With so many entertainment options vying for our readership’s attention, we, as writers, have got to get our stories to stand out loud and to stand out quickly. So what’s our tool for standing out?
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Believe it or not, it’s not our prose.
I know, but it’s true. The commercially oriented readership (which is the one I’m going for) doesn’t care how well we write. Not at first anyway. Most story browsers give each cover less than two seconds’ consideration. And some agents may say they read pages regardless of the query, but I’m willing to bet that the mood in which agents read our sample pages is strongly affected by how much we’ve already hooked them with our concept. Will they read with interest or with reluctance? The answer is up to us.
It’s up to us to make the most of our concept’s potential. And it’s up to us to find a way to present it quickly and compellingly. Because it’s up to us to make our potential readership pause during their perusal of options and take a closer look at our project. Because only then will they notice our prose and storytelling.
So what is concept?
Larry Brooks says concept is: something that asks a question, that implies conflict and sets the stage for a story. Further, concept is “best and most empowering when expressed as a ‘What if?’ question.”
For Blake Snyder, concept is the answer to ‘What is it?’ The answer can include references to familiar book or movie titles (such as X meets Y, the reverse X, or X in space). But it can also be the same as answering ‘What happens?’ in the fastest, most sales-y, attention-grabbing way possible.
Syd Field says concept (what he calls ‘subject’) is: character in action.
For Karl Iglesias, concept (which he uses interchangeably with ‘great idea’) is: uniquely familiar and promises conflict. This definition is okay as a set of criteria, but it’s only after he explains these terms that he starts giving us something more concrete to work with. All told, he seems to be saying that concept sets forth a unique situation that promises conflict that will give rise to familiar emotions.
James Bonnet says that concept is: an intriguing story idea stated in as few words as possible that is easily understood by all and that arouses an emotional response. This also provides nice criteria without really giving a starting point, but Mr. Bonnet goes on to say that a statement about the threat causing the story problem often fulfills his criteria.
For Michael Hague, any story’s concept can be expressed in one sentence: It’s about a [character type] who wants to [do something visible].
And for Jim Mercurio, “A high-concept [story] has a clearly defined, easy-to-pitch premise that quickly conveys the inherent nature of the conflict and that suggests intriguing, concrete possibilities about how the conflict will develop.”
A top-of-the-line concept tool?
After reading these perspectives, it seems to me that we state a compelling concept, and our story will stand out, when the we suggest something curious about the subject of the idea.
It is the “something curious”, the something off, the something that normally isn’t, that gives a concept its oomph. It’s also the “something curious” that raises in our audience’s mind questions so intriguing that they Must. Seek. Answers. And so they follow through and read our stories, because it is only the unfolding drama of our stories that can give them answers.
So, putting this into a sort of plug-and-play illustration of each master’s approach, concept can be stated as:
1. Mr. Brooks: What if [something curious and conflict-suggesting about] [the subject of my idea]?
2. Mr. Snyder: What is it? [Something curious about] [the subject of my idea].
3. Mr. Field: [The (curious) subject of my idea] [does something (curious)].
4. Mr. Iglesias: [A curious situation involving] [the subject of my idea] [causes this conflict] [and gives rise to these familiar emotions].
5. Mr. Bonnet: [The curious threat].
6. Mr. Hague: It is about a [(curious) character] who wants to [do something (curious)]
Need some examples of concept?
Let’s say we want to write about a lawyer or boats or hope or a dance troupe or diamonds or notepads. And let’s say our masters asked us to pitch our concepts like they would. Possible concepts could be:
1. Mr. Brooks: What if a human rights lawyer joins the devil’s firm?
2. Mr. Snyder: What is it? A boat disappears during a government experiment.
3. Mr. Field: A guy with a fear of dogs discovers that hope has four legs and a terrible snore.
4. Mr. Iglesias: A high school dance troupe rallies around its wrongly suspended captain to form a karate team and take state before they graduate.
5. Mr. Bonnet: Terrorists are making diamond bullets. 5 words.
6. Mr. Hague: It’s about a 3M scientist who wants to develop the worlds strongest adhesive but accidentally develops Post-its.
Any of these concept pitches could be switched around to meet the other masters’ approaches. In other words, all of these approaches could be stated as a Mr. Brooks “What if?” question; could answer Mr. Snyder’s “What is it?” question; could be restated in terms of character in action; could be expanded to include details on the conflict and emotions the story will explore; could be reworded to highlight the threat; and could be stated as a character wanting something visible.
I personally like the ‘What if?’ approach because it prompts you to dig deeper and to also ask ‘So what?’ I also like Mr. Iglesias’ approach, because it forces you to consider the emotional aspect of your story, which is the whole satisfying point of reading it. There’s also a lot to be said for Mr. Bonnet’s insistance that we use the fewest words possible, because this makes it easier for people who like your story to tell others.
But I find that I use them all. When developing a concept to its optimized, maximized potential, I use them all, because each emphasizes a different angle that helps round out the initial idea.
Great, so where do we start?
How do you develop your concept? Start by asking yourself questions.
Mr. Brooks already told us one great question prompt: What if? And Mr. Hague concurs. He says, “The writer thinks of a character, situation, or event and begins to ponder: What if such and such happened?” The pondering will lead to a plot situation or a character, and “then you will begin looking for either the character to best enhance your plot or the plot situation to best bring out the qualities of your character.”
Or… What is it about your idea that drove you to pursue it in the first place? What is it about your idea that you’ve never seen before? To realize the full potential of your concept, “you need to understand the power that drew you to it,” as Laura Whitcomb says, “pull that glowing core out, and look at it closely.” There’s awe and wonder in there. Isolate it. Observe it from all angles. Then ask yourself what could make that more interesting. Elevate that to a level that makes it interesting to others.
Or… Did your initial idea come to you as a great character? What’s the worst or most ironic thing that could happen to that kind of character?
Or… As Mr. Bonnet suggests, drill down to the essence of your story, which is often, what he calls, the threat, the antagonistic force that’s causing all the conflict. How is the threat, or what the threat is doing, completely awesome?
Still not inspired? Research your subject. Start online and then move to books, documentaries, interviews….
Or check out the Hooks post.
Those concepts I wrote above were pretty top-drawer. I didn’t put much effort into them. Meaning I could probably make them better. So how do we make our ho-hum concepts better? Here’s a list of criteria the masters say lead to the most compelling of concepts.
1. It’s Clear
The concept should say what the story is in a way that’s immediately understandable to everyone.
2. It’s Fresh
Don’t like that word? How about: new, original, unique, curious, intriguing, fascinating, provocative, exciting. Mr. Snyder likes the word “ironic” (as do others, and it’s distinctive–and important–enough to warrant its own listing, so see number 10, below). Use whatever word inspires you. Either way, the concept should present a situation that’s unexpected. Something you don’t see every day. Something that makes you do a double-take.
3. It’s Familiar
For Mr. Iglesias, a concept is familiar if we can relate to the emotional ride the main character will go through, even if the familiar emotions are (and should be!) caused by unfamiliar or even outrageous events. Mr. Iglesias also suggests that including what’s emotionally familiar about your story in your concept can elevate the concept, even if there’s nothing particularly unique about the story.
4. It Implies Conflict
A compelling concept implies a character’s goal or motivation, the conflict, and the stakes. We’ll get to all of these in more detail in later weeks, but for now I leave you with words from Mr. Iglesias: “The clearer the conflict the better. Who’s fighting whom about what? Why should we care?”
5. It Promises More
High concepts give a clear sense of what more the story promises. What kinds of promises? The promise of an exciting adventure. An emotional roller coaster. A satisfying outcome. A fresh perspective. A new world. Mary Kole says, “We read fiction to experience larger-than-life things that likely won’t–or can’t–happen to us.” In that sense, high concept stories promise fantasy fulfillment. And the more universal the fantasy, the better.
6. It Compels a Mental Image
As Mr. Snyder says, a good concept will “bloom in your mind when you hear it.” It forms a picture in your mind of the story’s landscape. It gets you already starting to relate, already experiencing the journey, already wondering how the situation might play out. You can see the potential conflict, the More that’s promised, the cover art. The whole story blossoms with possibilities, all from just your concept.
7. It’s Specific
A specific version of your concept will trump a vague version of your concept every time, because if it’s vague, it won’t form a mental picture, it won’t know what more to promise. The bonus of developing a specific concept is that, whether you like to outline before you write or not, it will set you up for a more streamlined and enjoyable writing experience.
8. It’s Short
“The best way to distinguish between a high-concept and low-concept story idea is found in the pitch: how easy or how difficult it is to describe the entire story in one or two tight sentences?” says Mr. Mercurio.
As Mr. Bonnet says, “The fewer the words, the higher the concept.” But also, concept is the ultimate tool for word-of-mouthers. You won’t be around to help first-readers explain your story, so you have to give them a memorable and effective tool that helps them get others excited about your work.
9. It Elicits an Immediate Emotional Response
It is emotion that gets people to look closer, to want to learn more, to want to read your story. This can be any emotion, from simply becoming excited to read to already feeling heart-broken for the main character. It doesn’t matter much, so long as it causes those who encounter your concept to feel something.
10. It’s Ironic
H.R. D’Costa says irony is “the juxtaposition of opposites. In other words, your story concept must plausibly pair at least two opposing elements that audiences wouldn’t, as a general rule, expect to encounter together.” She offers several ironic combination examples:
- “protagonist faces a problem; but, due to his considerable, relevant expertise, he’s the least likely person to be in such a predicament” (Minority Report*)
- “protagonist must solve a problem. Yet, despite his considerable relevant expertise, he’d be the candidate least likely to be chosen” (a terrorist is asked to thwart a bomb)
- fish out of water or into “new waters.” (Liar Liar*, Miss Congeniality*)
- “the protagonist is a novice,” making him untested and least likely (The Silence of the Lambs*, Romancing the Stone*, Kung Fu Panda*)
- protagonist is competent in dealing with other people’s problems, but not the same problems within himself (Hitch*)
- two people least likely to be in a relationship find themselves falling in love (Out of Sight*, The Town*)
Words of Caution
Mr. Brooks and Ms. Snyder both mentioned M. Night Shyamalan as a cautionary tale. Why? Because, as Mr. Brooks says, concept “isn’t just about cleverness and a trick ending.” It’s about setting the stage for something awesome, something that connects to character and theme, something with meaning and value and resonance. Something with stakes. (All of which we’ll get to. Exciting, yeah?)
Mr. Iglesias cautions that if someone hears your one-sentence concept and says, “Cool. What’s it about?” then you don’t have a high concept. It should be immediately understandable and envisioned.
Another caution: Make sure to check if someone’s already done your thing. Not that you can’t do it too, but you’ll have to find a way to distinguish your version.
So how do I know when my concept is ready?
How do you know when your concept is good enough to stand out among the masses?
My favorite way of knowing is goosebumps. When I hit on the right, compelling aspect of an idea, I get goosebumps. And if it’s giving me goosebumps, it’ll probably give other people goosebumps.
Mr. Iglesias recommends that, after you’ve developed your one-sentence synopsis (which we’ll get to next week), you highlight–literally, in bold or with a highlighter–the unique situation or the unique aspect of your pitch. If you can’t do it, if nothing’s really eye-poppingly original, then keep tinkering. If you can do it, then your concept is probably high, it’s probably compelling.
Then test market the idea; pitch the concept to everyone. Watch their eyes. There’s no better gauge of concept. Then, once you’ve got their attention–you’ll know cause their eyes’ll light up, they’ll ask for more–you need to be able to back it up with a compelling one-sentence synopsis of the story.
Don’t worry. We’ll look at the one-sentence synopsis, or what some call the premise or the logline, next week.
Best Books About Concept
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That’s it for me!
What about you? What sort of tools do you use when uping the wow factor of your concept? Tell us in the comments!
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Also, people have been hiring me to review their loglines with the kind of analysis seen here and here, and I’m enjoying it. So, if you think your logline (or something else!) might benefit from a looksie and want to hire me to review it, email me at writeswithtools @ gmail dot com.
Up next, on Wednesday!
We’ll look at how some master storytellers maximize their concepts. See you then!