Just as there is yin and yang, pantsers and plotters, so there are also two kinds of writing… let’s call them “zones.” The one zone is clear and structured, with lots of rules and tips and worksheets to fill out. Story structure comes to mind, with its plot points and pinch points and percentages to hit, and every plot point has certain functions that are different from the other plot points, and so on.
Same goes for characters – there are all kinds of character questionnaires, personality type tests, emotional thesauri to keep your cast from nodding and sighing all the time, and a lot of articles that delve deep into the human psyche so that you can re-create believable beings with depths and flaws and quirks for your readers.
And then there are… murkier waters. More nebulous concepts. Things that cannot be easily explained, or put into a worksheet. Things that a writer supposedly “recognizes when they see it.” Things that can only be acquired by “reading a lot, and writing a lot,” as if the mechanical act of either would mysteriously grow some magical storytelling talent inside the writer’s soul.
(I’m not saying that reading and writing are useless, or will have no effect. It’s the unqualified statement that irks me. But I digress.)
Things like “Theme.”
Or “Concept” (and its even more mysterious cousin, “High Concept”).
So today, I’ll take a stab at Concept instead, and it’s sibling, Premise.
The many faces of Premise and Concept
It’s not as if there didn’t exist definitions for those terms; the problem, at least for me when I wanted to understand what people meant by these terms, was that every source I consulted gave me a different definition.
Janice Hardy’s Planning Your Novel defines premise as “a general description of the novel’s set up. It’s what the novel is about (…),” while Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering defines it as “a concept that has brought a character into the mix.” James N. Frey, in his book How to Write A Damn Good Novel defines it as “the single core statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.”
Fun, eh? Hardy’s definition says the premise concerns itself with the setup of the story, Frey says, no, it’s about the result, and Brooks thinks it’s about the main character.
“Concept” doesn’t fare better. Hardy doesn’t even mention it; for her, there’s your idea that develops into a premise, which then fuels the plot and the story (no, I’m not going to go into the differences of the latter two. I have a word limit here, guys).
Brooks defines (or rather, describes by example) concept as “a platform upon which a story may unfold.”
This is so helpful, Larry!
I couldn’t find a word on concept from James N. Frey, and some quick googling didn’t result in a high number of articles on it. writingforward.com defines concept as “what a story is about – the core idea of a story,” which sounds exactly like Hardy’s definition of premise, and Rachelle Gardener on rachellegardener.com writes that “High Concept means that the premise of your book gets attention (…),” thereby equating concept with premise.
What a mess.
Okay. Let’s go back to the basics for a moment, which in this case, is the dictionary definition of these words.
From dictionary.com, I get this for “premise:”
a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion.
a basis, stated or assumed, on which reasoning proceeds.
as a verb:
to set forth beforehand, as by way of introduction or explanation.
to assume, either explicitly or implicitly, (a proposition) as a premise for a conclusion.
So, a synonym for premise is assumption. Let’s assume that pigs can fly. Or to put it into the famous writer question: What If pigs could really fly? What would happen as a result? Where would the story go from there?
If we define the premise as the assumption on which your story rests, the supposed precondition without which the story would simply dissolve, it becomes immediately apparent why it’s so important to come up with a good premise, and to ruthlessly discard any idea that doesn’t have the potential to carry a strong story. The premise really is the foundation upon which everything else is built, and if it’s weak or lame, you’ll only get a weak or lame story.
For that reason, only asking “what if” isn’t enough to get a premise. “What if” generates ideas, not premises, and as every writer knows, ideas are a dime a dozen. So what if pigs could fly? Why should I care?
I (and every potential reader) will only care if that assumption promises something interesting, and human nature being what it is, that usually translates into “if it creates a problem for someone else, while I can watch them struggle with it.” So the complete formula for a premise is “What if [x] was a problem?”
What if flying pigs were a problem? will automatically generate the next question, ”A problem for whom?” For the farmers? For air traffic? For the man on the street who could be bombarded with pig manure from above any moment? The meat industry?
Any of these hypothetically affected parties will have a different problem, of course – and the clash of their interests and problems creates the ignition for the story: conflict.
From Premise To Concept
The logical next step in the development of the story is the concept, which means it has to be different from the premise. Let’s look at the dictionary definition again:
an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars; a construct
the conjunction of all the characteristic features of something
a theoretical construct within some theory
as an adjective:
functioning as a prototype or model of new product or innovation
So, a concept is a model that combines or contains all the characteristic features of the real thing. That comes close to Hardy’s description as “the general description of the novel’s set up,” although she used it to define premise by it.
But I think that concept is more than “what the novel is about.” This is such a terribly vague description that it’s no wonder writers struggle with it. Yeah, what is your novel about? Is it the theme? The plot? The character arc(s)? What??
All of it, and a few other things on top of that.
Here’s where Brooks other definition/description of concept comes closer to the definition of it being a model or representation of the greater story: in Story Engineering, he calls it “your delivery strategy” – in other words, how you want to tell that story. How you package your premise.
The key word connecting my own definition and Brooks’ “delivery strategy” is the word “combine.” A concept is the pattern of the story, and that pattern emerges from the combination of the elements you want to use. By story elements, I don’t mean the generic plot, character, theme trifecta. I’m talking of the specific vehicles you plan to employ – genre, point of view, tone, tropes, theme – and the unique combination of them.
It all comes down to “what kind of story do you want to make out of that premise?” – what is the central, organising trope?
Taking our “pigs can fly”-premise, do you want to tell it as a family drama, a heist, a coming-of-age story, political intrigue, sci fi mystery? Do you want it to be funny or tragic, or horrifying? Big cast or small? Epic scope or claustrophobically confined? Fake documentary? Fairy tale? Unreliable narrator or Hemingway-style “just the facts”? What theme will you examine with this story, and what’s your thematic thesis? Should pigs be free? Can you tame your flying pig, dragonrider-style?
This is where the “x meets y” formula gets thrown around – my story is a combination of tropes similar to these combinations of tropes. Personally, I think it’s more freeing to find your own, unique combination instead of just rearranging premade combinations – the possibilities are nearly endless, depending on what concrete manifestation you choose for your elements – your tropes – and how you combine them. You can play your tropes straight, twist them, invert, subvert, or mock them, deconstruct and reconstruct them…
All combinations, all patterns – all concepts – are variations on the same premise, though. Change your premise, and a whole new myriad of concepts emerge.
So we don’t have to worry we might run out of ideas. Even if every writer had only a limited quota of ideas at their disposal, they’d still generate more stories than we could write in a lifetime.
I find that incredibly reassuring.
and the books mentioned in the text