Concept vs. Story: Turning Good Ideas into Workable Stories

People often ask how Ed and I come up with our story ideas (after, all, we have several books in the works now that The Kronos Interference has hit the market).

Well for one, we’re always batting around concepts. But then we need to see which ones we can turn into a compelling story. Because there’s a big difference between a concept and a story.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we wanted to write a book about aliens invading Earth.

That’s a concept, but not a very good one. What we want is a high concept, one that has a unique twist that engages people in a single sentence. We can usually come up with one by asking one of two questions: Why? and What if?

There are lots of additional methods for coming up with concepts as well, such as: starting with a title; changing the genre or locale of an existing story; brainstorming nouns; create an opening line; and many more. Not all ideas will be generated in the same way. But even after one of these methods leads to a concept, it’s still good to ask “why” and “what if” and see what magic it may conjure up.

So let’s ask a few questions about our aliens idea: Why would aliens be invading Earth, besides the usual, worn clichés? What if they weren’t invading, or what if we needed them for something?

Building on our aliens idea, a high concept might be the following:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Can we make this better?  Sure.

A higher concept:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

Now we have some intrigue going. Not only would there be some interesting elements involving aliens combating the war on terror, but people will be wondering what the catch is that makes the solution backfire.

So we have a high concept, but it’s not yet a story.  To have a story, we need a lead people care about.

Turning a high concept into a story:

A story needs to be about an individual protagonist or two; something they want desperately (the external challenge), some unresolved internal issue that gets addressed by the end, and an opposing force (ideally a person) that’s standing in the way.  If there can be multiple leads whose desires are intertwined and conflicting, all the better.

As you can see, the concept is the easy part. It’s turning it into a workable story that’s hard.

In general, people don’t care about “the United States” or “the world’s population.” They care about individuals and their fate. It’s why Steven Spielberg always insists on keeping a narrow focus through the eyes of the lead, or group of leads, involved.

So, in order to develop a story for our high concept, we need to think of these other factors. As an example, let’s build on the concept statement by adding lead characters:

 In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease. When CIA trainee Victoria Hawk’s parents are murdered, she discovers the truth and enlists the help of her med student boyfriend and a mysterious benefactor named Carpenter, who’s begun sending her cryptic messages.

While not perfect, this begins to open a world of possibilities for refining into a workable story. Details such as the cause of the parents’ murder, the relationship with the boyfriend, the healing of the protagonist, the status of her CIA career, and the role of the mysterious benefactor must all be fleshed out. And a compelling individual representing the opposition is vital. After all, in the old James Bond films, what would SPECTRE be without Blofeld (or Largo in Thunderball).

As for the opposition, is it the U.S. Government, the aliens, both, or some third party altogether? Or is it the benefactor, Carpenter, who just may be leading her on a wild goose chase? These are all questions that would need to be addressed in the story development process before even setting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Once you feel you have a solid story, a high level outline is needed to make sure the sequence of events is compelling. That’s where story structure models can come in handy (a whole topic in itself).

So voila, we took a weak “been there, done that” concept (aliens invade Earth) and created a much higher concept, and then added the root elements of a story. And that’s how Ed and I typically bat around our story ideas. If we cant turn the concept into a good story, then all we have is a backdrop for a story, not really a story. And in that case, we ditch it and move to the next big idea.

Now it’s your turn. What other variations can you think of for the story example above? What new concepts and ideas do you have, and how would you turn them into stories?