The First Core Competency- Concept

Prinz EugenYes, I’m still chewing over the things I’m learning from this book. I’m really enjoying the work on the characters, although it’s taking some time. I’m sure most authors don’t have six main characters! They’re starting to feel like a large, fractious family. If your family likes to kill each other for fun.

But I digress. Even though I’m working on characters, I’m still thinking about concept quite a bit. Ultimately, it’s what drives every bit of the action.

According to Brooks, concept is somewhat difficult to define, and all too many writers overlook it altogether. What it is not is an idea, a premise, or a theme. Here’s an illustration:

An idea is to travel to Florida. A concept is to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise is to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road.

Clear as mud, right? It seems that a concept is more than an idea. It’s an idea that is ready to turn into a story.

Another way of looking at it is that the concept asks a question which your story answers. That’s where it started to become clearer for me. Brooks gives a lot of examples, but what works best for me is when he gives me something concrete to do.

A concept however, is not the same as plot. Plot only occurs once conflict has been introduced. I’m sure we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, we have to understand that premise- which we’ll also explore later- is a more fully developed concept. So in a nutshell, an idea becomes a concept becomes a premise becomes a plot.

Brooks argues that the distinctions here are important in properly developing a story. I think he’s right. Up until I read this, I believe I really only had an idea: an historical fantasy loosely based upon the events of the 30 Years War. So I ended up with a series of events, of characters doing stuff. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t compelling. Now I know.

Next, Brooks discusses the various elements that make a good concept. First, it must be fresh and original, at least in some fashion. If you must tell a story that has often been told before, make sure you have a unique and interesting method of execution.

If your idea isn’t all that original, does it at least provide a fresh way of looking at a well-known story? This can have advantages, especially in genres where readers enjoy a particular formula and you can surprise them with a unique twist.

The next thing your concept must be is compelling. Is there sufficient scope for drama and conflict? One way you can start with a fairly boring idea and figure out how to make it interesting is to start asking what if? This gives you all kinds of potential directions to take your story, and you can what-if yourself into all kinds of interesting potential tangents.

Somewhere in all of this, you have to determine if your concept is going to work with your characters and help deliver what he calls a “thematic punch.” Without a strong relation to both theme and characters, your concept won’t go far.

In the end, “what if” comes back for the win. It’s frankly, the easiest way to express your concept. And once you answer that question, you ask it again and again, until you have all kinds of possibilities. The real magic happens in your ultimate choices. Of all of those possibilities, which ones lead you toward an interesting, exciting, unexpected story.

Brooks suggests working through this process at length before you write anything else. He feels that too many first drafts are abandoned when it becomes apparent that there is no compelling concept behind all of that writing. Rather than taking the chance of stumbling upon a concept while you write, figure it out beforehand and end up with a sturdy foundation to build on.

Brooks provides tons of examples illustrating all of the above points from popular books and movies, which do help to get the idea across, but at the same time make it difficult to work through. In the end, the what-if process helped the most.

The good news is, I don’t have to start completely from scratch. In all of my rambling, I did stumble upon a concept that I could further develop. I came up with a better-defined conflict and an interesting character who will provoke it. The bad news is, I wasted a lot of time that could have been better spent putting together a solid story before embarking on my word-a-thon.

I do have to confess to enjoying this learning process very much!

photo credit: Synwell via photopin cc

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