – here comes the most important word in all of fiction – conflict.

Until you get the possibility and/or implication of conflict into your statement of CONCEPT, either directly or through implication, then that statement isn’t sufficient. It isn’t good enough, in that it isn’t rich enough.

To put this a bit more more positively… it isn’t done yet.  Which means it isn’t ready yet.

And that, too, separates the published from the unpublished.

The latter writes what they deem to be final drafts from concepts that aren’t complete. Aren’t finished. Aren’t inherently dramatic… enough.

You’re still searching for your story if you can’t describe your story in a way that shines a light on the forthcoming conflict within it. And that’s why you need to get this nuance down pat… the difference between an idea and a concept that is deep and promising enough for the story itself.

I ask everyone I work with this question: What’s your concept?

In the workshops I give, in the conversations I have with those who say they want to write a book, and as the lead question in my story coaching process.

Too often I get answers that aren’t concepts at all. Oh, the writers think they are, they’re all excited about them… but they’re not. They’re ideas. Situations. They’re static snapshots in time, rather than dramatic sequences of time.

“What’s your concept?” I asked.  “Well, my story is about my grandmother growing up in Iowa,” she answers.

Not a concept.  Just an idea.  Not a sequence of dramatic events, but a snapshot of a woman standing in a field of corn.  At least at this point in the story’s development.

That’s the seductive trap: Concepts that sound like stories, but aren’t.

The trap snaps shut on you – it devours you – when your start writing from that undeveloped idea, rather than from a sufficiently dramatic concept.  The is knowing when it’s no longer un-developed.

“But wait”… I can hear you pantsers yelling. “That’s not how I write! I like to discover my story as I go along!”

Nann Dunne and many of her commenters talked about this in the most recent (before this) Storyfix post. Me too… many times. This is another key difference between the published and the unpublished: published authors… whether they plan, pants or do some combination of both… understand when they are still searching for a story, and when they have found it.  And, thus, when they can now write a draft that works optimally well.

There’s another helping of whole enchilada for you. This is a deal breaker… and it is often broken right at the opening gate, where concept creates the landscape for everything in the story.

Your concept needs to be deep and wide… and promise drama.

If it doesn’t,  then you need to remain in search mode until it does. And, you’ll have a completely different and better (sufficient) answer to my question – what’s your concept? – when it does.

The classic non-conceptual concept: What I did on my summer vacation.

“Concept” is a relative term. As storytellers, we need to not accept the thin end of that stick and shoot for the loaded end, where dramatic weight, thematic resonance, freshness and compelling energy reside.

The following are concepts that, for writers, aren’t conceptual enough:

A story about growing up on a farm.

A story about having the bank delivering a foreclosure notice.

A story about finding your birth mother.

A story about a boy going to another planet or dimension.

Notice what these have in common: there’s so clear hint or promise of drama. There is nothing that sets them apart from, well, a diary of a character engaged in these journeys. There is no conflict… yet.  Even if the arenas are vivid.

It’s not that they’re bad. It’s just that they’re not done yet. And the draft that is written from these incomplete concepts will suffer for it.

The Key: Moving from “idea” and “arena” toward “dramatic possibility.”

Here are those same concepts, rewritten with drama and conflict leaping out form between the words. The former were ideas and arenas… these are concepts:

A story about growing up on a farm… as a black slave in love with his white master’s daughter in 1861 South Carolina? Or, set in 1961, with the term “slave” being relative, in that case.

A story about having the bank delivering a foreclosure notice… when the hero knows the banker is taking revenge after his exposure in an affair with his wife.

A story about finding your birth mother… and discovering she is, in fact, your sister, too… who is now a U.S. Senator.

A story about a boy going to another planet or dimension… to find a cure for a fatal disease that is about to wipe out mankind, beginning with his father, who is the scientist that can make it happen.

Drama… conflict… plot… character arc… across the board. And in way that the original “ideas” didn’t define or promise.

Of course, all of these would benefit from a transformation into a “what if?” proposition… written as a propositionthat does two things:

1. Asks a compelling question that elicits a hunger for an answer… and,
2. leads to other dramatic questions that resides either higher or lower than the initial one in the hierarchy of the story’s dramatic roots.

For example: “What if a boy grows up as a slave in 1961 South Carolina and falls in love with his master’s daughter? What if that daughter is half-white, from his relationship with an other slave years before? What if that slave has hidden the fact she is, in fact, his mother? What if she is killed by the master before the truth is revealed? What if she left her son a hidden note, to be delivered if anything ever happened to her? What if he is forced to choose between his new love and her father, the master who murdered who he now knows is his mother?

Concepts are seeds.

They grow and spread. It is our job to cultivate and weed out what works, what flows in a direction that creates the best dramatic garden possible, rather than a field of wild flowers.

It’s good to know what you’ve got before you begin to water them. Especially if your end-game is to sell what you’ve grown and feed an audience with it.

It begins with a concept that is enough. With these standards on the table, you get to decide when that happens.


If you’d like to see if your concept is deep and wide enough, in a dramatic sense… click HERE.

If you’d like to see if the story you’ve written or are planning fulfills the promise of your concept, click HERE.


WANTED: A WordPress guru or expert who can help me fix a problem. I’m developing a new website for a book I’ve written in another niche (not about writing… it’s about successful relationships), and in the process of getting the new site up and running I inadvertently screwed up, rendering the site inaccessible, either to me through the WordPress sign-in (where I need to delete the plug-ins that caused this problem), or through the URL itself. If you can point me toward a resource that can help with this, I’d be most grateful.

In fact, I’ll offer a FREE $100 story review to the first writer/blogger who can make this problem go away. Email me at:


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

37 Responses to The Secret To a Successful Concept

  1. Larry,
    Love this post. Super tutorial on getting over the hump of writing. Having an idea and having a real story …concept…clearly are two different beasts and you made it clear how to seperate them. Thanks!
    As for your set up problem, send an email to wordpress via your “working” blog and explain your connundrum. Ive found them sepedy and helpful. I have also had good luck just googling the problem desciption and finding step by step fix instructions that way 🙂
    Neither of these will cost you $100

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  3. Hi Larry! For your wordpress problem (I’m a blogger myself), you need to use FTP to access your blog. That’s kind of like a back door for your site.

    When you set up your blog, your hosting company should have given you an FTP address (host, in Filezilla, which is what I use), username, and password. These are what you will use to access your wp blog.

    If you don’t remember what these are, just call and ask your hosting company for the info again.

    1) Download Filezilla (free):
    2) Install on your computer.
    3) Enter the host name (the special address your web host gave you), your username, and port number (usually 21).
    4) It will automatically connect after a few seconds- you’ll see this in the pane directly underneath that it says “directory listing successful,” and on the bottom right, you’ll see the files of your wp site. The one you need says “wordpress.”

    Now you need to get into the right folder and disable your plugins. Here’s how you do that:
    1) Double-click on the file that says wordpress.
    2) It will open up, and you’ll see several files. You want the one that says “wp-content.”
    3) Double click that, and it will open up.
    4) You’ll see a folder marked “plugins.” Double click it.
    5) Now you’ll see a list of the plugins you have on your site.
    6) If you know what plugin messed you up, just delete that folder.
    7) Click once on the folder, right-click, and choose delete from the menu.
    8) Go back to your wp admin (where it requests your admin name and password) and you’ll get access.

    If you don’t know which plugin did it, here’s what you do:
    1) open up the wp-content folder.
    2) find the folder named “plugins.”
    3) rename it to something else, like “plugins1.” You can do this by right clicking the file named plugins, where there is an option to rename.
    4) This will automatically inactivate all of your plugins. You’ll be able to go back into your site, and activate only one plugin at a time.
    5) If your site dies after activating one plugin, you’ll know it was that plugin, and you can get rid of it and find another one that’s more compatible.
    6) When you find the one that is the problem, and have taken care of things, go back to your plugin file.
    7) Rename it back to “plugins,” (what it was before) and everything will work again.

    Hope that works for you! I’d love to get a free story review! If you have any more questions (or would like to exchange more story help for wp help) you can e-mail me directly.

    Good luck!

  4. A story about my grandmother who lived happily ever after in Topeka Kansas. What if she was orphaned at the age of ten in Iowa. What if she ran away from that home when she was seventeen. What if she survived four years “in the system.” What if she found her way to a boarder town in TX. hoping to find a diamond ring in the lost and found. What if she married the man with the diamond ring? What if he was shot six weeks after the wedding. ( Close to if not the first plot point. Her response launches her story or does it?) What if She takes Holy Orders and enters a Convent. ( Oops. Is this going to be my grandmothers response?) What if in the still of the night the Convent is robbed. What if she recognizes the theif as the man who shot her husband. What if the Habit comes off and the pistol is strapped on?

    I’m thinking you can actually “pants” your way to a story outline this way. This sure beats writing ever last scene etc before you even decided “when” it happened.

    Another neat thing. I could junk the whole “this is a story about my grandmother” and let it roll into a character based on my grandmother who was a character.

    The “What if…” is great Thank you.

  5. Susan Kelly

    Another really great post, Larry. I don’t know why something that seems like it should be simple, is instead SO HARD! Thanks for your efforts to set us out on the path to writing a great suspenseful book!

  6. @Larry
    I’m fascinated. I figured your current entry would light the place up with responses.

    This one is the mother lode. All that is story structure flows out of it. All the “points” of the structure can be built into, what maybe twelve to fifteen sentences that begin with “What if…” ?

    As I fiddle with it I noticed that “drama” was little more than a word change away. She “spent” four years in the system is a different and dull imagining compared to She “survived” four years in the system. Both are verbs. One passive, the other implies risk, maybe even blood.

    Maybe this is not the way it works. I have a feeling it is.
    What I also found fascinating, my little ditty started with the ending.
    My grandmother living happily ever after in Topeka, Kansas.

    The question that drives the author… how did that sweet lady with the ragged scare under her left eye wind up on a front porch In Topeka sipping tea from a Noritake China cup?

  7. Robert Jones


    Great post.

    Conflict is the heart of fiction…and it needs to be woven into every level of story. Take Larry’s example of grandma standing in a corn field. Would anyone bother if that was a 30 second movie trailer of nothing but that amorphous image? In fact, whether it’s a description of your concept, or the dust jacket on your book, what images are your words summoning in the mind of your potential audience? And here’s a “what if” question for pantsers and planners alike: if you sent your concept description, or book handle, to a movie director, who filmed a trailer purely based on your description, what would you get back? Would you have an intriguing piece to promote your book, or a grinning portrait of a nameless old woman, knitting and rocking away?

    Writing is a visual media.

    Just a thought 🙂

  8. Robert Jones

    Hi Larry,

    I have a question, but wasn’t certain if I should ask it here, or if I should email you. It’s a bit out of context with this particular thread, but certainly has to do with structure, specifically in terms if story length. I decided to go ahead and post it her because I’m probably not the only one who can benefit from the answer.

    In terms of your “beat sheet” template…as well as being referred to in other posts I’ve read, it would seem that each part of a novel is laid out in about 12-14 scenes. You’ve also mentioned that in part four, a writer has about 10-12 scenes to wrap everything up.

    My plot is easily twice that many scenes…for each part. There are a good deal of short scenes between longer ones throughout. A previously written draft came to 428 pages. I’m currently restructuring, and replotting about half of the book in order to gain a better structural standpoint. I’m thinking that by the time I finish, the length will still be somewhere between 400-500 pages…so long as I keep the narrative tight.

    I’ve been told that this is okay in terms of page length, but wondered about the number of scenes. I don’t know of any hard rules against this, so long as all the scenes serve a purpose and build toward/from the structural milestones. Any scenes that do not will eventually be cut. But I like fairly meaty stories.

    What’s your take?


  9. @Robert — page count seems good, appropriate. The number of scenes is less critical than the proportions of them across the four parts, roughly speaking. But that’s a LOT of scenes, meaning each still needs its own narrative mission (though some could be “bridging” scenes, provided it moves the story forward). No solid fence here, do what you have to do to tell the story with conflict-driven drama, deep characterization, an a plot that meanders and twists within the defining (and safe) parameters of each assigned part-mission. Hope this helps. L.

  10. RS


    Thanks for posting your question publicly — I had a similar one myself a few months ago. Then I read The Help, and Larry’s The Help deconstruction series. As he notes in his post “‘The Help’ Ripping Into the Opening Act,” Act 1 of the novel had 43 scenes (6 chapters, 104 pages). They’re really short scenes, but clearly it can be done well and successfully!

  11. Robert Jones

    Thank you, Larry. It does help.

    And speaking of “Help,” I haven’t gotten that far in my deconstruction reading. I will be moving on to that one shortly. Thanks, RS.

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  13. Charlie

    Hi Larry,

    I have discovered something I think is incredibly important and am trying to figure out how I can share this with people.

    This discovery involves a historical saga that jumps around throughout history. This is my dilemma — how do I apply your principles to a real event that I need to convince everyone about yet still try to make a compelling story? Do you have any kind of philosophy for this kind of situation?

    Another problem is that the implications of the saga are incredible, but there doesn’t seem to be a real concept for a story there. At least a conventional one that I am aware of. A good way to describe this saga is how scientists detect black holes… you can’t see them but you see the friction at the edges.of the black hole. There are many small events around this saga in history that indicate something is happening. In this kind of case, do you have to rely on other strengths to compensate or would you use some other method to solve the issue?

    Also, when dealing with something like this, that is of a very sensitive nature and so important, is it possible to get help here while still maintaining the secrecy of the project or do you suggest revealing it publicly to get help even if someone could take elements of your story?

    Thanks for all your work. As someone who would likely have no idea where to begin in trying to craft a story like this you have really helped give guidance.

  14. @Charlie — good question. Interesting question. In reading it, it sounds like you should be (to cover the goals you seem to define here)a NON-FICTION book on this topic, which allows you to go straight at it. If your highest goal is to define and explain black hole phenomena, and to show how it manifested (or was perceived) in various periods of history, then this is the way to go. Not sure what your fiction intentions here are, but unless those periods of history connect is some way, that’s a tough one. THe best way, in any case, is to present the fascination with this subject, including an interpretation of the scienc involved, through the eyes, mind and point of view of a character, who needs/wants something in the story, and has opposition to that goal. The tenets of fiction don’t bend because of subject matter, you need a hero, that hero needs a quest (problem to solve, goal to rearch), there needs to be an antagonistic force standing in the hero’s way (with opposing goals), both need to take ACTION in pursuit of their goals, the hero needs to eventually meet and overcome the obstacles represented by the antagonist, there needs to be SOMETHING AT STAKE in the story (which is where ficiton and non-fiction differ; the latter can be strictly interesting and informational, while a novel needs more), and it need to MATTER to readers.

    Hope this helps you clarify what you should with this. Also, while there’s always a risk of someone else taking your ball, we can’t pay attention to that. If it’s “the secret of life” or something like that, let ’em try, there’s plenty of room. And if you use fiction, then that may be your hook and storyline, afterall. Larry

  15. Charlie

    Larry, thanks so much for the fast and detailed response. Your insights really help me get a handle on how to address this. It’s such a unique predicament that it’s difficult to find help that relates specifically to my situation. Especially for someone like me who never ever in their wildest dreams thought they would be writing something like this.

  16. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

    • I’ve responded to this inquiry off line… but it’s a good question. If you, too, have problems with the download, will you please tell me two things: what browser are you using… and what, specifically, is the problem (what won’t download)? Also – okay, this is three – does the problem relate to the email feed, or when you go to this site itself? I can use these answers to try to remedy this for you, and for me as the site owner. Thanks much for your help — Larry

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  18. Charlie

    Larry, have you ever read the graphic novel The Watchmen? It’s a very unconventional story, I’m wondering if it follows conventional story telling rules.

    Do you think it is possible to apply the hero type story engineering principles out over a lineage of similar minded people throughout history?

    What I am thinking is to start with like minded people in an earlier era and then in the future in another era (the present) someone else takes on their cause and continues the story.

  19. Charlie

    It’s actually WATCHMEN, by Alan Moore. Not THE WATCHMEN.

  20. I never considered this important difference between idea and concept. Thanks for this.

  21. @Charlie — loved the movie, didn’t read the strip. Pretty sure, in terms of structure and story physics, it falls in line with what works (because, well… it worked). It’s a great model for storytelling on a grand, spectacular scale.

    @Jevon — gtood to hear. This is as huge as it is simplistic, one of the Great Epiphanies in the living life. Glad you get it. (Hmmm, “Great Epiphanies”… sounds like a cool blog post title…)

  22. Charlie

    Larry, in the comic he used many unusual storytelling methods. This is why they felt is would be so difficult to translate to film.

    Some examples – In one scene you would have panels from two different times but from the same location — or two different locations but at the same time — alternating from panel to panel to illustrate key ideas in the story. It also jumped all over in time from era to era. Another thing he would do is use different types of written media to illuminate elements of the story or for characterization mixing literature and comics.

    If you ever get a chance to check it out I would love to see you analyze it on structural level because it seems so complex and unvoncentional.

  23. Robert Jones


    I’ve not only read Alan Moore’s work, but had the pleasure of working with him on one of his projects. The amount of respect he gets from fans and other professionals alike is mutual. But this, as well as his ability to use complex story telling methods, comes from the fact that he understands story mechanics.

    We are talking about comic books here, an industry that is both filled with great imagination, and also many people who just want to retell the types of stories they grew up reading when they were kids…meaning, very little in terms of literary method or value. At their best, comics can be great elemental stories go good vs. evil, with plenty of big action. Which is why Hollywood finds the movie adaptions so appealing these days.

    But before Hollywood became comic book central, Alan Moore was still getting some of his non-superhero graphic novels adapted for film. Again, this is because he is coming from a deeper place than the comic books he grew up with as a kid. The message here is ( and I’m sure AM would agree) is that whether you want to write comics, science fiction stories, or the great American novel…read as widely and as varied as you possibly can. Learn craft. Study what great books and movies have in common, as Larry teaches here. Whatever you write will be better for it. And those guys who learned to write comics strictly from reading comics, heck, even half the writers on the bookshelves at the local B&N, won’t know what you know.

    That’s the big secret behind Watchmen, and why it’s still so popular over twenty years after its release. And if you already get that…you’re here and reading about story mechanics, after all…then you’re ahead of the game already.

    Take care, and happy writing!

  24. Robert Jones

    Or has it been closer to 30 years since Watchmen? I fear I’m dating myself…lol!

  25. Robert Jones

    Oh, and I forgot to add one important detail. An Alam Moore script describes the story panel for panel, with detail. Many comic writers leave a lot open to artistic interpretation. And though artists can certainly contribute to the look and feel of the story, to play around too much, or leave out details without first reading through the script, could really make a mess of things. He is that meticulously PLANNED.

    Hope that answers most of your questions.

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  27. Charlie

    Hi Robert. Very interesting post! Amazing you worked with Alan Moore. The reason I was so curious about Watchmen is because I am doing a project that could possibly use some of his methods because of the logistical problems I face in my story. But I am an extremely inexperienced writer (I am trying to become a writer out of desperation at the moment) and it is difficult as a novice to fully understand what Moore is doing because of the complexity of it. I suspect he may be using the same structural methods Mr. Brooks uses but my guess is he might be doing it in a -seemingly- different way.

    Also, I have read a couple pages of Alan Moore’s script. It was really cool how much information he related describing the panels. Very inspiring and you can tell how detailed and precise it all is.. like a watchmaker! 🙂

    Thanks for the great reply.

  28. Robert Jones


    What you are saying can and has been done. Just remember that no matter how much you skip around in time, people take in thoughts serially, even if they aren’t done sequentially. Each scene is still put before them one at a time, clearly labelled with date and time to avoid confusion over which period the scene is taking place in.

    Larry has, on several occasions, mentioned a film in his posts called, “500 Days of Summer.” In this movie, scenes jump around from day 1, to 31, and even gives flashes in B&W that describe characters height, weight, and shoe size…if you can believe it. It has the sort of literary value we are talking about, plus a great many hops throughout the life of its characters. All that plus Zooey Deschanel.

    As far as the generational thing, or different characters in different timelines, this has also been done. I’m thinking of a novel by Stuart Woods called “Chiefs,” that spanned several generations of law enforcement in a small town. I can’t recall all of it (it has been a while), but the story involved a past murder, or some type of problems surrounding it that spanned several generations and different characters. But this means working on serious character development and attempting to hook the reader with characters in each time period. If possible, choose the one you like best and make that character instrumental in the plot throughout…even if they are older, or leaving clues for other characters to find in the future. I’m only taking stabs here, since I don’t know your story. But I believe even in Watchmen, there were segments where older characters trained, or somehow passed the torch ( and their problems) on to the next generation.

    And don’t we do that in life anyway? People are always holding on to skeletons, petty prejudices, anger passed on without legitimate cause…the effect, however, is another story. Possibly even a foundation for you own story. Just remember to link all your characters to it in an important way…not by Hollywood type happenstance. Their lives and emotions need to be interwoven into your plot and the history your laying down. Otherwise your audience will not follow the journey with their own time and emotions.

    Good luck 🙂

  29. Charlie

    Amazing points there, Robert. That novel you mentioned sounds PERFECT for what I need to do. I had seen 500 Days of Summer awhile ago but like I said, because I never thought I would be a writer I haven’t paid enough attention to structure. So now I am wishing I had more knowledge of it all because there seems no way to really seek out that information except by things people have seen and remember.. and most people are like me and don’t focus on structure issues consciously.

    Thanks again. Incredible information.

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  31. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google,
    and found that it’s really informative. I’m going to watch out
    for brussels. I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future. Numerous people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  32. MikeR

    You know the old saw … that you can figure out who’s going to be the future accountant because he’s the one that leans over and whispers, “What do you WANT the answer to be?”

    When I really started to apply your thoughts to my (at this point) pre-writing, the experience really hammered home to me: “that’s really what writers do, and do first.” What DO you want ‘the answer’ to be? Or, to put it another way, what’s the most satisfactory ‘the answer’ that you can come up with … and why?

    Unlike “what’s 2+2,” though, there’s no “right answer” at the end of the book. There are lots of possibilities for your main-story, and, as I am now finding out, for what turns out to be a -network- of interweaving stories, all of them part of “your story.” What to do with them is your choice, yes: trim some away, fertilize some, prune others. “Rinse and repeat.” Your choice, AND 150% a creative choice. The “thank you, Larry” light-bulb moment is that of process: given that it this is not a ‘deterministic’ choice, it can nonetheless be an ‘efficient’ one.

    “Forewarned IS forearmed.” Your crucial insight is, indeed, genuine: there is, indeed, a strong aspect of ‘engineering’ to this particular creative process.

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