Concept is a word that gets tossed around all the time at author conventions, college writing courses and in any book on craft you happen to pick up, but what is it exactly?
For the purpose of this article, I want you to think of concept as the world in which your story takes place. Simply put, it is your story universe. Authors who have been writing for a long time will argue that concept is more complicated, but indulge me. (Who’s writing this anyway? Me. So we’ll do this my way.) Concept is the framework for your story and it should have some sort of conflict built in. The Dresden Files is an example of a high concept story world. The concept? A private investigator in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard and he investigates the supernatural.
The television show Castle is another example of concept: A writer who follows a homicide detective around and helps her solve cases.
Or how about a farm boy who learns he is actually the descendant of a powerful race of knights who are able to tap into the elementary magic of the universe. He is destined to save the galaxy from evil knights hell bent on ruling it.
Note that all these story concepts have conflict built into the premise. Strip away the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, and Star Wars is about a boy who works on a farm. No one wants to read a sci-fi book about a farmhand in outer space. It’s not enough to have a fictional landscape for your characters to live in, that landscape needs conflict.
Really good concept has conflict built into the premise. Even the most pedestrian of our previous examples has it. Castle is, at the end of the day, another television murder mystery. What sets it apart, however, is the concept. Writers aren’t trained for police work and cops typically don’t like having a tag-a-long. Add in the sexual tension between Castle and the smoking hot female detective and you’ve got a dynamite concept with plenty of potential. Eight seasons of potential to be exact.
Need another example of concept? Look no further than comic books. Every single Marvel superhero is an example of high concept in action. Take a regular guy, give him super powers, and you’ve got concept.
Some of you might be thinking, “Hold up there, Miller, I don’t want to write comic books. I want to write something gritty and real.”
No problemo. Concept doesn’t require space ships, laser swords or superpowers. Let’s look at something a little closer to terrafirma. Three brothers are killed in the assault on Normandy and military brass tasks a squad of soldiers with the job of hiking across war torn France, finding the last surviving brother, and getting him home safely to spare his mother the heart break of losing all four sons. Saving Private Ryan. Again, notice the concept has conflict built in.
Here’s another, A Vietnam vet get’s arrested in a small town by an over zealous Police Chief, breaks out of jail, and starts a miniature version of the war in the mountain of Oregon.
Both of these prove that you don’t need space aliens for a good story concept. In fact, I would argue that all you really need is a villain hell bent on making mischief (nuclear bomb, world domination, poison the water supply—you pick) and a hero determined him. That’s the concept for every single James Bond film.
By now I hope the idea of concept is coming into focus for you.
The more astute reader will have figured out that our idea of concept as story world has shifted, from an alternate world which either closely resembles our own or a wholly separate universe with it’s own rules, to a more recognizable landscape with a central problem. This can be categorized as high concept and (because I don’t like the term low concept) just concept, respectively. The one thing both have in common is conflict.
For our purposes here we will define high concept as a unique story world with it’s own rules and internal logic, similar to Star Wars. The rules surrounding Luke Skywalker’s use of the force is consistent within the story world. These high concept story worlds are only effective if they have conflict built into the design.
Concept is a story world that more closely resembles our own, with rules which are consistent to our physical universe, similar to Rambo. Green Berets and police chiefs both exist. The conflict inherent in this story world comes from two opposing forces.
By now you might be thinking, “I get it already, but how do I come up with a great concept that has plenty of conflict built in?”
You are in luck! For only 3 easy payments of $99.95 I’ll tell you the secret to creating story concepts which you can use to write New York Times best sellers! Act now and I’ll throw in a free toaster oven!
Only joking. Because I’m such a swell guy, I’m going to give you the secret for free. Start by asking yourself “what if…”
What if a corrupt president had a supreme court justice murdered? Hmmm… It has potential, but it needs more. What if there is a witness? Now we are onto something. Let’s say our fictional Supreme Court Justice, we’ll call him Tony Spaglia, is enjoying a weekend at his hunting lodge. The hitman poisons him to make it look like a heart attack, only there is a witness. Unbeknownst to the killer, the Judge had invited his niece (a bit of a wild child) at the last minute, hoping he could convince her to clean up her act and go back to college. She sees the whole thing. She even has a picture of the killer on her cellphone.
Now we are getting somewhere. This has conflict built right in.
The niece is on the run. Our fictional president, we’ll call him Barry Sotoro, (who bares no resemblance to any real president who was the most corrupt individual to ever hold office, I digress) has flunkies inside the NSA hunting for the girl. They trump up false charge against her and every law enforcement agency in America is trying to track her down. Now we are really getting somewhere. We’ve got the most corrupt president in history.
This book is practically writing itself, but we need to give her an alley. What if the only person who believes her story is a washed up journalist who was fired for trying to report the truth about beltway insiders? He’s given up trying to show America how corrupt the system is and he’s teaching journalism to college Juniors. The niece was one of his favorite students before she dropped out. Together they have to figure out a way to prove that the President had Spaglia murdered.
Those of you who don’t have your head shoved firmly up your rectum, might recognize certain elements from our story. You might be thinking, “Check your privilege, Miller, I think I read something in a newspaper about a Supreme Court Justice who died of a heart attack in a hunting cabin. Are you just pulling this stuff from the news?”
I get a lot of my best story ideas from the news. You could do worse. Try starting your morning with the newspaper and asking yourself, what if? Or reading history books and asking what if? The television show Man in the High Castle is an example of alternate history which is basically asking what if the Nazi’s won the second world war. Harry Turtledove basically made a living writing alternate history books.
Another well known author who uses this technique is Stephen King. Love him or hate him, King has sold a few books in his day and basically every single one of them boil down to a what if scenario. What if the flu wiped out 90% of the earth’s population? The Stand. What if an alien space ship, buried in the earth, is uncovered and starts giving people supernatural abilities? Tommyknockers. What if a vampire buys a house in a small town and treats the town’s folk like happy-meals on legs? Salem’s Lot.
Michael Crichton used the same formula only his scenarios involve science. What if researchers managed to breed dinosaurs and put them in a theme park? What if workers laying an under water cable discovered a space ship on the bottom of the ocean floor? You get the picture.
Now, admittedly, as this article has progressed, the ideas of concept and premise have started to overlap, and that’s because (despite what some would claim) concept and premise have a lot of overlap. There is a large grey area in story telling where the two begin to intersect and intermingle. For our purpose today, and to keep things simple in your noggin, think of concept as the world in which your story takes place and remember that world is better off if it has some kind of inherent conflict.
I’d like to say coming up with story concept is easy. It’s not. But you’ll know when you’ve got a good one, because the concept will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes time to outline your novel. If you need help in that department, check out Hard-Boiled Outlines.