Turn an Idea into a Killer Story Concept: Go Big or Go Home

May 30, 2011

We all get great ideas for stories. Even people who never write the book have ideas they think will become the next bestseller. And while writers sometimes get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" the truth is that ideas are a dime a dozen. What really matters is creating a fabulous STORY out of your fabulous idea.

So why am I telling you this? Most writers already know this is true. But while reading Story Engineering (again, I say, READ THIS DARN BOOK!), I realized there's an essential step between getting the idea and turning it into a story. First, we have to turn that idea into a compelling concept.

Uh, isn't a concept the same thing as an idea? Yes and no. Concept takes the idea to the next level. From my understanding of what Larry Brooks said about it, a concept is an idea that asks a question that implies conflict. The answer to that question is what gives you your story, and it often works best if framed as a "what if" question.

For example, the basic idea that got me started on Devolutionaries was this: What if telepathy were a form of devolution-- that when a person with certain pre-conditions cut back their verbal communication, their brain began to change back into an animalistic form of mind-to-mind communication?

There it is, right? The concept! Actually, NO. That was a fascinating idea, but where's the conflict? A concept needs to be a window into the story. It's not going to tell you the whole story, but it will show you the big picture. The idea of telepathy as devolution is cool, but it doesn't hint at a story. How about this:

What if a boy can stop a Government experiment in thought control with his own telepathy skills- saving his own grandfather- but must sacrifice his speech to do so?

Now there is the concept. Let's look at what is included that hints at the story enough to turn it from an idea to a concept. (You may notice these are the same elements I brought up to help you write your query-- a concept statement is a lot like a logline!)

1. Character. We know almost nothing about him. Some concepts will need a bit more, but not much. Not here in the concept statement, anyway. But he must be there-- a person to carry the story.

2. Conflict. He can stop a Government experiment in thought control. Whamo. You've got him versus the Big Baddie, with a goal the Big Baddie is trying to stop. There's just a hint, but can you see all the possibilities of conflict there?

3. Choice. There is a choice the character must make: stop the Government with his telepathy, or keep his ability to speak.

4. Consequences. Again, the stakes are only hinted at-- losing his grandfather, his power of speech, and even control of his own mind (Government mind control, remember?). But they ARE there.

In that one "what if" question, we find all the basics of creating a story. Now you have to ask another question-- is it fresh? Original? A new take on a familiar premise or theme? Here's the thing I've learned about creating a killer concept while writing my next book: Go big or go home. If your concept is like an almost-fresh head of lettuce-- still green, but a little limp and brown around the edges-- peel back those first few layers of "what if" to find the good crisp ideas underneath.

A good "what if" concept will inspire more "what ifs." If your original concept is sort of fresh, but not quite killer, start asking more "what ifs." Dig deep. How could it contain more conflict? How could things be WORSE? How could it be twisted in a different, more compelling direction? You'll find a more compelling concept if you go beneath the surface of your basic idea.

So, my friends, what is your story concept? What do you think makes a concept original and compelling? How can you take your next idea and frame it as a concept before you even start writing? Do you have any tips that helped you turn your idea into a killer concept?


Emy Shin said...

I adore this post. <3

The story concept is arguably one of the most important aspects of a story. That's ultimately what compels me to pick up most books.

Whenever I get an idea that's not quite yet an original concept, I let it brew. When I can successfully write a decent query with a killer hook, I know -- well, I don't quite know, but that's when it's no longer an idea, but a full-fledged concept.

Ellie Garratt said...

Fabulous post. I agree that an idea does not make a great story - it just inspires you to think of one. And conflict is king.

When I have an idea I let it stew for a few days, often unconsciously. Then, when I least expect it, the (hopefully) unique concept arrives. I call it the Eureka Moment.

Ellie Garratt

MKHutchins said...

This is exactly why I keep an idea folder -- often mixing a cool world idea with a cool character/plot idea can lead to this kind of concept. Great post.

Lisa Gail Green said...

This is a brilliant post! I think it would solve so many problems later on if we did this before starting. It gives shape to the structure of the story. :D

Christine Murray said...

This post reminded me of how much I still have to learn. I am definitely going to check out Story Engineering.

Great post!

KM Nalle said...

Wow. Great Post Shallee! Again. You have such a wonderful way of explaining things.

Anonymous said...

I've never really thought about concepts. I love this post! This just made generating ideas for four novels so much easier! ;)

Tatum Flynn said...

Fantastic post, so clearly and simply explained, thank you!

Tatum Flynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lindsay N. Currie said...

Awesome post! You're like cliffs notes LOL:)

Jolene Perry said...

It's finding the conflict I think more than anything. And then as you peel back layers, it's not just the overall conflict, but all the small stuff as well.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Great post! You seriously have the best advice, ever! :) I'm going to check out that book now. You've talked me into it!

Dave's Girl said...
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