English being a language of precision, we can speak and write with nuance.
We ought to learn writing with nuanced terminology as well.
These words all mean something different, and for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to adopt the storyfixer‘s dictionary.
An idea is what we think it is: what your story is about, in the most basic sense. Some story ideas:
- A time travel story
- A romance set in 1920s Ireland
- A time travel romance
Some ideas are ultra-basic: a love story, a western, a mystery. Starting with an intriguing idea often leads to a higher concept and more compelling premise. That Irish romance, taking place during the early days of The Troubles, might lean toward Romeo and Juliet, or it might take a page from Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. It could lead anywhere. Each writer will do something different with it.
Concept, Theme, and Premise will all be treated in more detail in this series, beginning today with Concept. I’ll include an overview and examples here, because understanding the similarities and contrasts will make each segment more meaningful.
Concept introduces conflict in your idea. It’s easiest to understand in the form of a “What if?” question, one which inherently includes conflict in the question. It should raise questions in a prospective reader’s mind, in the writer’s mind, which must be answered by the narrative. A concept is still at a high enough level that any author could take the concept and tell a different story from it.
A few possible concepts about our 20s-era Irish romance:
- What if the son of an English aristocrat fell in love with the daughter of an Irish rebel during the Irish War of Independence?
- What if an elderly Irishman traveling abroad in 1920 met and wooed an elderly expatriate Englishwoman who was unaware of the troubles between their countries?
- What if an Irish couple seeking to adopt a child, and whose fathers were each killed by the English, discovered that the baby they’d adopted was, not Irish, but English?
I’ll come back to these after defining the other 2 terms.
Premise adds character to Concept. Because Concept is high-level, different premises can result from it. I’ll play with that second concept above:
- An elderly Irishman traveling in America meets and woos an elderly Englishwoman during the Irish War for Independence, and when he discovers she’s ignorant of the war, creates humorous havoc in his attempts to prevent her from learning that their two homelands are in conflict.
- An elderly Irishman traveling abroad during the Irish War for Independence meets and woos an Englishwoman who feigns ignorance of their two country’s conflict in order to preserve their romance.
- A young teacher in modern Chicago tells her elementary school students the story of her grandparents’ romance in an attempt to teach them the value of overcoming prejudice.
We’ll spend more time on this when we discuss Premise in a few weeks.
Theme defines your story’s meaning in the larger picture of real life. Some themes which might drive those premises above:
- conflict between the sexes
- the emotional superiority of women
More on Theme in a few weeks as well.
I’m not sure I’ve stretched myself much with those concepts above, but inherent in each is some kind of conflict. The first is a classic Romeo and Juliet tale. The second might lend itself to humor. The third just might be a classic Greek tragedy, marching resolutely toward a painful ending.
Those are just my takes on them, because concepts don’t include who these people are and how they’ll behave. It only includes the conflicts they’ll face: can the two lovers in concept 1 overcome their national heritage and family prejudice? Will the couple in concept 2 live a comedy of errors or a wry secrecy? Will she find out? Or, perhaps, has she known all along? Will the husband and wife in concept 3 accept that their child’s national heritage has nothing to do with their ability to love it? What if one of them can, and one of them can’t?
All that conflict and more is implied in any of those concepts.
Concept elevates your idea for a story and identifies, or at least strongly hints at, the conflicts within. It suggests what is wanted and by whom, and what will happen if they don’t get it. It may even hint who or what will challenge them in their quest.
Conflict is the entire point of fiction. Begin with a concept which inherently includes interesting or meaningful conflict, and everything which comes after is either easier, more fun, or both.