A Nuance of Understanding That Can Change Your Writing Career

by Larry Brooks

Today I am waxing enthusiastic about what might end up being the most important step in the development of your story. Because right here, at the concept and premise stage, is where many writers come up short.

Most writers begin a draft with a vision for concept and premise in mind. Others don’t, using the draft itself as the search-mechanism to find concept and premise, then retrofitting it into the story in subsequent drafts. The common mistake is to forget to do just that, leaving the story without a clear and compelling concept and premise at its core.

Concept, as it relates to premise, is the vision for the entire story… at the idea level.

Weak story ideas easily account for half or more of story rejection, or at least, when it comes to explaining why they don’t resonate. I was talking to a writing-guru type friend recently, and he suggested this issue resides at the core of as much as 80 percent of story failures.

If you don’t get this right, if you don’t make it as strong as it can possibly be through an understanding of this nuance, then you are already putting your story at risk no matter how well you write it.

Concept and premise are the first things agents and editors look for in a story, over and above characterizations and writing voice. The nuance is this: concept and premise are different things. Superman is a concept. The plot of each story, which includes the villain and the threat they represent, is the premise… one unique dramatic arc for each Superman movie, TV episode and comic book edition.  One concept has birthed 13 major films and at least six television series alone.

One concept. An alien child crashed on earth, is raised by human parents, and ends up with powers we consider super, which he uses to fight evil and save us, time and time again.  Notice this is not premise (which is synonymous with plot in the context of this understanding).

Not every story needs to be “high concept.”

But the presence of something conceptual – which is the very essence of concept – adds strength to any story.

Concept and premise are different essences, yet one (concept) feeds into the other (premise). One of the most common shortfalls of rejected stories is when a premise doesn’t promise something conceptual to the story, when it’s all plot with nothing fresh or freshly respun, or worse, where there is nothing inherently interesting or provocative at its core.

An Example

I was teaching this at a workshop recently. I asked people to toss out a concept, old or new, for the purpose of seeing whether it met the criteria for concept (which I had presented first, but have not yet revealed here; I do this to see if, upon reading this example, you might quickly and intuitive see how and why it lacks “concept” at the level required to carry an entire novel).steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

“Someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral.”

We talked about this one for a long time.

The Definition of Concept

A concept is the presence of something conceptual at the heart of the story’s essence.

A concept is a central idea or notion that creates context for a story – often for a number of stories, not just your story – built from it.

A concept becomes a contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself.

It is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.

It can be a proposition, a notion, a situation or a condition.

It can be a time or place, or a culture or a speculative imagining.

It can even be a character, if even before the premise itself surfaces there is something conceptual about that character.

Concepts are a matter of degree.  Every story has a concept, the issue then becomes this: how does it contribute toward the reading experience?

Those stolen ashes?  That idea is more suited to a scene in the Part 1 setup of a a novel, something that starts a sequence of events.  But the real concept would be why someone did that, toward what end. And at that level, the criteria shown below would still need to apply.

The Criteria for Concept

It is inherently, before character or plot, interesting, fascinating, provocative, challenging, engaging, even terrifying.

High concepts depart from the norm, they exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility.

Not all stories are high concept. Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story.

Concepts promise a vicarious ride for the reader. Taking them somewhere, or placing them into situations that are not possible, realistic or something tense or horrific, something they would not choose to experience in real life.  But will love experiencing vicariously in your story.

A concept can define the story world itself, create its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: a story set on the moon… that’s conceptual in its own right.)

In summary, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence.

It does not include a hero… unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (examples: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, a ghost, someone born with certain powers or gifts, a real person from history, etc.). A story is then built around that hero leveraging the hero’s conceptual nature.

All of this is a matter of degree.  Do those stolen ashed meet these criteria? Perhaps. Could they crack open a killer story? Maybe that, too. But would that pitch – “someone steals a woman’s ashes on the way to a funeral” – offered in an elevator to an agent, motivate the agent to his the STOP button and hear the entire story

Doubtful. Because a concept is not a tease or a piece of setup. Rather, it is an OMG notion that becomes the contextual foundation of the entire story itself.

It might be helpful to consider what a story without a vivid concept would sound like in a pitch: two people fall in love after their divorce. Period. End of pitch.

And the agent says, “next!”

It’s not a bad story if you can pull it off – the writer of such a story would intend to plumb the depths of characters on both sides of the divorce proposition – but there’s nothing unique or provocative beyond the notion of divorce itself. Which is all too familiar, and therefore not all that strong a concept. If you could bring something contextually fresh to it – like, two people who both want to murder their ex fall in love – then the story has even more upside.

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean.

When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

Concept is genre-driven.

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept (however, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent). Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

If your concept is weak or too familiar within these genres, you have substantially handicapped your story already.

Examples of Criteria-Compliant Concepts

“Snakes on a plane.” (a proposition)

“The world will end in three days.” (a situation/proposition)

“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)

“What if you could go back in time and find your true love?” (a proposition)

“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based upon a lie, one that its church has been protecting for 2000 years?” (a speculative proposition)

“What if a child is sent to earth from another planet, is raised by human parents and grows up with extraordinary super powers?” (a proposition, leading to one of the most iconic characters is all of entertainment)

“What if a jealous lover returned from the dead to prevent his surviving lover from moving on with her life?” (a situation)

“What if a paranormally gifted child is sent to a secret school for children just like him?” (a paranormal proposition)

“A story set in Germany as the wall falls.” (a historical landscape)

“A story set in the deep South in the sixties focusing on racial tensions and norms.”  (a cultural arena)

These cover a breadth of genres, a few of them from iconic modern classics in their own right.

Notice than NONE of these are plots. Each is a framework for a plot. For any number of plots, in fact. The are conceptual.

Just remember: concept is not premise.

This one differentiation can make or break your career.  By way of analogy… concept is the idea to go to college and major in architecture. Premise is actually what happens when you do that, with a fresh and dramatic twist.  Different levels of meaning, with different criteria almost entirely.

Concept, when it works, becomes the reason why your premise will compel readers. Because it is compelling. Fascinating. Intellectually engaging. Emotionally rich. Imbued with dramatic potential. It infuses the premise with something contextually rich, even before you add characters and a plot.

Can you differentiate the concept from the premise in your story?  If not, then this becomes an opportunity to take your story to the next level.

Final thought on this, for now.

Thrillers are one of the most fertile genres for concept. Great thrillers are just that – great – often because of the concept.

Series heroes – Jack Reacher, James Bond, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible stories – become their own concept. People come to the story for Jack Reacher, rather than the specific plot idea on the back cover.  As authors trying to establish a thriller series, this is a critical nuance to understand.

Mysteries, however, are more challenging at the conceptual level. Given that, the creation of a conceptually fresh hero is the key, and then giving her or him something highly vicarious and emotionally-resonant to do.

Of course, this implies the need to grasp the difference between a mystery and a thriller, which is obvious once you get it, less-so before that ah-hah! moment arrives.

Have fun with that one here… I’ll chime in with that difference if it doesn’t emerge clearly in the thread. I have a feeling it will.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with two bestselling books out on the subject, and his third book – Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant – (with a Foreword by Michael Hague, and generously blurbed by several of the authors here on Kill Zone) releases in October from Writers Digest Books.

12 thoughts on “A Nuance of Understanding That Can Change Your Writing Career

  1. I’m currently working through Story Engineering as I prewrite my next book. It’s proving very valuable–I knew a lot of these things intuitively, but not in a way I could nail down. Thanks so much!

  2. Hey Kessie, thanks for being the first into the pool here. Happy to hear the material is resonating with. You’re right, much of this is, or can be, intuitive in nature… but my entire approach is based on the belief that it is better to be prepared than lucky, or happy-go-lucky intuitive as one’s best hand to play.

  3. Thank you, Sir~ this helps with my trying to flesh out what’s what re: concept/premise/plot in my WIP~

  4. Awesome post, Larry. The difference between concept and premise isn’t an easy one to grasp at first, but once you “get it” a whole new world opens up. Your dedication to drilling this point home is inspiring and oh-so-helpful. Wishing you an amazing week!

  5. Thank you. I need to re-read this article several times. I imagine getting the concept into the title, like “Snakes On A Plane” or “Kung Fu Panda” or “Hot Tub Time Machine” brings extra resonance, especially what an audience can expect. Thanks again.

  6. “Superman is a concept.” That is one of the most clarifying sentences you have written. It’s easy to remember and succinct. Thanks.

  7. Unbelievable insight again on the difference between concept and premise, Larry. Thanks a million. I’ve been trying to deepen the concept of my current WIP and this goes a long way to helping that. Again, thank you.

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