Successful Fiction Begins With a Great Concept

Joe’s excellent post on the magic words “What if?” got me thinking about the crucial importance of concept.
I was going through some old files the other day and came across this little scrap of paper from several years ago. I remember it well. I was on a trip to talk with my publisher at the time, Zondervan, and to pitch some projects.
I had an idea that had been chugging around my brain for awhile. It was based on two things. First, an uncomfortable encounter with someone from my past who was insistent on edging back into my life.
The other was the plot of one of my favorite novels, The Executioners by John D. MacDonald (basis of the Cape Fearfilms).
I put those two items together. This is a great method of coming up with plot ideas, by the way. Dean Koontz has been a master at this. For instance, Midnight,one of his best thrillers, is a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Koontz even references those titles in the book itself, to “wink” at the readers who recognize the plot lines. But the characters and setting are original creations. 
Anyway, I was in the hotel room in Grand Rapids and jotted this:

How far will a man go to protect his family? For lawyer Sam Trask, it’s farther than he ever thought possible. Because when an unwelcome presence from his past comes calling, bent on the destruction of his family, Sam must leave the civilized corners of the law and journey into the heart of darkness.

Not bad for an on-the-spot jot on Holiday Inn note paper. The concept was the basis of my novel No Legal Grounds (2007), which became a bestseller and is still one of my favorite thrillers.
The reason: concept. If you don’t get your concept solid and simple from the start, you’re likely to wander around in soggy bogs and down random rabbit trails.
A writing teacher once told me that the most successful movies and books are simple plots about complex characters. I think he has something there. You should be able to articulate your concept in a few lines.
A self-centered Southern belle is forced to fight for her home during and after the Civil War, even as she fights off the charms of a handsome rogue who looks exactly like Clark Gable.
To get back home, a Kansas farm girl has to kill a wicked witch in a land full of Munchkins and flying monkeys. Aided by a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion with issues, she faces dangers aplenty along a yellow brick road.

A vigilante nun cleans up the streets of L.A. Sinners beware. (Okay, I know, shameless. But it truly defines Force of Habit for me, and will for the entire series).
A simple, strong concept is your anchor, your floodlight in the darkness. It will keep you focused and writing scenes with organic unity.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location.
In fiction, it’s concept, concept, concept.
Make sure you know yours before you start writing.
I will be taking students from their concept through “sign post scenes” up to indestructible structure at my upcoming 2-day writing seminars. Would love to have you. Details can be found here.

16 thoughts on “Successful Fiction Begins With a Great Concept

  1. I agree with you, Jim, that behind most great books, there’s a Big Concept. It works for movies, and it works for books. I love coming up with strong concepts. I’ve developed and abandoned a few, and people who know about them still come back to me and say, “Are you still working on that novel? It’s such a great idea–I want to read it!” I was working away on one big concept when I discovered that a major thriller author had just published a book along the same lines. Unfortunately, it was one of his lesser works. I was ticked off that he’d “wasted” a Great Idea through poor execution! Due to his name, however, I’m sure it still sold a lot of books. I abandoned that particular effort, because I didn’t want to seem derivative.

    I keep a list of concepts I’d like to work on someday. They sparkle in the recesses of my mind, lined up like flights coming in for a night landing at LAX. (I know, I know, Block That Metaphor!). 🙂

  2. Oh Kathryn, I relate. Twice I was well into a WIP when I discovered some other author was out there with a book too similar for me to continue. Ack! Of course, what WE do with a concept will be different. Maybe waiting a few years and coming back to it will work. No one can copyright an idea.

    I, too, have a huge file of concepts, from one liners to cover copy. All I need is a 36 hour day and immortality to complete them.

  3. Jim–great advice. Is this the same as “high concept?” I’ve heard that defined as a sentence or two that can be presented to an agent, editor, producer, reader, viewer, whatever and from which they can build a story in their own mind.
    Thanks, as always, for sharing.

  4. My brain’s a little sluggish from too little slip and I haven’t formulated a high concept from it yet, but immediately upon reading this post what popped into my brain was–what if I created a concept that draws on all the best elements from my favorite movie (Star Trek II-The Wrath of Khan) and my favorite book, Zane Grey’s “Forlorn River”?

    Although while I haven’t thought about it in exactly that way, one of the main features of both that movie and book, sacrificing yourself for your friend, seems to be a fairly common theme that pops up in my writing anyway.

  5. Jim, your hotel note concept already sounds (sounded? since it’s past and already a successful book?) like a well-polished elevator pitch.

    My initial list of concepts tends to be four chapters. I have a dozen files of four chapter concepts just waiting to be extended. This way, I have the initial “what if” concept, a few characters, a setting, and (hopefully) a conflict set up and documented while I mull over the potential and work out the outline. I also have the voice of the piece on paper so it is in my head as I start to research and expand. It is a great way to expand a concept to see if it is viable or a great writing exercise if it turns out there’s not much there.

    Great advise from a great writing mentor.
    Thank you,

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEASoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  6. Good question from Doc Mabry. What I’m talking about here is the concrete, honed idea for the writer, so he knows the solid through line of the story. The Hollywood idea of a “high concept” is, as you indicate, one that I call the “ka-ching ka-ching test.” IOW, we see the market from the idea alone.

    But a concept might be a little “softer.” Thus: A girl whose mother is imprisoned for murder must grow stronger through a series of foster homes. (White Oleander)

    That’s simple and complete without necessarily being a “high” concept.

    How about this one: The King of England must give a speech, but he has a speech impediment. Through the support of his wife and a quirky speech therapist, he makes it.

    That doesn’t exactly set off the cash register sound, does it? But remember: simple plots and complex characters. The King’s Speech was so good because of the character work and how the stakes of the speech were raised in the plot.

    So the main idea of my post is that the writer be clear about the concept. Excited about it. And then people it with great characters.

  7. Victoria, that’s not a bad way to get things going. As you know, I teach a Disturbance-Trouble Brewing opening sequence. It’s a a foundation that’ll work every time.

  8. Sarah, I will probably be teaching a class or two at The Writer’s Store in Burbank. I may try to do a complete 2 day seminar as well. You can check my appearances page on my website from time to time. Thanks.

  9. Excellent advice (again), Jim. Have you considered filming your workshop (or the lecture / example parts of it) and making it available online?

    Or… doing an online seminar???

  10. Timely advice because my concepts are always way to complicated – I need to be able to distill them down and make them much simpler. In fact I am working on one right now, so thanks for the timely reminder!

  11. Glad to hear you say that, Clare. I think it will help tremendously. Simple concept. Complex characters. By making the concept simple, you force yourself to get the “big deal” of the story right.

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