I thought I would talk about the concepts we explore in our fiction writing. Publishers talk about looking for high concepts, something with real power. But what are they and how is concept vital to writing?
So you sit there one evening listening to the rain on the window, pitter patter, pitter patter and you think about the sounds memories make as you sit and don’t say a word … then it hits. An idea. But an idea does not a story make.
An idea is more like a seed, it might or might not germinate. But you explore it a little, so I have this idea for a story where someone goes missing at the same time as some big world event so no one really sees. Sure, it’s an idea but it needs a lot more thinking to turn into a story right? You need a concept first.
So what is a concept? Well … it’s bigger than an idea.
A concept is when the what-if moment arrives. So now you put the kettle on, delay going to bed because you want more thinking time. And on and on the rain’s pitter patter becomes louder, faster.
What if someone goes missing when Kennedy is shot, and what if they were standing on the grassy knoll when he was shot and what if they’re still missing fifty years later. NOW you have a concept, something that leads to lots of what-if questions and has thrown the door open to a story. Now you are excited. How you define it as high concept comes from how radical it is, how much it will tap into some universal conscience, but there are a lot of questions about Kennedy so now you start to think, how does this disappearance link to Kennedy’s assassination?
But it’s still not a story yet. It’s still a Concept. You have turned an idea into a concept with your compelling what-if scenarios.
But from one what-if question comes another and another and see it now as a branching network of possibility, the way a raindrop darts across the window. And in answering those what-if questions will finally emerge your story.
Expand the concept now by introducing character, it’s a little girl that goes missing when Kennedy is shot, a little girl who was holding her mother’s hand and when she hears the gunshot the mother drops her hand, she forgets her daughter, for what a few seconds, a minute (why would she, is she a bad mother?) and when she turns back she is gone. G.O.N.E — gone. Fifty years later an old lady goes AWOL from an old folks home and when she’s found with a little girl wandering in a local park she tells a reporter, “She’s my little girl. Eleanor. My little girl that went missing the day Kennedy was shot.”
As soon as you have made this expansion by adding character to the mix, you start to see as a real thing and you now have your premise.
Now you start to see a story taking shape and you start to see how your idea – someone goes missing at the same time as a world stopping event, now has shape, character and it asks many questions. Your premise is well and truly formed.
Hear that rain roar now, hollow, slashing at the windows. Kettle on again.
So what it your theme? Well this would have been possibly right at the start when you had your idea. You wanted to explore what happens when someone goes missing and no one sees, because something else really dramatic became the focus. Events leave ripples though, big and small. But as you expand this into concept and premise this might become more honed, more specific and your initial idea is now explored by story. Or you might find as you add characters and make that plan, how another theme might focus this, what happened to Kennedy?
Theme is what the story is really about, not just that someone goes missing but what happens, what are the consequences and how are lives shaped by that in the 50 years. I tell my clients theme is what beats at the heart of every scene, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. But you need it because it defines the direction your story now takes, it focuses and directs the incidents that make the beats of your story, and must built to answer the big overall question, in this case … what did happen to Eleanor? And HOW is it linked to Kennedy? All scenes now built to a climax that must answer this question and so not only do you have the climax you have the resolution. Now you have your story arc. And now you have your story!
Hear the thunder, see the lightning …
But then …
The rain eases to a soft pitter patter. You tip the last of your coffee into the sink, watch it swirl away. Then you turn out the light.
But in the dark, even as you sleep your story lives, Eleanor is nine when she goes missing. She is on the Zapruder tapes, a face in a crowd, so now they need to reexamine real evidence but from another angle, yes … that’s a great idea. What if she let’s go her mother’s hand before the first gunshot, and who is that man in the crowd who was looking at her? And what if her mom isn’t who she seems, what if she knew …. zzz…. pitter patter, pitter patter ….
Welcome to the world of writing folks 🙂 And that is my novel, yet to find a home but trying … While No One Was Watching … any takers?
I suggest you all examine your work in this way … theme – one or two sentences, idea, concept, premise. If a plot isn’t working go back to the idea and move forwards to see what you did that broke the connection, why it isn’t doing what it should and how you can re-focus … have fun 🙂