By Larry Brooks
(I’m sharing this from my website, because it has received some interesting feedback, much of it sent to me directly (via the Feedburner email distribution) rather than appearing in the online Comment thread. It’s a variation on the First Page Critique format we use here on KZ… more a Concept/Premise critique, which is bigger-picture than just a first page critique, which by definition is more scene, voice and style focused than it is a story-level focus. Both are useful. Feel free to chime in with feedback of your own.)
The traps that would compromise or even sabotage our best story intentions are everywhere.
Even when it all begins with a strong conceptual proposition… which is what’s up with today’s case study.
Notice how the premise really states a situation, without ever really defining a hero’s challenge and path and goal, which in a good story becomes the core dramatic question explored along a core dramatic arc.
Notice how the weight of the themes tend to overwhelm (this often happens when theme is the initial inspiration), isolating the circumstance (which contributes to the setup) from expository conflict arising from dramatic tension, which in a solid story is what elicits an empathetic response and emotional resonance from the reader.
Rather, in this story the reader ends up observing, rather than rooting, because there is little to root for.
Notice, in the final answers, how the whole thing changes lanes and becomes about something else entirely (a killer of stories), or at least seems as clear in the setup of a narrative as it is completely void of a third act (parts 3 and 4 of the four-part structure model), thus leaving us without an actionable story plan.
As an organic/pantsing, free-writing exercise… maybe this would work itself out. That’s the upside of organic writing, it is primarily a story discovery-centric process, but without the ability to sense when it isn’t working and vet what you believe is working, it can become portraiture via fingerpainting.
As a story plan, though, as it sits now… it is only half there, and even then, is problematic.
After reading the author’s statement of concept, take a moment and ask yourself what story you might cull from that proposition, and where that inspiration might take you.
This is a study in story sense that is unfocused and unsure, without ever reaching a cohesive destination.
All of it fixable, but only with a clear hero’s quest—one with a more empathetic and rootable vision—in mind. What do you think?
Initial feedback shows in red.
Genre: YA, after an initial draft as Middle Grade
What is the CONCEPT of your story?
What if a kid looked white, grew up thinking he was white, and later found out he was black?” What would happen? How would he feel? How would his ideas of identity change? His view of race in general?”
Nice, especially in terms of one of the criteria for a strong concept: the notion that several stories—even many different stories—could be written from this singular conceptual idea or proposition.
There are other criteria (for concept) that apply as well, and this one works particularly well relative to the potential for dramatic tension, and the creation of an “arena” (racial tensions, in this case).
Of course, we still need a premise that works, but this is a good start.
Restate your concept using a “WHAT IF…?” proposition:
What if a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy discovers he is black in 1960s Alabama?
Even stronger, now that you added this placement in time (which is fraught with drama and tension, and – especially – emotional resonance). This thematic arena is what made “The Help” work as well as it did, and is a good example of concept in play. Because time/place/setting/arena can indeed be conceptual.
What is the PREMISE of your story?
Before I read your answer and comment, allow me share what I’m looking for in this answer.
I mention this because sometimes a strong thematic and setting-oriented concept (which is what you have) can lead the writer into a trap… they end up writing ABOUT this condition and circumstance and setting, but do so as a “series of things that happen, this is what it was like”… instead of what we need to see, which is a linear dramatic story. A plot. A hero with something specific he/she needs to do, or solve, or accomplish, or avoid/survive, driven by stakes, leading to an opportunity to become heroic… and with an opposing force (a villain, an antagonist; racism is NOT sufficient antagonism, it needs to have a face, be a character, be a villain… like Miss Hilly in The Help), all of it driven by emotionally-resonant stakes.
Concept doesn’t do all of that. This becomes the job of premise.
I see this so often, I feel the need to forewarn. Hopefully, I didn’t need to mention it, because you’re already there. Let’s see.
I started with the premise of a 12-year-old boy (Mark) on a baseball team in Montgomery – a team that was beginning to integrate. Not by choice but by law. He and his teammates are not in favor of this and give the ‘colored’ kids a hard time. One colored kid (Bo) is a great pitcher and Mark tries to befriend him in secret. They get to know each other and then Mark gets a letter from school telling him he is expelled due to the discovery that he is colored (Mark’s dead father was mulatto).
Already an emotional button-pusher.
By the way, this could be (probably is) your First Plot Point moment (occurring from 20 to 25 percent into the narrative). Or – and this is why structure is not formulaic, because the writer needs to (gets to) make a call on this issue – it could be an inciting incident withing the first setup block of narrative (about 20 percent in, or so), leading toward and even more story-defining first plot point turn.
Mark refuses to believe he is colored and immediately assumes this is payback for befriending Bo (at this point, he does not listen to anything his mother tries to explain). She kept the secret, hoping he could ‘pass’. Now Mark wants nothing to do with Bo. Why? Because Mark’s goal is to get an afterschool job to help his single mother pay the bills, and most of the errand boy type jobs are with businesses owned by the Justice family, who are racists (in the book, I show that not all whites in AL were racist at that time).
So Mark has a problem, and a choice: “un-friend” Bo so he can help his mother… or, not bow to social pressure, even when there are consequences.
Good… and so far, a continuing setup. Now, you need to give Mark SOMETHING TO DO, rather than a situation merely to ponder, to exist within, however emotionally resonant. It’s a good/strong setup, too… but until you put Mark in motion (because is NOT a documentary about “what it was like to be him,” but rather, a DRAMA about him setting out to accomplish something specific, with stakes and opposition), it is not yet a strong novel. Add that hero’s quest for Mark, and it will be.
“The Help,” a story with similar historic and thematic raw grist, didn’t just depend on the situation of the maids working Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The author created a hero with something that she must do and accomplish: Skeeter needs to convince the maids to help her write her book, which is her vehicle to launch her journalism career. Notice that originally Skeeter’s goal was not – at least not primarily – to solve the racism problem of that time and place. Rather, her goal was self-focused. But her character arc was the discovery of what it all meant, and what would come it within a bigger picture beyond herself. In doing that, the author turned the story from a documentary into a drama, and did so brilliantly.
Mark has been trying to get in good with his teammate Billy Justice in order to get the job (not really an admirable thing, to “use” the guise of friendship to advance one’s self; you shouldn’t place your bet on the reader rooting for this as his core quest). So the story follows Mark as he tries to overcome the obstacle of prejudice in order to reach his goal. (That’s a bit of a rationalizing over-generalization which really doesn’t describe Mark’s problem. He’s facing some tough choices, created in the context of racism, but he still must be called to do the “right thing.”)
This is a yellow flag. What does this mean – “follows Mark?” Can you see how this promises a bunch of stuff, an episodic series of moments and circumstances that show Mark in this frustrating, angry, unfair place? But it isn’t moving forward toward something, along a dramatic spine (versus the episodic narrative this promises)… until you state what he does about it.
The story doesn’t work as a documentary, simply allowing us to observe a hero in a situation. Rather, as readers we need to root for him to take action that leads to a satisfying outcome. Which is a different thing than simply watching, even if we marvel at it all.
The novel, as described here, is just that: about showing us this circumstance. But it should be more about showing us what he DOES about it… how those efforts are opposed (antagonism from an external source; i.e., a villain), creating tension and conflict… how he ups his game to get to the goal (which must be much more succinct that “get the job” – because simply getting the job is NOT particularly heroic, even with these motives), and ultimately, within the context of this racial culture, courageously accepts the consequences of acting heroically, versus acting selfishly.
It’s not heroic, as his story is written thus far, because of the moral cost of his choices. Our stories need heroes, not people who buckle to weakness. At first… sure. But ultimately, Mark needs to triumph over this situation and do the right thing.
What are you asking your reader to root for? It can’t be to just “get the job.” It can’t be for him to escape his true color and that situation, through deception or cowardice. Rather, we need to root for Mark to CHANGE things, to create fairness and opportunity, not just for himself, but for Bo, as well. To step into the risk of doing the right thing. To show these people what is right, to show them how things must change.
That, the reader will root for. Because it is so much more emotionally-resonant that him just “getting the job.”
In the interim, he rejects the colored school he must attend, tries to get back in Billy’s good graces, and refuses to fix his friendship with Bo. (This is him buckling to social and peer pressure, without realizing or having the courage to do the right thing by Bo. But the reader will root for NONE of this. These can’t be his goals – at least past the story’s mid-point – because this isn’t the story arc… the arc needs to be the exact opposite of this.)
(Reader note: this is example of the author’s story sense not serving the opportunity here. A good idea, rendered impotent because of the stated direction of the context of the hero’s arc, as described. It won’t work like this, unless there is some contrary resolution at the end, which hasn’t been hinted at yet.)
A better story requires rethinking:
The story should ultimately show Mark embracing his true race, fitting in at the new “colored” school (because that’s one inequity he can’t fix realistically), while STILL winning over Billy, and becoming friends with Bo because it’s WRONG and weak if he doesn’t. If he can show Billy a higher road in the process, all the better.
As told, Mark becomes part of the problem. A better story would show us Mark becoming part of the solution, a beacon of hope and courage. In other words, a hero.
If you head in that direction (perhaps in the next paragraph), then you’ll have a nice story arc. But if you don’t… you’ve sabotaged your own story. More clearly put, it’s not good enough yet, it’s off the mark (no pun), and needs further thought and development, toward what I’ve described here.
The ‘ah ha’ moment for him is when he is betrayed after trusting, and finds that his friendships were based on color and not on who he is as a person. (Sounds like the midpoint context shift turn, to me; it also sounds like you might turn this around…)
In the end, he embraces both worlds in order to survive and make peace with himself.
That’s it? It’s a good statement of intention, but without any “plan” or description on what or how, specifically, he does to embrace both worlds. What happens that becomes a catalyst for him to “embace both worlds?” How does he do the right thing by Bo (better put: what does he do to create that pivot?)?
And there’s this: “making peace with himself” is an outcome, not the journey itself, or the plot or the story goal.
You’ve SKIPPED the entire meat of the novel: what Mark DOES about this situation, to fix things, to make things right. He doesn’t have to earn the Nobel Prize by solving the race problem in that day and age (indeed, in “The Help” that problem isn’t even dented by the characters; rather, the characters we have come to know achieve resolution for themselves using courage and cleverness, and it changes them going forward).
You’re not done. You have a strong concept, but an incomplete premise.
You describe a story about a boy who is on the wrong path, who rejects and fears doing the right thing, who gives into fear and peer pressure. All of this is bad… all of this is what he must OVERCOME, not embrace.
Then you very briefly – too briefly – mention an “ah-ha” moment without coming anywhere near telling what it is, how it changes him, and what he does about it…
… which IS (or should be) the entire second half of the story. And it’s not here.
What are you asking the reader to root for and care about in this story?
Mark’s struggle both internal and external.
This is incomplete. We don’t root for the internal struggle, we simply observe it, note it, and see how it impacts his journey. Rather, we recognize it as a factor—an obstacle—conflicting the external struggle that we do root for.
As we watch the hero move through the arc of the story, we need to root for him/her in the moment… and we also root for an OUTCOME to it, which is rewarded by the author showing us how, courageously and cleverly, Mark embraces that higher road and gets it done. In this case, for Mark to get it, to do the right thing, to step into risk with new courage… to do the right thing for the right reasons (not self-serving reasons).
It seems you want to write about the struggle as a primary focus. But is he really struggling, or just choosing? Ultimately, the story should be about his victory within that inner struggle, manifesting as choices and actions in confronting his exterior antagonist. Which in this case is vague. There is virtually nothing at all hindering him along the path, he simply gets to choose. And when the consequence of his choice move him toward morally ambiguous and self-serving outcomes, that’s not heroic, nor is it something we are rewarded for watching.
The story you are describing reads as inherently episodic. The better story wouldn’t be.
You have some work to do on that front… because none of that “take the high road” context is described here, and for the most part, not even alluded to.
What do you believe will distinguish your story in a crowded marketplace, setting it apart from and above the competition to attract the attention of agents, editors and readers?
I put this concept out last year in a pitch party where six agents and four editors requested to see the manuscript.
My guess is, they asked to see it because the concept, at a glance, is compelling. It is rich conceptual fodder. They assumed the story would turn the corner and become about Mark’s fight to do the right thing, as an empathetic hero’s quest. That is what they were hoping for when they requested more pages, because that’s where the emotional resonance and payoff come from.
So the concept attracted attention, yet the premise (maybe even the writing) was off. A few agents asked that I re-engineer the book and re-submit.
Precisely what I’m recommending, as well, per these notes, for reasons herein explained.
You don’t have the best story yet, or even the right story, IMO. Or at least, the more complete and compelling story. Because ultimately you don’t have a story that brings us a hero to root for (versus what you do have, which is a kid in a tough spot that we observe, and within that observation, must endure a series of his bad choices). You have the setup for one, but you imply this is the whole narrative… and it doesn’t work because it’s incomplete. If this is all it is, then it isn’t working that way.
And to the extent you don’t imply it, you don’t actually describe a story path in the second half of the novel that brings out his heroism through courage and empathy.
Second, this is not a book about racism in the normal sense. This is more a story about how one wraps their head around a life-altering situation at a time when being ‘the wrong color’ in the wrong state, at the wrong time, had enormous consequences.
Which isn’t enough. You are saying here—this is a story about a situation. Which really only works for the setup portion of a story (the initial pre-FFP quartile).
What you’ve given us is a story about Mark’s attempt to avoid doing the right thing, to get what he wants by doing a work-around of some kind that serves him…. without the payoff of going with him (emotionally) as he pivots onto a higher path.
In its current state (as an MG in first person) I do not feel I can do it justice, mainly because I came to the realization that I cannot write the MG voice; it’s just not in me.
Voice isn’t the problem here. The context of the story as a hero’s journey and quest… that is the problem.
In the new version I am writing the boy as 14, he is off to baseball camp in Alabama where he was born but has not been since he was four. His mother has relocated him to Bridgeport, Illinois and has remarried. It is 1970. (Montgomery did not integrate schools until that year so prejudice was still very much alive in the attitudes of residents). His mother has not told Mark or his stepfather that he is black. She does not want him to go to Alabama and checks out the camp instructors thoroughly but never says why. So, the first line of chapter one is: When Mark told his mother that this year’s baseball camp was in Alabama, her rosy cheeks went pale.
Nice line. But… where is it taking the narrative from there? I sense a massive lane change here… but would need to know more about this new plan to comment on it.
What you’ve described here is the opening. But where’s Bo? Where’s Billy? Where is the prospect of the new job? What you have is another flavor of a situational opening setup. But if you dwell there, you risk setting up the wrong story entirely, rather than the one you describe earlier.
At the camp, one of the white instructors gets hurt and is replaced with a very fair-skinned black man who is an ex minor leaguer. This is significant to Mark’s goal because he has spent most of his young life trying to please the man he thought was his father – who does not like sports and gives his attention/affection to the younger brother who is his real son.
I already don’t recognize this from the previous answers. Lane change… a red flag.
Therefore, the book unravels the reason for his mother’s deception/secret, the real father’s reaction/rejection to learning he has a son, the treatment by the kids on the team, and Mark’s discovery that his real father is dying of prostate cancer.
But the book isn’t about THAT. That’s an issue, yes, but as context for the story you promise in these answers. You seem less than clear what the dramatic spine of this story is, and needs to be.
So I’m wondering… it appears you have moved on to another story altogether. But if that’s true, what are we to make of those initial answers? Why are you submitted a trashed story for analysis, when you’ve already moved on to something else in terms of the core dramatic thread, the stakes and the hero’s quest within the story?
Is it a story about a boy and his father? Or his mother? Or his friend, Bo, and the racial issues that separate them? Can it be all of these? Perhaps, but only in context to a core dramatic thread that is clearly dominating the forward motion of the narrative… which isn’t clearly established here.
You need to rethink and expand on the concept as it informs a revised premise, to bring it around to the solutions-orientation I explain here.
Hope this helps you rethink this, beginning with a clearer understanding of why it isn’t working.
As part of what’s next, I recommended that this author study my new video, “The Beautiful Collision Between Concept and Premise” (91 minutes), which you can download HERE and HERE, as part of my new Storyfix Virtual Classroom series of hardcore craft training modules (there are five training modules posted thus far). Killzoners can use this code – Killzone25off – to get 25 percent off any/all of those titles).