The Secret Key to Breaking Big

by Larry Brooks

First off… it’s not a secret at all.

It’s just something that isn’t often talked about. It is rarely hit head-on in the vast oeuvre of fiction craft, where there exists a tacit assumption that anything you choose to write about is okay… that it’s how you write a story, rather than what your story might be in a conceptual, dramatic context.

This gets tricky, perhaps confusing, because that is half true.

Nobody will suggest your story idea isn’t strong enough. Even when they should. At least, not before you write it. No, they’ll wait until you’ve spent a year gushing 100,000 bloody words onto the page from the open wound of your best intentions…

… and then they’ll tell you: meh, I’ve read this before… or… well, it’s okay, good even, but we have enough good out there, give us something great, something that stops my heart.

The true half: how you write your story absolutely matters.

Because a killer idea, poorly written, will tank every bit as fast as a mediocre idea written really well.

There exists a list of qualitative criteria (what I call the six realms of story physics), applied to another list of six story elements and skills (what I refer to as the six core competencies) that you must do well. As in, really well.

As in, you need to go six-for-six.

That’s always been true. It’s truer than ever today, in a market that is orders of magnitude more crowded with titles vying for the same finite readership, and glutted with stories and authors that are good, but not quite great.

Great is reachable. But you have to find a special story, told in an especially competent way. The sum of those two high bars is… rare.  I can tell you, as a story coach who has read many hundreds of story summaries over the past few years, “rare” is the softest word I can come with here.  Unremarkable – even when it’s just fine — is everywhere.

That other half… determined by your choice of concept and premise (which are different things) is less emphasized in the writing conversation. Frankly, it is where the writing community has lost its balls. More polite conversation and acceptable workshop narrative steps right over the need for premises that are conceptually compelling and dramatically rich, rich enough to allow a well-drawn character to shine.

So let’s all wake up to this truth.

Often, perhaps as much as half the time, stories are either rejected or perform poorly, in spite of the author really writing the heck of out it, because the story isn’t amazing at its core conceit level. Writing the heck out of a vanilla, too-familiar idea will get you precisely… nowhere.

Or at least, wherever it takes you, it will be slow going.

Take a closer look at the stories that break-out.  At the bestsellers.

A huge percentage of them are from the same familiar names, the ones you’ve been seeing there for years. I just checked: of the current top-20 New York Times best sellers, thirteen come from writers you’ve heard of, who have been there before (one of whom created the TV hit Fargo, which disqualifies him from being a newbie). One is from an author you’ve heard of because her current title is the runaway breakout hit of the last two years (Paula Hawkins slid into that spot when Gone Girl faded a bit)…

… and the others are less known.

So how did they get there?  It’s not just because they can really write.  It’s because the premises they’ve written from are on fire with upside.

I promise you, as well, that it wasn’t because they tweeted and Facebooked and pimped themselves onto the list. It’s because of word-of-mouth, which is more often the outcome of reviews than it is from social media. It’s because of quality storytelling, sure, but it’s more because of… wait for it…

… amazing, fresh, conceptual rich story premises.

Among that list, from those seven new names, consider these concepts:

– A woman defies her controlling husband’s retirement plans for the both of them. (What woman doesn’t want to defy a controlling husband?)

– A spectacularly wealthy and dysfunctional family implodes, murder ensues. (A train wreck we cannot look away from.)

– Viruses bent on wiping out humanity are vanquished… and then they return. (Some concepts never go away, they simply recycle.)

– Young girl comes to New York to make her way in the big bad city, and meets a “devastatingly handsome” bad-boy bartender. (Those two words – devastatingly handsome – will sell a million copies by themselves, in the right hands.)

Notice these aren’t end-of-the-world Hollywood blockbuster type concepts.  “High concepts” as they are know.  Rather — and this is a subtlety that will serve you, once you get it — it is because these concepts, and those like them, play into the dramatic evocation of emotional resonance from readers.

These concepts intrigue. They are vicarious, they suck us in, they push our buttons. They pose frightening, intriguing questions. They work before you know about the author or the characters, because they are conceptual.

If you need the premise itself to get someone excited, chances are you haven’t tapped into the full potential of something conceptual yet. Wife fakes her own death to avenge her crappy marriage to a man she loathes… that’s not a premise yet (no hero, no plot, no villain, no stakes… no premise), but it is a concept that will make an agent, editor or a reader sit up and take notice.

All of these books are on the list because, primarily, at least as much because the writer is really good, because they are well conceived.

The opportunity is right there: in the conceptual.  

Narrative skill is actually more an ante-in than it is a deal-maker these days. It is a commodity. Truth be told, there are people sitting in every writing conference you attend who can give those A-list brand name authors a run for their significant money.

We can take a page from Hollywood in this regard. Most of the movies we pay to see that aren’t based on novels come from the minds of producers, directors, and even actors. Those are the people with the story ideas — some of which they get from writers they quickly pay off to go away — at least the ones the industry will pay attention to.  After which they hire-out the writing itself, where anonymous craft brings those story ideas to life.

That’s not the business we are in as novelists. But don’t miss the gold in that model.

As authors, we need to function as producer, director, actor and writer of our stories. ANd we need to realize that we are selling an idea as much as we are selling our narrative skill, via a manuscript. Unless you are writing in literary fiction, the conceptual idea itself needs to glow in the dark, to show up in a dark sky chock-full of exquisitely well written mediocrity.

And then, of course, you need to write the hell out of it.

An example to show how obvious this is, once you look for it.

Let’s look at the romance/women’s fiction genre. One of those names on the NY Times list is Jo Jo Moyes, whose title After You is (at this writing) #5 on that list.

Now look closer. After You is the sequel to her bestseller, Me Before You, which in addition to selling five million copies, is currently a front-line motion picture tear-jerker, receiving good if not great reviews. This explains the sequel’s presence on the bestseller list: because a quality sequel to a legitimate bestseller — film or no film — will always be, at least for fifteen minutes, another bestseller.

Because a sequel to a bestseller IS the concept being sold.

Now let’s look deeper. Let’s look at the earlier novel (which came after ten previous Moyes titles, all successful, but none to this degree), Me Before You.

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And therein we find the proof of the concept/premise pudding.

At a glance, Me Before You is a commodity tear-jerker. A doomed love story. A life-is-unfair, let’s-make-the-most-of-the-time-we-have vicarious ride through glorious, courageous heartbreak and the triumph of love itself.

Always a good bet. There have been, quite literally, thousands of such novels written.

So what made this one work?  Other than the quality of Jo Jo’s writing and storytelling?

It’s because something that resides at the core of the story idea itself. Something that is highly conceptual. Not earth-shakingly original, per se… no, that’s not always required (though it certainly can help). What made this particular love story work is the fact that the novel, in the words of Miami Herald reviewer Connie Ogle, has some bite to it. A “juicy, ripe red apple of a romance with a razor blade embedded under its skin.”

That razor blade is the concept.  The love story that covers it is the premise.

The bite of that novel is something conceptual that separates it from the crowd.

Here it is: What if the hero/protagonist, whom we love (because she’s from a working class family, and she deserves to be happy, damn it!) falls in love with a handsome, wealthy, yet bitter young man…

… so far, this is as familiar as a bagel for breakfast…

… a young man who is… wait for it… a quadriplegic.

Damn.  Didn’t see that coming, did you.

But here’s where Moyes demonstrates her conceptual chops. Instead of a trite HEA ending to an otherwise production line premise, she flips that on its dramatic ear and gives us… wait for it…

… a stunning, heart-wrenching didn’t-see-that-coming, take out her heart and stomp on it ending. A razor blade of a concept, hiding there under the skin, all along.

Concept is a framework for a story, within which premise is explored.  That framework, in Me Before You, is how it is all destined to end.

All of this, by the way, was solidly in her head before she sat down to actually write the manuscript (this I know, because Moyes is an avid if not completely confident outliner, she doesn’t move to the draft stage until she has the story nailed… a lesson there for us all). This is a highly conceptual story idea, because it grabs us even before we encounter the story.  Even before we meet these characters.

But that Jo Jo… she’s a clever one, indeed. In giving us that ending, she doubles down on the conceptual appeal of the story. Ever since Erich Segal broke our hearts in Love Story, readers have lined up to pay good money to have their emotions put through a wringer and then driven over by a funeral motorcade. Moyes actually one-ups Segal in that regard, never flinching at the ending she knew would work…

… and not backing down when Hollywood suggested she lighten up the ending of the film version. Moyes actually wrote the script for that, too, and in sticking to her original ending, the movie is doing big business precisely because of the Machiavellian manner in which it toys with our emotions before destroying them.

And now, she has the sequel on the Times bestseller list. All because of concept colliding with narrative talent. Separate those two parts of the craft puzzle, and these two home run novels don’t happen.

Dan Brown did it in The Davinci Code, and again in Inferno (the film of that novel hits theaters this summer). Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl. Paula Hawkins did it in The Girl On The Train. The list goes on and on in this regard.

Big ideas, delivered with big concepts, fueling big premises.

And then, written with stellar craft.

The latter, standing alone as your sole strategy, is a long and crowded road that rarely takes us where, in the quiet of our dreams, we truly want to be.

Look closely at what what’s in the literary news.  

Chances are, if there isn’t a famous author name on the cover, there’s an astoundingly conceptual idea at the heart of the story. If nothing else, than by virtue of the emotional buttons it pushes.

All that stuff… the learning, the principles, the examples of great technical execution across six realms of story physics and six realms of writing core competencies… they’re all as valuable and necessary as they’ve ever been.

But despite what you don’t often read or hear out here in craft-land all that much, they aren’t all that is needed to blast your career to another level, via a story that makes your bones in a graveyard full of well-crafted skeletons.

Don’t rush your story into being.  Nurse it at the conceptual level, ask more of it. Go deep into the dark and swirling well of human emotion and empathy to give us something that grabs us and won’t let go… even before we’ve read a word of it.

What is conceptual about your premise?  What will make someone say, “Wow, now THAT is a story I want to read,” even before you hit them with the premise itself.

Answer that one, and answer it well… and you may find you’ve dealt yourself a hand worth doubling down on, as well.

 

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

12 thoughts on “The Secret Key to Breaking Big

  1. Interesting post…really got me thinking. Not only about my own books but those I read (and sometimes put down before finishing). I find I am a really impatient reader these days. I don’t want to read yet another burned-out cop or rogue detective or plucky heroine or victimized “girl book.” I want something fresh, especially new characters I haven’t met before. I’m getting old, life is getting shorter and I don’t have time to talk to the bores at parties anymore. What does is for me in fiction are the people moving around in the premise/concept. If they are rich and believable, I don’t care, in a basic way, what their essential struggle is.

    I watched the movie “The Martian” this weekend. What a terrific story. (I am told the book is just as good). And it was a self-publishing phenom before Ridley Scott and Random House snatched it up. Why was it so good? It wasn’t the premise, because that is as old as the hills — man alone, pitted against all odds in the wilderness.

    For fun, I started making a list of other man-pitted-against-wilderness books or movies:

    Two I loved as kids:
    The “Black Stallion” and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter.”
    Others I loved as adults:
    “The Swiss Family Robinson.”
    “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
    “Jeremiah Johnson” (movie)
    “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson remade into cheesy but fun Charles Heston movie Omega Man.
    “Children of Men” by PD James …another great movie remake

    So “Robinson Crusoe and Friday begat…
    “Castaway” the movie with Tom Hanks and Wilson the soccer ball
    which begat…
    “The Martian” with Matt Damon and his disco tapes.

    • The Martian is a great example, and of many things. You’re right, the concept was the differentiator, and as you say, the premise was one of those sure-thing universal stories. It’s a great story from the self-published world on why both – concept and execution – need to be stellar to reach that level. As someone who is also not getting any younger, I feel the exact same way: I’m impatient with stories that don’t reach high enough. Concept is where that reach takes place.

  2. Interesting blog, Larry, but how does a writer recognize that s/he has a strong enough story to break out? Who should they ask? I’m no predictor. “Gone Girl” was a runaway success, but I hated everyone in that book and only read it because I had to. Dan Brown knew how to move a story along in the “DaVinci Code,” but the writing was laughable and the characters were cardboard.

    • “How does a writer recognize that s/he has a strong enough story to break out?” Great question, that. I agree, there’s nobody to ask. We all depend on our own story sense for that, using given definitions and criteria to juxtapose next to our own concepts and premises. One of the keys is to understand how and why concepts and premises are different things… the point of the post is that it’s hard to break in with a concept-void premise.

      The books you mention… both massively successful. Both “broke big” (they broke huge, actually), so you make my point. They both were very strong at the conceptual level. Didn’t like the characters in Gone Girl… looks like it didn’t matter, 25 million readers did, and Hollywood did. Didn’t like Brown’s writing? Not the point. His concept in Davinci actually trumped the mediocre writing, to the tune of over 80 million hardcovers and nearly 50 million paperbacks.

      So your point is valid… but it is also triangulated. A lawyer would leap to her feet here and say, “Objection, irrelevant.” For the record, good writing is always relevant, but it doesn’t always mean a story is widely compelling. Premise, well written, resides alongside concept as separate ways to appeal to readers. Do them both well, and good things can happen (for the record, too, Gillian Flynn is a stellar writer of elegant narrative). Characters and great writing are not the only metrics of “breaking big,” or even of finding an audience (more consistently, they are the metrics of good literary fiction, which isn’t a “high concept” genre, which means, it’s apples and oranges when we get judgmental about the writing). Great writers are starving out there right and left, and it doesn’t remotely make someone seizing on a high-concept premise a predator in any way. It makes them smart, possessed of a solid story sense that appeals to a wide readership. That’s not predatory, that’s commercial. And it’s smart, if that is one’s target demo. James Patterson can put us all away in the I.Q. department, I assure you.

      • Oops. I see you wrote “predictor,” my scanning, assumptive brain saw “predator.” So never mind my response to that one (third line from the last). I appreciate your input, Elaine.

    • The best books are unforgettable and make us feel something. They often ask tough questions (in this case about the morality of assisted suicide). Readers of the book all want the sweet girl and the rich quadriplegic to have the traditional HEA expected in a romance novel. They pray a miraculous cure will be found, and that Will (the rich guy) will be skipping down the street whistling love songs by the end of the novel. But what happens when there is no cure and love is not enough to make life worth living? This is the kind of story people remember and discuss for a long time, even if they weren’t satisfied by the ending. Novels that end with everyone getting exactly what they want might provide some instant gratification, but they don’t always stick with us. I know readers who are upset with how the novel ended, because they wanted that happy ending. That’s the risk writers take when they end a book this way. In the end, though, writers must please themselves, because it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Art shouldn’t compromise. Of course, there’s always the sequel.

  3. I loved the part about not rushing to write. I thought I had my Premise down pat, but took a break from actually doing any writing. Now that my Premise is much clearer and directly related to the Concept, I’m getting excited again.

    And all it took was the same thing that happened when I outlined the first story in the series, i.e., I changed the Protagonist and made the former Protagonist a Contagonist. The character arcs are clearer to me now, plus the story’s structure is falling into place much more easily.

    As for whether our Concept and Premise have breakout potential, I’m amazed at how many writers think theirs have that potential, and yet they’re same old, same old. I guess it takes more guts than many instructors have to tell the writer to go back to the drawing board completely.

    • Same old, same old. You’re so right. Thing is, when a new writer joins the herd, their stories seem new and fresh. So it’s paradoxical in some way… new to them, same-old-same-old to a broad readership. Time helps… story sense REALLY helps… but in either case, we’re stuck with our gut on this one. Thanks for contributing today, Sheryl.

  4. Outstanding post. For a long time I struggled with the difference between concept and premise. But thanks to your website, your coaching, and the members of TKZ, it slowly sunk in. And now, I don’t write one word until I’ve nailed my concept, then premise, and then created a logline for which the story can grow. And by “grow” I mean creating a strong plan (in Excel) which hits the important milestones. Thanks for all you do, Larry.

  5. You are a textbook case study, the poster girl, for the discovery of what works (and what doesn’t along the road. Having just read your new novel (“Wings of Mayhem”), I can endorse that you know your stuff, and have a big future in front of you. Thanks for your contributions to other writers, here and elsewhere. You are getting the attention you deserve!

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