In the 2nd part of my series on Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, I’m going to discuss “ideas” vs. “concept.” If you’re just turning in, you can find part 1 here, but I’ll give a little refresher for everyone.
Story Engineering is Brooks’ method of planning out a novel. It’s not what to write, but how to gather all of the needed components before writing begins. He breaks this down into “Six Core Competencies”:
- Scene execution
- and Writing voice
Brooks says, “… the Six Core Competencies is a checklist that must be addressed and completed before a story will work.” I’m going to take his word for it since he’s actually published books.
The House Metaphor
For me, the Core Competencies are like building a house. You need a foundation, walls, tools, etc. to design, build, and finish a house. Not having everything will build a house that topples or is never finished. Sounds like most of my novels to date.
The main problem I have with Brooks is that he’s very wordy (that’s saying a lot coming from someone who likes to ramble) and tends to talk in confusing circles. That’s why I’m attempting to break things down and cut out the clutter, so to speak.
I’m going to start with his first Core Competency. It’s good to remember, though, that you can start with any of the first four which he calls “essential elements.” These are the building blocks of the house: the blueprints, the foundation, studs, and walls. You can start a project by gathering these things in any order, but you can’t actually build a house until you have all of them in one place. I like to start with Concept because it’s the “foundation” in my metaphor.
Concept, though, can be confusing. Brooks goes around and around trying to describe it and how it’s different from “ideas” and a “premise.” It doesn’t help that people often use the three terms interchangeably in common vernacular. In the end, he says it doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as you get that foundation laid.
Ideas vs. Concept
So, what’s the difference?
I look at it this way: Ideas are those little sparks you get in the shower while you rush to get ready for work. You know what I’m talking about. They’re the most basic building blocks of a story with little detail. An idea is that first shovel of dirt moved as the foundation is laid.
I want to write a story about aliens.
That tells you nothing about the story except that it is about aliens. Which may or may not be interesting to read.
Concept takes that up a level. It evolves that simple idea into something usable. It’s kind of like a short summary or logline you might pitch to an agent.
I want to write a story about a teen alien that must stop his mentor/father figure from invading Earth while living secretly among humans during an anthropology school assignment.
That’s a concept. It tells you a little about the character and main conflict. There’s something original and interesting–a twist on the generic alien invasion story.
Premise goes a step further. It tells you what the story is about underneath. Is the story about the struggle of the alien coming to terms with his mentor/father figure betraying him? Does it expose the hypocrisy of humans through the alien’s eyes? Does it highlight the inherent racism and division of human society and how they get past that once aliens attack? Answering those questions would raise the concept to a premise.
This is actually the plot of one of my unwritten novels, although it hasn’t been fully developed. Someday I’ll write it because I really want to read that.
Where do ideas come from?
According to Brooks, ideas can spawn from any of the four essential elements.
- Character – “I want to write a story about a girl with a famous brother.”
- Theme – “I want to write a story about the consequences of abandoning your friends.”
- Structure – “I want to write a story about two kids that survive an accident that kills their friend.”
- Concept – “I want to write a fanfic about an alternate universe that reverses the roles of the main characters.”
None of these are concepts yet, but they are, coincidentally, the ideas for some of my novels and fanfics.
Boys Like Mine – My 2015 NaNo novel about a girl whose TV star brother has a breakdown and comes to live with her while getting his life together and inadvertently throws hers into chaos with his fame.
“Homecoming” – A 2005 That 70s Show fanfic about Hyde disappearing for twenty years after the season seven finale and the emotional struggle of picking up the pieces of his life and friendships when he finally returns to Point Place.
Whatever It Takes – A novel I wrote in 2013 about two teens thrown together (and eventually falling for each other) in their grief and guilt after they survive a car accident that kills the girl’s sister who was dating the boy at the time.
The Great Ring Series – A Stargate SG-1 fanfic series I wrote in 2011 set in an alternate universe where the Stargate isn’t understood until modern times which results in Sam being promoted to Lt. Colonel and leading SG-1 while Jack is demoted to Major and has to learn to be subordinate to an inexperienced field officer. (There are four stories, but the series is unfinished.)
These descriptions are a lot closer to concepts, although they could be fleshed out more. Hopefully, you get the idea.
Where am I going with this?
My goal is to actually develop an idea through all of the levels of Brooks’ Core Concepts (hopefully before NaNo starts in November). So, I should probably come up with some ideas. I spent a little time brainstorming the other day and hit on these four generic ideas–one for each essential element:
- a story about two teens that meet in the virtual reality of an online game (concept)
- a story about a YouTube vlogger (character)
- a story about mental illness (theme)
- a story about what happens during a traffic jam caused by the total eclipse (structure)
After consideration, I narrowed the choices down to two–the one about the virtual world and the one about the vlogger. And after a little more brainstorming, I settled on the vlogger story.
I actually got the idea from my eleven-year-old daughter who is obsessed with vlogs, especially the ones that involve entire families. I was sitting there one day, while she rambled on again about this guy she watches, and I was like, “you know, I’m totally going to write a story about a vlogger one of these days.” She got annoyed that I interrupted her. Then I did it again: “I’m going to write a story about a vlogger that decides he doesn’t want to do the vlog anymore but his family won’t let him quit.” Even then, the idea was evolving into a concept.
How do you go from idea to concept?
Brooks idea is to list “what if” questions? They will lead one to another if the concept is good. In other words, brainstorming. Sometimes, the questions open the plot up. Other times, they illuminate some hidden, deeper aspect of the story.
What if the vlogger wants to quit because his parents film everything he does?
What if they won’t let him quit because the vlog makes them a lot of money?
What if they are negotiating to turn the show into a reality TV series?
What if the vlogger runs away to avoid being exploited further by his family?
That’s the general idea.
Next week, I’m going to focus on developing this idea into a concept. And hopefully, that will lead to Brooks’ other Core Competencies.
You can join in the fun by brainstorming an idea for each of the “four essential elements.” Pick one then take it a step further by asking “what if” questions to see if there’s the hint of a concept hiding in there somewhere. Let us know what idea you chose and why.
More in this series:
[Part 1] An Introduction