Building The Story Concept


I am reading a new book on writing called Story Engineering – Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks.  Who knew writing was such serious stuff?  Even the title is intimidating.  Still, yours truly decided to brandish her reading glasses, brave the wilds, and crack open the cover of the book.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksWowser! The writing actually made sense.  I have to admit I’m only to page 46, but this is great fun for me.  I’m working on the first competency, called “concept.”  Here I always thought the writer was supposed to sit on the couch in a thoughtful position until others heard the creative sounds of snoring, then jump up and say “Eureka!” with the next story idea fully formed in his or her head.

Nope. Mr. Brooks nicely broke down that process into things like ideas, concepts, and premises.  These things all bundled together form a meaning or theme for a book.  How cool is that?

In short, a concept is constructed by taking an idea and playing what if games with it.  So, if your idea was to write about pigeons (roll with me here, will you?), then the concept starts asking things like:

  • What if pigeons became so populous in London that no one could see the sky any more? Not that people in London have any reason to look up anyway; it’s almost always raining there.  But still.
  • What if a pigeon started pooping gold nuggets? Hard on the head, but I’d keep that bird.
  • What if a gold-pooping pigeon lived in London amongst a population of pigeons that were being decimated because there were too many of them everywhere?

Forgive me. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I have no idea where my creativity is. But you get the point (and yes, if you want to play with this golden pigeon idea/concept, knock yourself out).

One more important element of the great concept, is character. According to Story Engineering, a tale needs a “conceptual delivery strategy” to show us the truth in our stories via a character or set of characters that … “make the journey more personal and visceral, as opposed to journalistic.”

It’s easy to say “Say no to drugs,” as Nancy Regan showed us in the mid ’80s, but show us a person who learns that lesson through experience, and we have a great delivery system for a concept, like “what if a real estate salesman, with career and marriage problems, turns to cocaine use for his solution?” The 1983 movie starring Dennis Weaver became “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.”

Now, a concept is not a full-blown plot ready to throw down on a page, but only “a window into that plot.”  It’s kind of like a guide post.  It this or that a good story idea? I don’t know. What’s your concept? Is the concept original? Gee, how many stories are there with gold-pooping pigeons escaping a slaughter-house in London? Is the concept’s delivery system (character/s) strong? Maybe there is an old carrier-pigeon owner who loves the birds and wants to help a select few escape the slaughter.  What will he gain by befriending the gold-pooping pigeon? What will his girlfriend say? What is their story and what will they learn?

By now, I’ve forgotten that I’m working on the notion of concept because I’m too busy playing with images of pigeons and curiosity about the “sky rats” as a friend of mine calls them.  Can’t wait to read more in this book.

Meanwhile, it’s your turn. Come up with the most unlikely subject (idea) you can think of.  Write down the word or phrase in the middle of a blank sheet of paper.  There’s your “idea.” Then write as many “what if” questions as you can around that word. Develop a premise by popping a character into the mix. Mostly, have a fun and creative day.

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