Writers’ Basics: Key Terms Explained

Here’s a growth arc most all of us writers go through, once we decide we want to write. First, we don’t know how to talk about stories; about their skeleton, their foundation, how stories are developed, and so on. We simply know we have one to tell. Next, we start learning about concept, theme, development and more, and we begin to see the scope of the problem we’ve set for ourselves. Then we read some great books on story, on writing and so on, and we get really confused.

Time to give up and go back to flipping hamburgers or babysitting snakes for a living.

If we’re fortunate, while we were doing all that learning we also wrote, enough to have the start of a story or six lying around. Hopefully we also caught the “daily writing bug.” Since that’s at least as big a key to success as understanding all the confusing terms, I hope you “suffer” that particular illness.

Now let’s look at some of those terms everybody kicks around in writing technique books and see if we can make sense of them. Here’s the first ones I want to tackle: Concept, as presented by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, and Premise, as discussed by John Truby in The Anatomy of Story. Here are some questions to explore: Are these two the same thing? If not, how different are they? Where do they overlap, and where do they not? For the parts unique to each Author, where are they addressed in their respective volumes?

That should get us started! Strap in, folks, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride…

Let’s begin with Concept. Brooks says early on that Concept is tricky to define because it is both overused and misused, leading to confusion. Okay, I get that; I’m certainly confused by what Concept for a story (novel) means. Let’s dig! Brooks goes on to say that Concept is different from Idea, and also from Premise. (At this point he doesn’t mean Truby’s view of Premise, but a general one; back to that in a bit.) Larry goes on to point out that Concept is different from Theme as well. The confusion comes about because different authorities use Idea, Concept and Premise interchangeably.

Concept is one of Larry’s Six Core Competencies. To get a handle on Concept he begins by saying what it is not, rather than what it is. An example of idea is a trip to Florida, while a concept is to travel by car and stop at all the flight museums along the way. (Sorry, Larry; national parks? Really?) Larry then deconstructs Cussler’s Raise the Titanic! a bit. What’s the idea? Raising the Titanic from the bottom of the ocean, now that’s a bonnie idea wi’ plenty o’ scope, aye? But it’s no story yet, mon. (Sorry; listening to Battlefield Band while writing is hard on the spelling.) Brooks suggests the Concept would be to suggest that there are secrets still hidden there that certain forces would kill to keep concealed. He goes on to propose that the Premise would include an iconic hero, hired to do the job, who goes on to fight those evil forces and save his country from attack.

Brooks implies that Concept is Idea, only on steroids. A concept is something that asks a question; the answer is the story. Often the concept should be couched in “what if” or “suppose” terms. The story Idea becomes a subset of Concept, and remains buried inside. The Idea doesn’t ask the question; Concept does.

Concept also isn’t Plot; it doesn’t contain the conflict, and no milestones for Story are in place.

Where does Character fit in Concept? If your idea is to write a story about a certain character, then Concept must still ask a question, and perhaps suggest a resolution.

Brooks then shows how to compare Concept, Idea, Premise and Theme. You begin with an idea and turn that into a compelling “what if” proposition. That opens the door to building a story, and that’s called Concept. His view is, a Premise brings Character into the mix. He then gives a comparative example: A Concept is “What if the narrator of a story spoke to us from heaven about her own murder?” It’s not Premise yet, as we only have the faintest clues about the primary character; narrator, and gender. The Premise might be “What if a fourteen-year-old girl cannot rest in heaven, and realizes that her family cannot rest on earth, because her murder remains unsolved, so she intervenes to help uncover the truth and bring peace to those who loved her, allowing her to move on?” That’s a Premise (in Brooks’ sense) because there’s a hero, a quest, timelines or progress markers and so on.

Finally he tackles Theme. Theme, at least in the simplest first-pass sense, is what the story means; what it tells us about real life, about the world, about how we think and feel. If you’re dealing with those elements, you’re talking about Theme. (I think I’ll have a separate post about Theme, later.)

Brooks admits, though, that these may all be only labeling games; mere semantics. Fine. Still, the distinctions allow us as a writer to learn how to progress: Idea, no matter source; then Concept, which expands Idea into a story kernel by asking “suppose.” Then on to Premise, where the Hero is defined (at least initially) and some key markers of story progress are noted.

Once you have a Concept, Brooks says you have to see if it’s sufficient for a full story, and how it supports the other Core Competencies. More good stuff there, for later on.

What about Truby’s sense of Premise, then: Does it match Larry’s? Or is it Concept? Let’s take a peek…

Early on in the chapter about Premise, Truby says:

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of character and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.

Okay, that’s pretty clear, and it doesn’t exactly match the earlier sense of Premise, does it. Examples of Premise from Truby:

  • The Godfather: The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.
  • Casablanca: A tough American expatriate rediscovers an old flame only to give her up so that he can fight Nazis.
  • Star Wars: When a princess falls into mortal danger, a young man uses his skills as a fighter to save her and defeat the evil forces of a galactic empire.

Let’s be clear here: There’s a chance we talking apples and oranges, as Brooks writes novels and Truby deals fairly narrowly with screenplays. The industry imperatives, especially for making a pitch, are fairly different. A Premise as wordy as Larry’s above might get you tossed out of a pitch in a producer’s office; I don’t know. I do feel if all you had was a Concept in that meeting you’d get tossed too; it’s not fleshed out enough at the Concept stage for a producer’s team to decide if you can make a ton of money in one weekend with it.

So what about those three Premises of Truby’s? Are they Premises as Brooks presented? Concept? Clearly. Characters; yes. Milestones? One each. So it appears these two aren’t talking about Premise in any fundamentally different way. Truby goes on to state categorically that nine of ten writers fail at the Premise. (He also says that the Premise is more important than any choices about how to write the thing; which is true in Hollywood, perhaps, but I may niggle a bit at the absolute veracity of that for novel-writer land.)

How do they fail at Premise, then? The fail to “dig out the gold that’s buried within.” They don’t realize that the value of Premise is to allow a wide-ranging exploration of the full story, BEFORE you write it.

I like Truby’s overarching standard for writing screenplays: Write Something That May Change Your Life. Time’s too short to spend huge hunks of it running in place. I get the feeling that Brooks is in the same canoe with Truby on this, and both paddling the same direction. So regardless of differences in approach, they still want the same thing: Great stories, well told, that satisfy readers and viewers alike.

So that’s the “lay of the land” for Idea, Concept and Premise, from two great authors and teachers in our area of interest. The main differences? Truby gets quickly to working on Premise, although I don’t see him skipping the simpler two. Brooks proposes you spend time on each, and that you keep them separate. I believe that’s a valid approach, and the one I’ll be using in the (near-term) future. It resonates more with my personal awareness of how I explore, how I brainstorm and develop story ideas in layers.

Now for the homework: Try the following. See if you can get the Idea, Concept and Premise out of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. Try especially for Truby’s Premise, since the book became a blockbuster movie. Can you sense the appeal that made this into a combined novel and movie franchise? Worth over $1 billion at the bookstores and the box offices?

I’d settle for a few percent of that; time to get cracking…

Idea to Concept to Premise, and On to Riches…

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