So where do you go once you’ve done all that brainstorming?
Hopefully, you will have a clear sense of what you want to happen in your story. Your next step is to nail your story’s concept.
Finding your novels concept can be difficult to do (it will get easier with practice), but the time you put into it will be worth it. The notion of concept can be a tough one to wrap your head around. When someone asks for the concept of your story, most people tend to respond by immediately going into the plot. Or they’ll state the story idea. Or define the story’s premise. While it may seem like all of these words are all interchangeable, they’re really not.
So what exactly is concept then? And how do you go about finding your novel’s concept?
The dictionary’s definitions of concept are notoriously unhelpful. Let’s try looking it up and see what we get.
Merriam-Webster.com defines concept as:
Wikipedia.com tells us that concept is:
Dictionary.com defines concept as:
(By the way, I thought you weren’t supposed to use the word you were defining in the definition?)
Now did any of that help you to understand concept better? If anything, you’re more confused, right? I know I was.
Let’s stop thinking of concept in terms of defining it as a word and instead think about it in terms of its relationship to our stories.
The concept is the central notion that creates context for a story. But it has to do more than just describe what the story is about. It has to pose a dramatic question. Here’s where the two magic words: what if, come in handy again. Think of concept as moving an idea from a story about something to a story about something dramatic. Concept is the contextual framework for a story, without defining the story itself. Meaning concept occurs before adding character or plot. Once you do that, you’re in the realm of premise.
Why is this important?
Defining (and then strengthening) your concept is an important step in the development process, perhaps the most important, because it’s at the concept level that so many books fail. It isn’t due to the writing, or the tone, or the style of the story. It’s because the concept is either not clearly defined, or it is clearly defined but it’s weak.
Some examples from my own work.
White Rabbit, my first novel, is about a young man named Logan. Below is the quick synopsis.
But none of that is the concept. The concept for White Rabbit is
What if you had to do the thing you swore never to do again to save someone you love?
Notice that there’s no plot here. No character. There isn’t any immediate conflict. But it gets to the dramatic center of the story in one question.
Here’s another example from my upcoming Black Swan.
What if a woman finds out her husband is a terrorist and teams up with her ex-lover to bring him down and thwart his evil plan?
This is going to take practice. Both to understand the notion of story concept and to recognize, craft, and strengthen your own.
Play around with it. Start somewhere. Write something down, even if you’re not exactly sure what concept is yet. Tweak it until It feels like something conceptual, something dramatic. You’ll know it when you see it.