On Saturday morning, I happened to retweet a post from an agent about testing the first line of your novel to make sure it wasn't too generic. The gist of the post was that the first line should not only make you want to read more, but that it should also tell you something about the type of book you are going to read. Someone on twitter responded to me by quoting the first line of The Hunger Games:
"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."
The insightful twitter peep pointed out that the HG first line doesn't tell you much, that it could just as easily have been a romance or a horror novel, and that it's the next few lines of Hunger Games that "lock it in." That's a great point.
Starting Concept Right Up Front
Let's go back to that first sentence of the Hunger Games. Now note that the first line already contains two built-in questions:
1) Who was supposed to be asleep on the other side of the narrator's bed?
2) Why did that person get up too early?
Those two questions pull us into the next sentence curious to find out what's going, which leads us into the next sentence, and on down the page. But does the fact that we want to know more and that we're willing to keep reading mean that Suzanne Collins' first sentence has done its job? Or does a truly great first line have to let the reader know what kind of a story he or she is about to read and suggest something important about this particular story? Does it also need to have enough specificity to bring the concept into play? And what exactly is concept anyway?
Larry Brooks, in STORY ENGINEERING, defines concept like this: "The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most empowering when expressed as a 'what if?' question. The answer leads to further 'what if?' questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers comes your story."
It's easy to confuse concept with plot, and that's not it. Because that leaves out something that Lisa Cron's recent book WIRED FOR STORY calls the "'so what?' factor." She goes on to explain that the "so what?" factor is what clues a reader in on the point of the story, the relevance of everything that happens in it, what the story is about.
Concept vs. High Concept
We've all heard the term "high concept." Hollywood wants it. Publishers want it. Heck, writers want it. Yet all too often, we start off writing a story or series of events instead of an actual concept, high or otherwise. That's not fatal. We can fix it. We can fix anything given long enough and desire enough, but it's easier to write to a concept than it is to insert a concept into a book you've already written.
A high concept, as succinctly explained by Nathan Bransford, is a "hook that we can easily understand and digest." He points out that editors are increasingly drawn to high concepts, even in literary fiction. And that's because a concept you can put into once sentence is easy to sell to readers, tv viewers, and movie-goers.
Literary agent Scott Eagen points out that high concept is more than a brief plot summary. Rather, he explains, "it's what makes your story unique from everything else out there." What does your story have that makes it different from anything other writers have done before?
Bingo. High concept is a book that can be sold from a pitch -- and the execution doesn't matter quite so much.
A sparkly vampire falls in love with the one girl in the world whose blood might tempt him to break his vow not to feed on humans.
Note that I've deliberately stated that backwards. The way I've put the premise would be Edward Cullen's story, and I haven't followed any of formulas for presenting concept. My point is, it really doesn't matter how you explain the premise of Twilight. It's unique. It has conflict. Someone is going to read it. And no matter what you want to say about Stephanie Meyer's writing, the execution is full of tension and over the top romance. It's Romeo Meets Juliet, Cinderella, and the Ugly Duckling all rolled into one. Genius.
Can Every Story Be High Concept?
Even if a story isn't high concept, it can sell and sell well. The difference, I think, is that the less high-concept it is, the harder it will be to sell, and the better the execution is going to have to be. We can read all we want to about developing high concept ideas, that doesn't mean that we are all going to come up with sparkly vampires. Or Hunger Games. Nice to think we could, but we don't write to order. Our muses are more fickle than that. (Mine is downright mean to me.)
Lisa Cron says the first step in finding your concept is to "zero in on the point your story is making." And then, she says, "filter out unnecessary and distracting information" that doesn't work to weave together the protagonist's issue, the theme, and the plot that keeps the story focused.
"A story is designed," according to Cron, "from beginning to end to answer a single overarching question. As readers, we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer."
She points out that, after many years in the publishing industry, she is convinced that an author who can't summarize the novel in a few "clearly focused, intriguing" sentences needs to rewrite the book, not the query letter, because the manuscript isn't going to be intriguing or clearly focused either. (Um, yeah. I'm putting up my hand here. Yes, yes, I am. Guilty, your honor. Been there, done that.)
Here is how she says that she can tell when a manuscript is veering off to rejection:
- The protagonist isn't on stage or evident, so the reader has no way to judge the relevance of what is happening in the story.
- The protagonist is clear, but doesn't have a clear goal, so the reader can't tell where the story is likely to go or why she should care about the story.
- The protagonist's external goal is clear, but there's nothing to suggest what internal demon or problem that goal is going to make her confront, so the story is boring or feels like it doesn't matter.
- The protagonist has both an inner and out goal, but suddenly that doesn't carry through the entire story, or doesn't have anythign to do with the action in the plot.
- The protagonist doesn't behave in a believable way while responding to her goals, so it's impossible to tell what she'll do next. (Or understand it.)
The Three Elements that Work Together
Here's one final, insight I gleaned from Lisa Cron. Concept is the synthesis of three elements that work in unison to create a story:
- The story question that forces the protagonist to confront an internal problem,
- The theme or universal meaning that the story shows about human nature, and
- The plot or series of obstacles that the protagonist has to overcome in the course of illustrating what the writer wants us to understand.
When EXTERNAL STORY QUEST forces CHARACTER to confront her INTERNAL PROBLEM or STAKES, PLOT illustrates the THEME.
Elevating Concept and Raising the Stakes
Larry Brooks, in a brilliant post on Story Fix, defines concept as "the engine" of our story. He points out that there are other parts that make the car (or story) run, but without the engine, it isn't going far.
Keeping our scenes tightly focused on the three elements defined by Lisa Cron, we're likely to have a solid manuscript, one that readers can understand and care about. But are enough readers going to find and care enough about the story to make it worthwhile for a publisher to shell out thousands of dollars (or much more) to get it out in print? How do we make the leap from good to good enough? Or from good enough to great?
Before we sit down to write, it's worth the time to consider how to make it interest as many people as possible and make it truly different than what's already out there. How to make it more marketable, in other words. Otherwise, we're trying to roll the proverbial boulder up the hill. We may eventually get it to the top and get it rolling toward publication, but we've had to do a whole lot of extra heavy lifting on the way.
Eight Ways to Develop a Unique Concept
Wouldn't it be easier to make sure we've done everything we can to sell the book before we even start worrying about how to write it? Coming up with a unique concept can happen in any number of ways. You can:
- Show a new perspective into a real event, character, or situation
- Tap into the headlines for something that people are already talking about
- Tackle a really controversial subject or show an alternative to something people accept as fact
- Use a universal fear or motive in a different way
- Combine two familiar ideas into something new
- Use the train-wreck phenomenon to take readers on a sensational ride
- Twist the end to turn the familiar into a surprise.
- Up the wow factor by creating a new superpower, revamping (yes, sparkly pun intended) a creature we already know, inventing a fearsome new weapon, revealing an incredible magical artifact, or inventing a different kind of life-threatening situation.
Ten Minimum Components of a Marketable Concept
Whatever concept we come up with though, at minimum, we have to make sure we include:
- At least one fascinating character: Someone bigger than life, who cares very deeply about someone or something and is willing to fight for it.
- An interesting setting: A location or world where readers have never been but want to visit either in our dreams or in our nightmares.
- An inherent conflict: The situation that pits the fascinating character against someone or something that is going to keep her from getting what she wants--while keeping readers at the edge of our seats unable to guess the outcome.
- An emotional appeal: The reason readers understand the stakes, care about them, and connect to the events and characters on a personal, heart-deep level.
- A universal or familiar idea: The connection to something we already know something about or have previously wondered about.
- An original twist: The aspect of the story that makes it different from any other story--the way ordinary things are combined, slanted, spun, and stacked to take the universal or familiar idea and warp it into something unique and unexpected.
- A piece of coolness: A tool, ability, artifact, or something in the character, setting, or situation that makes our jaws drop.
- A high-impact inciting incident: The situation that catapults us all into the story with no way back.
- High stakes: The reason it matters if the fascinating character loses, not just to her but to other people. The actual consequences of failure that the reader can't bear to contemplate.
- A great title: A word or two or three that intrigue and sum up the book.
Go forth and write great books, everyone. Happy writing!
Books for Additional Reference: