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In fact, it is this particular understanding that separates the published from the unpublished.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And that, too, separates the published from the unpublished.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: firstname.lastname@example.org.