4 Ways To Tell Your Story Has A Solid Concept

4 Ways to Verify Your Story Concept Is Strong Enough

4 Ways To Tell Your Story Has A Solid Concept

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:

  • Unique

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.

  • Dichotomous

It raises a question. It’s interesting because it presents an inherent sense of conflict or something out of place.

  • Simple

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.

cowboys-aliens-alien

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?

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.

Ready Player One Ernest Cline

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.

The Road Viggo Mortensen

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.

Romeo and Juliet Saving Private Ryan

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.

Howl's Moving Castle

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).

Cowboys and Ancient Aliens Meme

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I always thought Romeo and Juliet *was* a dark comedy, with its almost farcical declarations of true love after meeting for 10 seconds, combined with over the top romantic dialogue. Then taken to the ridiculous extreme of suicide!? And a double suicide based on a misunserstanding no less…. I always figured it became a great romance because everyone just missed the point. Maybe it’s just me.
    Anyway, i wanted to say thanks so much for this, I’ve really enjoyed your posts over the past few years, and I’ve learned a lot. Your books are excellent as well, and I recommend them to everyone I know who wants to learn about story structure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. You may be right. Speaking of which, the reference to Romeo & Juliet in this trailer made me laugh so hard: https://youtu.be/2BrKGHl5EXQ

    • Based on the attitudes of the era Shakespeare wrote in, I believe it’s generally accepted that it was intended as a tragedy about the follies of youth. Obsessive, all-consuming love wasn’t romanticized then the way it is now. So while I’m not sure to what extent it was intended to be humorous, you’re absolutely correct that “it became a great romance because everyone just missed the point.”

  2. Thank you for this post. Very insightful. I especially related to topic #3-Theme. This is what I focus on the most. I want to make sure that my stories convey different aspects of the human experience and that’s the overall themes of my stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For me, theme is always the magic ingredient that takes a story from good to great. That added depth makes all the difference.

  3. When reading this, I immediately began thinking of “The Purge” films. What a great concept! One day out of the year where all crime is legal. There are so many possibilities here to run with. Unfortunately, the stories behind the films don’t do the concept justice, especially the first one. Even the twist at the end where we learn that the neighbours were resentful to the protagonist family for profiteering from the Purge all these years wasn’t enough to save it. The second Purge was noticeably better but still more could have been done with it and from what I heard, the third one coming out isn’t up to much. Proof they should have used my idea for the film. 🙂

  4. To me, the story concept has to get you interested enough to buy the book/watch the movie. The way the writer fleshes out the story concept gets you to fall in love with the story when (and after) you read it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Great writing doesn’t get people to read a book (unless they’re already familiar with the author). There has to be something to hook their interest so they can *discover* the great writing inside.

  5. Exquisite post. This bit particularly: “Take a look at your idea. Does it present the opportunity to explore interesting aspects of the human experience?”

  6. Unique is a binary absolute. It can’t be kinda unique or such. Given that could it be on the way to unique? Maybe. One of the common misused words. Otherwise I read all your posts eventually. Your ebook on story structure was a huge explosion on my mind. As an ex-software guy structure has been big in my profession for over 50 years. Thanks for both your books and your blogs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a valid point. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re just look for “fresh” takes on the same ideas.

    • Technically true, but also a definition that makes the word useless. Literal “unique” doesn’t really exist in the known universe. However, in the more commonly used way, there are certainly things that are more or less unique than other things. I’d rather have a word that’s useful than insist on some pedantic, prescriptivist definition that renders the word inapplicable to any real world situation.

  7. Wow, great post. I really like to focus on theme, and I think my premise gives a lot of opportunities to explore different ones (mainly because it sort of teeters on the edge of being allegorical). I just started the first draft though, so I guess we’ll see! 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s fun! Exploring deep themes brings along all kinds of interesting opportunities.

  8. Kate Flournoy says:

    Again, another awesome post.

    Honestly, I have so many strange/unique story concept ideas all the time I would be drowning in them if I didn’t follow the rules in this post. I have to stop and ask myself ‘Is there anything worthwhile I can SAY through such a story, or is it simply cool for cool’s sake? How does this concept best lend itself to an impacting theme?’
    And that weeds out about 75% of my ideas.
    Which is actually a good thing. I don’t have the time or endurance to write ’em all. 😉

    Thanks again for the article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So, so smart. Like G.R.R. Martin says, “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”

    • C’mon, you guys are taking all the fun out of it. 🙂

      No seriously, these are all excellent depressing bright-shiny-new-idea-busting points.

      It kind of stinks I won’t be able to write every story in my head. Me being a new writer and all. This is a hard word to hear. But I know it’s a valid point and makes perfect sense.
      Having something worthwhile to say in a story is well worth it our time vs a cool idea. But c’mon they’re SO COOL. I totally sound like one of my kids. Hah!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Hey, nobody says you *can’t* write all of them! You just gotta prioritize them in case you, ya know, die or something before you get them all written. 😉

        • Oh my goodness that’s pretty grim. But I guess you never know. Maybe I’ll do something like a writer’s will for a ghostwriter.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Nah, I don’t mean it to be grim. What would be grim is running out story ideas *before* I die. 😉

  9. Alright Ms. Weiland, I’m back. Brouhahahahha!!

    Just for clarification…a concept is a story on its most basic or fundamental level. Perhaps in its seed form. It’s not a specific idea but a general one that has potential for growth. Our job is to discern which of those seeds has the *most* potential for growth and will deliver the best message.

    Concepts–> Verification process–> Growth potential–> Thematic potential –> Storytelling selection–> Premise–> Outline

    One of the key takeaways is once we find a strong story concept with all its potential glory, is figuring out the best way to tell it. To me, this is the harder skill. Figuring out how to best present what you’ve grown into a thematically rich story. To discover the best mode of delivery. To learn which medium would yield the best results. It’s like considering which vase to purchase for a bouquet of roses. If you spend a considerable amount of time growing roses, then deliver the them in a cracked smelly vase, the impact is gone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Good ideas are comparatively easy. It’s figuring out how to take full advantage of them that’s tricky.

  10. MeghanT says:

    Read and saved! Exploring different aspects of the human experience is EXACTLY why I read and write. And my current WIP aces your questions (can you hear the relief?).

    But one of my *cool concepts* is not standing up well to your four questions. But please tell me there is hope! Fingers crossed, can a concept possibly be developed more (tweaked, etc) to become more than just cool?

    So I think your article explains why sometimes I become disinterested in series that explore various characters from the first book on the same theme. By the sixth “character” book, the author has expounded all they can on the original theme and it’s repetitive. So note to writers, know when to end your series!!!

    Thanks for the vetting process!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I definitely recommend against “cool” concepts just because they’re cool, there is hope! Personally, I find that most of my initial ideas need to be “layered” onto at least two more ideas before they become deep enough and rich enough to actually support a story. So perhaps just keep your current idea in the back of your brain for now until you find another angle you can add to the mix.

  11. So, from sub-text (last article) to sub text this one (point 3).

    Seems a good story has more layers than baklava… (a really good baklava)

  12. Thanks for another great post! My CP/best friend and I were emailing about concept all week and then, boom! Are you *sure* you don’t read my emails??

    I’ll be back on Friday for your Marvel post. 🙂

  13. Hello again, K.M. Everything you’ve discussed about story concept is extremely helpful. Thank you again.
    My question is about the actual writing…shouldn’t it be clever? If you have an imaginative idea, a powerful story concept, and commanding themes but fail in presentation, won’t you end up with a failed project like ‘Cowboys and Aliens’? What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, definitely. Ultimately, we want *everything* about our writing to be clever. Weakness in any area will necessarily weaken the entire story.

  14. CM Friesen says:

    Interesting post. I strongly believe that the premise doesn’t really matter in the long run, it’s, if not all about, then still more than not about the execution. A good writer can make a story about someone toasting bread interesting. That said, yes, some premises certainly have more potential than others.

    I think the most important thing in picking your story concept is coming up with the concept that most interests you. Like, I don’t know, a story about a woman trying to save her Jewish neighbor from a concentration camp might have potential as a story, but I’m not a historical writer. I don’t have the interest in doing the research a story like that would require to be good.

    Also, there’s nothing wrong with a concept that’s designed to be cool–as long, of course, as you tell a good story within it. I think ‘cowboys and aliens’ could’ve been a good story. Maybe it could’ve had deep, interesting characters on both sides, covered thematic conflicts like, I don’t know, racism, mixing cultures, getting over assumptions and misunderstandings about people different than yourself, fear of technology, etc…

    Sorry for a little bit of rambling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with all these thoughts. I’ve had many good ideas that I’ve rejected since they would have had me writing stories that weren’t right for me.

  15. I just recently got a new concept for a story, so this was just what I needed to read 🙂 Great tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! That’s always one of the most exciting moments in the entire writing process.

  16. How do we know if the concept is right in the story we choose?

    I’m writing the theme of the destruction of a boy in his childhood, and the continuing of this destruction by the women of his adulthood, and what happens when he wakes up and decides to be a man.

    Would that fit a story about the poverty stricken regions of the Deep South? Sort of “bubba-ish”?

  17. Fantastically insightful. Really glad I looked at this post before I began my new endeavour or it might have become a Cowboys and Aliens “fail” and as a writer you’re always trying to avoid your story being a failure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been that bad. 😉 Great to hear you found the post useful though!

  18. Will McDonald says:

    Thanks KM Weiland, enjoyed several of your articles since you were kind enough to friend me. Intuitively, think I’ve always known these concepts, but could never articulate them so well. I believe sharing these with a good reading friend, or editor willing to apply the “test” to our manuscripts would be a great way to see our blindspots. For example: a friend really should have told Lucas Jar Jar Binks would be a minefield that would blow up the rest of his movies and tarnish his legacy. Sigh, mysteriously he didn’t ask me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Great idea. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard for us to be objective about our own ideas. Getting others to “vet” our ideas before we move ahead with them could be very useful.

  19. I think this is my problem (or one of them 😉 ). I have a solid theme but struggle to come up with a solid concept. I’m sure that’s part of the reason I start floundering with my story outline around midpoint.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All of these things–theme, plot, and character–have to work hand in hand to create a solid story, so if any one of the three is weak, the whole story is compromised. The good news is that identifying the weak spot puts you halfway to fixing it!

  20. I have a question. I am currently writing a script for a manga and I’ve been having trouble with it. I’m not exactly a writer and I’m not a native english speaker, but I’ve always been interested in these kind of things. Which is how I came across this post.

    The main protagonist tries to piece back together a shattered world in the aftermath of a voilent and vengeful war.

    I can’t decide if this is a good and strong concept.(Its a Sci fi/fantasy mashup.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s certainly not a *bad* concept, but it’s also pretty generic. You can fix that when you start fleshing out the specifics of the premise, but I’d also take a look at what it is about your concept that makes it different from other post-war sci-fi stories and make that the heart of your concept.

  21. If you thought cowboys and aliens was bad stay away from the graphic novel it was based on. Terrible. The movie actually did it better.

  22. KM this is an interesting topic and one I have been thinking about myself for some time as I am currently wrapping up one series and start writing a new one.

    p.s. I loved Cowboys and Aliens and I am worried that I am a poor judge of story!!!!

  23. Irrevenant says:

    In my opinion, Cowboys and Aliens (which I haven’t seen) could have been amazing as a serious film. There are some great potential themes in the premise.

    The film is set during a time when the technologically superior Europeans are steamrolling across America, callously displacing the Native Americans and taking their traditional lands. Invasion by technologically superior aliens holds up a mirror to that and highlights the question of whether being a more advanced civilisation give you the moral right to dominate more technologically primitive civilisations.

    You’d need to be careful not to be too heavy-handed and moralistic with it but if I were writing the film, I’d play it deadly serious – the story of the proud conquerors who believe themselves the apex of civilisation suddenly being brutally shown what it’s like to be tiny and unimportant.

    • I’d watch that! I wonder if it would include a postscript about how white people did (or didn’t) learn the lesson that they were saved only by someone from an equally advanced/privileged race and that it was their responsibility to be aware of the results of their conquest. (Kind-of like how “The Big Short” ended with “aaaaand no one learned the lesson.”)

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