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Building Concept Into Your Story

by Martina Boone

Writing a book isn't easy. Everyone struggles with where to begin, and often figuring out where to start the story is the hardest part. But really the answer is easier than you think. Writing a book begins on the first line with a hint of what the story is all about.

"Whenever possible, tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence."
John Irving

Take Hunger Games for example. At first glance, you may not think the first sentence says much. But it gets right to the heart of what matters to the main character.

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

Katniss wakes up instantly aware that her sister is gone, because Prim is the most important thing in her life. It is the passion that will drive Katniss to do everything else that she does in the book. It's what makes the writing in the book so compelling.

Starting Concept in the First Sentence of Your Book

Of course we don't recognize the full importance of that sentence yet. But within that first line in the book, we already have two built-in questions:

1) Who was supposed to be asleep on the other side of the narrator's bed?
2) Why did that person get up too early?

Those questions pull us into the next sentence curious to find out what's going, which leads us into the next sentence, and on down the page. On the surface of our minds, we don't recognize we already know what the book is about. But subconsciously, we suspect. We recognize subliminally that who is in the bed with Katniss matters to her. And the fact that we want to know more and that we're willing to keep reading means that Suzanne Collins' first sentence has done its job.

Is that enough? Or does a truly great first line have to let the reader know what kind of a story he or she is about to read and suggest something important about this particular story? Does it also need to have enough specificity to bring the concept into play? And what exactly is concept anyway?

Defining the Concept of Your Book

Larry Brooks, in STORY ENGINEERING, defines concept like this: "The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most empowering when expressed as a 'what if?' question. The answer leads to further 'what if?' questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers comes your story."

It's easy to confuse concept with plot, and that's not it. Because that leaves out something that Lisa Cron's recent book WIRED FOR STORY calls the "'so what?' factor." She goes on to explain that the "so what?" factor is what clues a reader in on the point of the story, the relevance of everything that happens in it, what the story is about.

Concept vs. High Concept Books

We've all heard the term "high concept." Hollywood wants it. Publishers want it. Heck, writers want it. Yet all too often, we start off writing a story or series of events instead of an actual concept, high or otherwise. That's not fatal. We can fix it. We can fix anything given long enough and desire enough, but it's easier to write to a concept than it is to insert a concept into a book you've already written.

A high concept, as succinctly explained by Nathan Bransford, is a "hook that we can easily understand and digest." He points out that editors are increasingly drawn to high concepts, even in literary fiction. And that's because a concept you can put into once sentence is easy to sell to readers, tv viewers, and movie-goers.

Literary agent Scott Eagen points out that high concept is more than a brief plot summary. Rather, he explains, "it's what makes your story unique from everything else out there." What does your story have that makes it different from anything other writers have done before?

Bingo. High concept is a book that can be sold from a pitch -- and the execution doesn't matter quite so much.

A sparkly vampire falls in love with the one girl in the world whose blood might tempt him to break his vow not to feed on humans.

Note that I've deliberately stated that backwards. The way I've put the premise would be Edward Cullen's story, and I haven't followed any of formulas for presenting concept. My point is, it really doesn't matter how you explain the premise of Twilight. It's unique. It has conflict. Someone is going to read it. And no matter what you want to say about Stephanie Meyer's writing, the execution is full of tension and over the top romance. It's Romeo Meets Juliet, Cinderella, and the Ugly Duckling all rolled into one. Genius.

Can Every Book Be High Concept?

Even if the book you are writing isn't high concept, it can sell and sell well. The difference, I think, is that the less high-concept it is, the harder it will be to sell, and the better the execution is going to have to be. We can read all we want to about developing high concept ideas, that doesn't mean that we are all going to come up with sparkly vampires. Or Hunger Games. Nice to think we could, but we don't write to order. Our muses are more fickle than that. (Mine is downright mean to me.)

Lisa Cron says the first step in finding your concept is to "zero in on the point your story is making." And then, she says, "filter out unnecessary and distracting information" that doesn't work to weave together the protagonist's issue, the theme, and the plot that keeps the story focused.

"A story is designed," according to Cron, "from beginning to end to answer a single overarching question. As readers, we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer."

She points out that, after many years in the publishing industry, she is convinced that an author who can't summarize the novel in a few "clearly focused, intriguing" sentences needs to rewrite the book, not the query letter, because the manuscript isn't going to be intriguing or clearly focused either. (Um, yeah. I'm putting up my hand here. Yes, yes, I am. Guilty, your honor. Been there, done that.)

Here is how she says that she can tell when the writing in a book is veering off to rejection:

  • The protagonist isn't on stage or evident, so the reader has no way to judge the relevance of what is happening in the story.
  • The protagonist is clear, but doesn't have a clear goal, so the reader can't tell where the story is likely to go or why she should care about the story.
  • The protagonist's external goal is clear, but there's nothing to suggest what internal demon or problem that goal is going to make her confront, so the story is boring or feels like it doesn't matter.
  • The protagonist has both an inner and out goal, but suddenly that doesn't carry through the entire story, or doesn't have anythign to do with the action in the plot.
  • The protagonist doesn't behave in a believable way while responding to her goals, so it's impossible to tell what she'll do next. (Or understand it.)
The bottom line is--and read WIRED FOR STORY, I promise you'll get it--if we as writers don't know what our writing is about, we won't be able to convince the reader to care about our stories, to lose themselves in our books.

The Three Elements that Work Together

Here's one final, insight I gleaned from Lisa Cron. Concept is the synthesis of three elements that work in unison to create a story:
  1. The story question that forces the protagonist to confront an internal problem,
  2. The theme or universal meaning that the story shows about human nature, and
  3. The plot or series of obstacles that the protagonist has to overcome in the course of illustrating what the writer wants us to understand.
In other words, a book's concept statement can be explained like this:


Elevating Concept and Raising the Stakes

Larry Brooks, in a brilliant post on Story Fix, writes about concept as "the engine" of our book. He points out that there are other parts that make the car (or story) run, but without the engine, it isn't going far.

Keeping our scenes tightly focused on the three elements defined by Lisa Cron, we're likely to have a solid book, one that readers can understand and care about. But are enough readers going to find and care enough about the story to make it worthwhile for a publisher to shell out thousands of dollars (or much more) to get it out in print? How do we make the leap from writing good books to writing books that are good enough? Or from good enough to great?

Before we sit down to write a book, it's worth the time to consider how to make it interest as many people as possible and make it truly different than what's already out there. How to make it more marketable, in other words. Otherwise, we're trying to roll the proverbial boulder up the hill. We may eventually get it to the top and get it rolling toward publication, but we've had to do a whole lot of extra heavy lifting on the way.

Eight Ways to Develop a Unique Book Concept

Wouldn't it be easier to make sure we've done everything we can to sell the book before we even start worrying about how to write it? Coming up with a unique concept can happen in any number of ways. You can:
  • Show a new perspective into a real event, character, or situation
  • Tap into the headlines for something that people are already talking about
  • Tackle a really controversial subject or show an alternative to something people accept as fact
  • Use a universal fear or motive in a different way
  • Combine two familiar ideas into something new
  • Use the train-wreck phenomenon to take readers on a sensational ride
  • Twist the end to turn the familiar into a surprise.
  • Up the wow factor by creating a new superpower, revamping (yes, sparkly pun intended) a creature we already know, inventing a fearsome new weapon, revealing an incredible magical artifact, or inventing a different kind of life-threatening situation.
Easy-peasy, right? No pressure.

Ten Minimum Components of a Marketable Book Concept

Whatever concept we come up with though, at minimum, we have to make sure we include:
  • At least one fascinating character: Someone bigger than life, who cares very deeply about someone or something and is willing to fight for it.
  • An interesting setting: A location or world where readers have never been but want to visit either in our dreams or in our nightmares.
  • An inherent conflict: The situation that pits the fascinating character against someone or something that is going to keep her from getting what she wants--while keeping readers at the edge of our seats unable to guess the outcome.
  • An emotional appeal: The reason readers understand the stakes, care about them, and connect to the events and characters on a personal, heart-deep level.
  • A universal or familiar idea: The connection to something we already know something about or have previously wondered about.
  • An original twist: The aspect of the story that makes it different from any other story--the way ordinary things are combined, slanted, spun, and stacked to take the universal or familiar idea and warp it into something unique and unexpected.
  • A piece of coolness: A tool, ability, artifact, or something in the character, setting, or situation that makes our jaws drop.
  • A high-impact inciting incident: The situation that catapults us all into the story with no way back.
  • High stakes: The reason it matters if the fascinating character loses, not just to her but to other people. The actual consequences of failure that the reader can't bear to contemplate.
  • A great title: A word or two or three that intrigue and sum up the book.
The things that makeup a great manuscript don't have to be supernatural or fantastical. THey just have to be clearly unique, identifiable to the reader. Think of Lena or Amma in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, you instantly visualize them, right? Think of the parties at the lake in IMAGINARY GIRLS; you can picture them. Think of the black madonna, the hat woman, and the honey house in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. Of Big and Gram in THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, the faerie horses and the island in THE SCORPIO RACES, the shifter in MISTWOOD, the way the graces work in GRACELING, the ghost who falls in love in ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD. Different. Unique. Unforgetable.

Go forth and write great books, everyone. Happy writing!


Books for Additional Reference:

  • Lisa Cron - Wired for Story
  • Lori Wilde - Got High Concept? The Key to Dynamic Fiction that Sells
  • AlbertZuckerman - Writing the Blockbuster Novel
  • Donald Maass - Writing 21st Century Fiction
  • Donald Maass - Writing the Breakout Novel
  • Larry Brooks - Story Engineering
  • James N. Frey - How to Write a Damn Good Novel
  • Les Edgerton - Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One

  • Posts:

  • Recipe for Success? High Concept in Fiction
  • Nathan Bransford on What High Concept Means
  • Combining High Concept with Emotional Resonance
  • Mary Kole on Love vs. Sell
  • Babbles from Agent Scott Eagen on What Is High Concept?
  • High Concept from Absolute Write
  • Conquering the High Concept
  • Defining the High Concept from Laura Pauling
  • Alexandra Sokoloff on High Concept
  • Chuck Sambuchino Examines High Concept Hooks For Childrens Books
  • Building a Better Novel Premise
  • Forty Questions for a Stronger Manuscript
  • Elana Roth on High Concept
  • Writing Lessons from THE HUNGER GAMES
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