The definition of story may seem a bit like defining food for a room full of wannabe chefs, it is the lack of a full and enlightened—that being the key word here—definition that holds many writers back. You’d be shocked at how many writers, even some who have been attending workshops for years and have written many novels and screenplays along the way, continue to turn in manuscripts that aren’t actually stories at all. Instead they are character sketches or episodic expositions that don’t exhibit the minimum criteria that would turn them into a story.
Story may seem obvious and intuitive. But it’s not.
The same is true of concept.
Defining concept is tricky because, in the lexicon of the writing world, it is both overused and misused, and therefore, often misunderstood. The confusion stems from the fact that concept is, sometimes subtly, a different essence than an idea or even a premise. And it is very different from theme, which is a common source of confusion on this issue.
All three terms—idea, concept, and premise—have become generic and interchangeable. And while that may be harmless in a casual conversation, it becomes problematic for writers seeking to understand the most basic core realm of their story.
What a Concept is Not
Your story’s concept is an element that is nonnegotiable. It doesn’t have to be high concept, but there does need to be a concept in play. If you accept that concept is not the same thing as an idea, and if all you begin with is an idea rather than a concept, you are setting yourself up for failure.
A non-story example: An idea is to travel to Florida. A concept is to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise is to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road.
Now let’s put that notion in literary terms, looking at the initial seed of a story. An idea would be to write a story about raising the Titanic from the bottom on the sea. A great idea. A concept would be to suggest that there are secrets still hidden there that certain forces would kill to keep concealed. A premise would be to create an archetypical hero who is hired to do this job and in doing so saves his country from potential attack.
With apologies to Clive Cussler, that’s what Raise the Titanic! could have been, proposed here solely to help differentiate the different realms and contexts of these three terms. Clive did just fine with that story without my help, so let’s move on.
Idea vs. concept vs. premise. They are the same, but different—critically different when you are planning and writing your story.
It could be said that a concept is actually an idea by another name. But this is like saying that a piece of bread and the world’s most delicious brochette are the same thing. Bread, yes. But brochette is bread on steroids, bread dressed to kill, which is precisely how one should contrast the essence of a concept vs. that of a mere idea. A concept is an idea that has been evolved to the point where a story becomes possible. A concept becomes a platform, a stage, upon which a story may unfold.
A concept, it could be said—and it should be viewed this way—is something that asks a question. The answer to the question is your story.
The idea to write a story about ballet dancers is not a concept. It is just an idea. But when you add a forward-thinking realm to that idea, and do it in the form of a question—what if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres against great prejudice to become a professional dancer?—you have evolved the idea into the realm of conceptualization.
The initial idea always becomes a subset of the concept. It remains at its heart, but the concept is so much more than the idea alone.
Notice in this example how the expanded idea (concept) is already a snapshot of a story. How it asks a question that suggests an answer. The answer is the story. An idea that asks no question and presents no dramatic stage is not a story. It is not yet a concept until it does.
Notice, too, how the concept is not the plot itself, only a window into it. It cannot be a plot until conflict is introduced and defined, and certain sequential milestones are set in place. If your idea is to create a certain character, that doesn’t become a concept until you give that character something to do, something to achieve or survive.
An idea can also be thematic intention—such as, I want to write a story about infidelity. I want to write a story about addiction recovery. I want to write a story about corporate greed. These are all themes. There is not a concept among them … yet.
An idea can suggest or envision a character. I want to write a story about a fighter pilot. I want to write a story about a cheating husband. I want to write a story about a dishonest lawyer. None of these are themes, though theme quickly springs to mind. And none of them are concepts … yet.
An idea can even spring from a linear structure. I want to write a story about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. I want to write a story about someone who recovers from cancer. Again, no theme yet, no character yet, and no concept. At least not yet.
An idea can spring forth from any of the four elements of story—concept, character, theme, story structure—as defined by the Six Core Competencies. Which is to say, an idea can be a concept, a character, a theme, or a sequence of events. Until one or more of the elements from the core competencies is added to it, though, it is none of those things.
Concept as a Delivery Strategy
A story about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and their gold medal may seem to defy the notion of a concept, because it is what it is, you can’t mess with the truth. But you can—and should—land upon a conceptual delivery strategy to show us that truth, and it doesn’t always have to do with plot. The moment you tell that story through the eyes of a single player—the goalie, for example, or maybe the coach—then you have evolved the idea into the realm of concept. What if we tell the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team through the eyes of the goalie who became the spirit and face of that team, making the journey more personal and visceral, as opposed to journalistic?
Now you have a story to tell (it became the 2004 hit movie Miracle, starring Kurt Russell). You didn’t at that initial idea stage.
In the movie industry, studio executives have ideas. Let’s do a film about a haunted house. Let’s do a film about a submarine. The list is endless and highly redundant. In almost every case, though, they hire a writer to evolve their idea into a story. And it begins by taking the idea to a conceptual level.
In The Lovely Bones, a terrific and hugely successful novel, Alice Sebold’s concept has as much to do with her delivery strategy as it does the story’s plot. Her idea was to tell us a story that shows us what heaven is like. Her concept was to create a narrator for the story who was already in heaven, narrating the tale directly from heaven, and then turning it into a murder mystery. Notice how the original idea, at that stage, didn’t have that level of depth, and therefore it wasn’t a platform for a story at all—a concept—until it did.
Sebold’s concept, then, could be expressed as a question that demands an answer: What if a murder victim can’t rest in heaven because her crime remains unsolved, and chooses to get involved to help her loved ones gain closure?
Now that’s a story. One that sold over ten million copies, by the way.
Concept vs. Idea vs. Premise vs. Theme
Let’s continue with The Lovely Bones to clarify how concept is its own essential core competency, while idea, premise, and theme are different elements altogether. An idea is always a subset of concept. A concept is a subset of premise. But neither the idea nor the premise becomes a story without a qualifying concept.
Once you turn an idea into a compelling “what if?” proposition, you have something that throws the door open to a story. You have a concept. Could you still call that concept an “idea,” in a non-literary sense? You could—just as you can call a stealth fighter an airplane, or brain surgery an operation. But a concept is so much more than an idea. When you refer to an “idea” in this generic sense, you’re just using the word as a noun rather than a more precise writing term. That’s good enough for elevator talk, but not sufficiently enlightened to help you face the blank page.
A premise is a concept that has brought character into the mix. As such, it could be said that a premise is, in fact, an expanded concept. “What if the narrator of a story spoke to us from heaven about her own murder?” That’s a concept. “What if a fourteen-year-old girl cannot rest in heaven, and realizes that her family cannot rest on earth, because her murder remains unsolved, so she intervenes to help uncover the truth and bring peace to those who loved her, thus allowing her to move on?” That’s a premise, because of the hero’s quest it defines. A matter of degree, perhaps, but one the author must understand.
Theme is a completely separate can of worms. For now, as we seek to contrast it from concept, understand that theme is the essence of what a story means, rather than a descriptor of plot or character. What does the story of the raising of the Titanic mean to you? What does it illuminate about real life, about the world? What does it make you think about and feel? If there are answers to those questions, you are talking about theme, not concept.
Your initial idea can come from the realm of theme. When John Irving wanted to create a story about abortion, he did just that. His original thematic idea for The Cider House Rules expanded into a concept about an orphanage, a young doctor, and an incestuous father-daughter relationship. But not until he evolved it so that it served as a dramatic stage did it become a concept.
Some might consider these labeling issues moot. But as the creator of your stories, you need to have a handle on the different realms of understanding you must bring to your story, and if you can’t differentiate them, you can’t get there efficiently, or even effectively. If you write from an idea that is not yet a concept, your drafts will suffer for it until you do. If you write without a concept at all—some do, you’ve just never heard of them—settling for a linear flow of episodic narratives, your drafts will fail until you do. If you begin writing with only a theme in mind, believing that your theme is your concept (by definition, it’s not), you’ll end up with an essay or an editorial more than you will a story, and your attempt to retrofit plot and character into such a development strategy will likely turn out to be quite a mess.
When you accept that an idea is yet not a concept, and that a compelling concept is required, you are much further down the story development road than you would be otherwise.
And if your idea came to you in the form of a legitimate concept—it happens—your next task is to test it by seeing how smoothly it connects you to the other requisite elements.
Learn more about Larry Brook’s Six Core Competencies model in his book Story Engineering