All story concepts are not created equal. Even once you get past all the boring, been-there, and just plain blah ideas to the point where you’ve discovered something legitimately interesting and cool—that’s not enough either. Many a cool story concept has gone on to be a wasted story.
But that’s not going to be you! Today, I’m going to show you how to vet your story concept ideas with a simple four-question process.
A strong story concept is the first item you have to check off your “must-have list” on your way to the kind of story agents accept, editors buy, and readers love.
On a certain level, story concept is one of those things that’s so intuitive and foundational, we almost take it for granted. You can’t have a story without a concept. Concept is story. It’s the first kernel of an idea, which, once planted in your imagination, grows into an entire book.
As a writer, you no doubt have story concept after story concept springing up in your brain, on an almost daily basis. Some of them are pretty bland, but some are special right from the get-go.
Here’s how to weed out the runner-up ideas on your way to the winners—and then refine your best idea into a story concept that can support a deep and nuanced novel.
1. What Is Your Story’s Concept?
A story concept is an utterly simple, even general idea. It’s your story at its most basic level. It’s the what-if question that piques your curiosity and pulls you into exploring its potential developments and ramifications. It is not a specific story idea. That’s your premise, and that comes later.
A good story concept is:
At least, to a certain degree—you’ll get more unique when you start adding story specifics in the premise, regarding your characters and conflict.
It raises a question. It’s interesting because it presents an inherent sense of conflict or something out of place.
If the basic idea can’t be stated in one short phrase, it probably isn’t clear enough in your own mind yet. This doesn’t mean the story itself won’t be complex, but the weave of various thematic threads will come later in the process.
Real-Life Story Concepts
Consider a few examples of solid story concepts:
- Star-crossed lovers commit suicide rather than let their feuding families tear them apart.
- World War II soldiers track down the only survivor from amongst four brothers.
- Geeks and gamers compete in a virtual contest.
- A man and his son navigate a bleak post-apocalyptic world.
- A young woman is cursed into old age by a jealous witch.
- Aliens invade the Old West.
These should all be recognizable—because they’re all solid concepts from well-known stories.
That last is the one I particularly want you to pay attention to—because it’s the only one of the bunch that was also a big, fat flop. I am, of course, talking about Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens from a few years back.
On its surface, it was an incredibly fun, can’t-miss story concept.
But it did miss. Big time.
It’s a cautionary tale of how (and why) a high-concept story premise does not guarantee a good story. In fact, just the opposite: the higher your concept, the more responsibility you have to take advantage of it. If you fail, readers will notice the holes and judge your story all the more harshly for them.
So how can you avoid a similar disaster with your story concept? Use the following three questions to make sure you’re creating the right kind of story for your idea and taking advantage of all its possibilities.
2. Is Your Concept More Than a One-Trick Pony?
Once you’ve found a story concept that excites you, the first aspect you must examine is its potential for development. Once you get past the basic setup of the concept, does it raise still more intriguing questions and present interesting avenues to explore?
A good story concept doesn’t end with itself. Rather, it continues to generate idea after idea.
Implicit in this question, of course, is more than just the necessity of verifying that the concept has the wheels to keep rolling. You, as the author, also have push yourself to keep looking for those interesting possibilities and then taking advantage of them.
Story Concept Success:
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One uses its high-concept premise of an immersive virtual reality competition to develop and explore many possible aspects of such a technology through the game itself, but also its effects upon the real world, its criminal element, and its monetization. It uses the concept to create a fully detailed and explored world.
Story Concept Failure:
Cowboys & Aliens was a one-note song. Instead of developing its concept—or, heaven forbid, its characters—it just kept screaming, “Aliens!!!” over and over and over again. The story raised precious few character-oriented questions, and those it did all had the same answer: Aliens.
3. Does Your Concept Have Something to Say Thematically?
The best stories are not really about what they say they’re about. Concept-driven plot is a visual and external metaphor for the characters’ inner journeys. In short, what stories are really about is always theme.
If your story concept doesn’t have the ability to present a “story beneath the story,” then it’s going to be cheap escapism at best. If you’re lucky, it’ll be entertaining enough to keep readers’ attention for the duration. But, frankly, if you’re not getting them to invest on a deeper level—if you’re not engaging both their intellect and their emotion—then you’re wasting two of your most powerful opportunities for keeping them invested in your story.
Simple plot mechanics aren’t enough to truly engage readers. You need to give them more—and that starts with your story concept. Take a look at your idea. Does it present the opportunity to explore interesting aspects of the human experience? Does it present inherent moral, psychological, or naturalistic Lies or Truths? Does it raise questions about life, choices, and consequences?
In short, does it have something to say?
If not, then the idea probably doesn’t have the strength to carry an entire novel. In order to fill out an entire story, you’ll be forced to resort to banging away at that one-note drum from the previous question by harping on the “coolness” of your premise, over and over again, instead of going deeper and wider with your plot, character arcs, and theme.
Story Concept Success:
The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel, about a man and his son wandering and surviving in a barren and hostile world is high concept. But this is never a story about its concept. It uses that idea as merely a jumping-off point for exploring its characters, their choices, and the consequences they are faced with at every turn. This novel uses a premise similar to any number of post-apocalyptic stories, but it rises above all of them for the simple reason that it is an exploration of character and theme.
Story Concept Failure:
Cowboys & Aliens had little to nothing to say thematically. It created a couple potentially interesting character situations (the outlaw protagonist’s past misdeeds and unexpected opportunity to redeem himself; the tyrannical, bigoted rancher’s relationships with his worthless son and unappreciated adopted son). But instead of developing these interesting human stories, it kept pointing at its initial concept: “Look! Aliens! Isn’t this cool?” Yep, it was cool when the title was unveiled. But I think we’re all pretty much over it by now.
4. What Is Your Concept Best Suited For?
Once you’ve verified that your story concept is deep enough to keep asking questions—and once you’ve created a compelling human story as the vehicle in which to explore this uncharted wilderness—your next task is to make sure you choose the right type of story for your concept.
Because a story concept is a general idea, it can potentially be applied to just about any kind of story. Romeo & Juliet could have been a black comedy. Saving Private Ryan could have been horror. Just by tweaking your approach to your story concept, you can potentially end up with any vast number of completely different stories.
Analyze as many angles as you can think of. Think about different genres, different narrative tones, different attitudes to the inherent themes. Which options fit your initial conception of the story? Which options bring even more possibilities to the table?
If you pair the wrong concept with the wrong story, the results can be disappointingly dysfunctional. You can write your way through the entire first draft before realizing you haven’t been able to take full advantage of your cool idea.
Story Concept Success:
Diana Wynne Jones’s beloved YA fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle is a whimsical, often humorous adventure. Had she turned it into something darker or more serious, it might still have been a good story, but it would not have been the same story. Her characters—particularly the vain and irresponsible Howl—would have necessarily been represented much differently in a more serious story.
Story Concept Failure:
As it stands, Cowboy & Aliens should totally have been camp. Humor spices up any story, but when you start out with a premise as delightfully farcical as aliens invading the Old West, it’s simply a wasted opportunity to play it too straight (especially if you’re not prepared to deal with deeper, darker themes).
How’s your story concept looking in the light of the answers to these four questions?
- Is it solid and exciting?
- Is it teeming with possible avenues for you to explore?
- Or is it still just sitting there trying its best to look cool?
Finding a story concept that can go the distance is the difference between a story you’ll finish and sell—and a story you won’t sell and may not even be able to finish. Take the time to vet your ideas before you start that first draft and make sure you’re taking advantage of every single opportunity presented by your best story concepts.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How does your story concept stack up against these questions? Tell me in the comments!
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