by Larry Brooks
Sometimes – even frequently – the source of weakness and dysfunction within a story dwells in the nature of the premise itself; i.e., the degree, or complete lack of, something compelling within the premise proposition. But when we add a conceptual layer to thatpremise, a stronger story framework is suddenly in place, something that just might differentiate it within the marketplace.
When an agent or editor reader says “it’s just not for me,” but can’t or won’t be specific about what might be wrong or weak, that’s a clue that the premise itself is the wrong-note element. Because they are looking for something exceptional. And while your writing might be perfectly fine, the premise itself might be perfectly mediocre.
What is interesting to you may not be as interesting to someone else. Concept is a story essence that can turn this situation around.
Concept and premise are different things.
Which – when fused – become a sum in excess of either part. This truth is something not commonly discussed within the writing conversation – because it is not commonly recognized as a thing. And yet, a compelling concept at the heart of the premise is one of the most visible hallmarks of bestsellers and break-in novels. They also become the common thread of a successful series; the concept drives the entire arc, while each installment brings a different premise that springs from it.
Concepts are not stories. They are the framework for a story. They can render a story highly compelling, even at a glance. When recognition of weakness gels, adding something conceptual can be a key first step in the repair process. One that doesn’t necessarily call for a new premise, but rather, a premise that is elevated and strengthened.
Concept is a tricky issue.
You could write a novel from this idea: “a story about a guy living alone in a big city.” That actually is a concept, just not a very compelling one. It’s flat, and therefore dead on arrival. You don’t need to chuck it, but you do need to enhance it to save it, to make it competitive in the marketplace.
A better concept might look like this: “a story about a wealthy widower who suddenly finds himself alone after thirty years of marriage and moves to Los Angeles to live with his younger brother, a film director who enjoys life in the fast lane. The man must negotiate his staid values and comfort level with the onslaught of aggressive, sophisticated women who seem to want to rescue him from his depression.”
That’s the concept. The premise is him meeting someone within that life that challenges who he is while putting his heart at risk.
This second example meets several of the criteria for a compelling concept, one of which is this: The reader hasn’t encountered this story before, or if she has, this offers a new and intriguing twist.
The acid test of a compelling concept is simple.
If you pitch your concept—without adding elements of the premise to make it dramatic—and your listener responds, “Wow, now that is interesting. I can’t wait to read a story based on that idea,” then you’ve hit pay dirt. Because the concept isn’t the idea, it’s the framework for the forthcoming premise itself
If you pitched, for example, Superman as a concept, chances are it would elicit excitement about seeing the story told from it. And then, when that works, there are many other Superman premises right behind it.
The word compelling, though, is a mixed bag. Because Superman may not be something that rings the bell of whoever is listening in.
Readers of romances may not find the notion of traveling to a different dimension to encounter an alien life force all that compelling. Even if it is a romance, if you set the story in an alternate universe then it is also something else.
But what about a series novel? Is that conceptual? If the novel is compelling enough to float a sequel, then it is probably inherently conceptual, usually because the hero is precisely that. Jack Reacher, for example. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Harry Potter. Readers say, I can’t wait for the next installment, even when the next book is its own unique premise. What makes a sequel or a series beholden to the concept that is driving each premise within it.
Here are some examples of inherently conceptual concepts.
“Snakes on a plane” (a proposition)
“The world will end in three days.” (a situation)
“Two morticians fall in love.” (an arena)
“What if you could go back in time and reinvent your life?” (a proposition)
“What if the world’s largest spiritual belief system is based on a lie, one that its largest church has been protecting for two thousand 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 superpowers?” (a proposition)
“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 fourteen-year-old murder victim narrates the story of her killing and the ensuing investigation from heaven?” (a narrative proposition)
“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)
Notice that none of these are stories yet. These are not premises. They are concepts.
In general, if you can add “hijinks ensue” to the end of your concept, you may be on to something good that will lead to a compelling premise.
Rest assured, though, you will hear this differentiation (concept vs. premise) mangled in the marketplace. Even among agents, editors and crusty old authors who don’t like their vernacular to be challenged. But even they are leveraging the power of concept, by virtually of simply having an evolved story sense that won’t settle for a premise that isn’t infused with a conceptual layer.
High Concepts vs. Real-World Concepts
High concepts exist at the extreme edge of imagination and possibility. They are more conceptual than common, real-world concepts. Examples would be Batman and Wolverine and the Avengers, which bring in fantastical and supernatural elements.
Stories about real people in real situations also benefit from something that creates a compelling context for the story. Something about a hero can be conceptual – Harry Bosch, for example – or something a character does or believes or must deal with can be conceptual. For example, one of the main characters in Gone Girl conspires to kill herself while framing her husband for her death. She’s a psychopath, which becomes the the concept itself. And thus, the heart and soul of the premise that it informs.
- can be character-centric, like Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes.
- can be a speculative proposition, like The Da Vinci Code or Star Wars.
- can be thematically conceptual, like The Help or The Cider House Rules.
- can be lifted from perspectives and drama in the real world, like a story about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team or Apollo 11.
- offer a setting, time, or place rendered conceptual by virtue of the promise it makes: The forthcoming story will play out there. Historical novels live and breathe by this conceptual potential.
- could be about stories set within a given culture, such as Fifty Shades of Grey or a story about the Blue Angels or even the Hells Angels.
Notice how almost every single movie featuring Tom Cruise is driven by a premise set ablaze with a high concept. Top Gun? The concept is the F-14 footage that infuses the story with energy and sex appeal. MInority Report? The proposition of the role of law enforcement is the concept, and the specifics of the dramatic arc become the premise that is fueled by that idea. Or that story where he can relive a moment time after time… that is nothing if not conceptual.
A concept can inject speculative, surreal possibilities, such as time travel, ghosts, paranormal abilities, cloning, etc., into an otherwise normal reality.
In short, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the premise and story built from it. It is the framework within which a story will be delivered. A proposition. A context. It imbues the story with a given presence. It elicits that sought-after response: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before, at least treated in that way. I really want to read the story that deals with these things.”
If The Help had been set in 1997 Omaha rather than 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, the story would have been quite different and quite diminished, because the former is a less compelling concept, and the story would be less effective, even with the exact same premise. The cultural setting is the concept, by virtue of the social framework it delivers.
A concept does not include a hero … unless the hero is, by definition, a conceptual creation (like a Superhero or an angel or a vampire, which is the case in several of the examples just given).Such stories are built around a protagonist leveraging a conceptual nature. What makes these heroes fascinating, and therefore conceptual, is the proposition that renders them unique and appealingly different (think Nancy Drew, Stephanie Plum, or Wonder Woman), with or without supernatural powers.
Sometimes the genre is, in fact, the concept. Ghost stories. Vampire stories. Time travel stories. Historicals. Space travel. We flock to these because of the ghosts and vampires and trips back in time, not necessarily because of the dramatic premise itself. And yet, those premises are inherently rich and compelling from square one, precisely because of the concepts driving them.
Wrap your head around this notion as a powerful story-enhancer, and you may find yourself writing stories that are already in the wheelhouse of the agents, editors and readers who are looking for them.