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What Works for Me – Concept Versus Story

Here’s another in my irregular series of posts about writing and publishing. As always, feel free to completely ignore everything that follows because as the title implies, this is just what works for me. Today I wanted to talk about something which I didn’t think about enough when I started out, but which makes an immeasurable difference to any creative project.

Ever put down a book or walked out of a cinema and felt disappointed because what you just read or watched didn’t live up to your expectations? Maybe it sounded like a good idea, but the author/film-maker’s execution of that idea left you wanting? When I started writing, dumb as this might sound now, I don’t think I fully appreciated the difference between a story and a concept.

You’ll hopefully have noticed a couple of recent film recommendations here (well, one recommendation and the other a less than enthusiastic write-up). On Saturday I wrote about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and on Monday just gone, THE PURGE. It struck me when I sat down and watched these two movies in quick succession that there’s a commonality between them I hadn’t appreciated before: they both deal with variations of the same basic concept, but take them in wildly different directions and with varying degrees of success.

Both films start with a similar premise – crime rates in the USA have exploded, and the authorities have been forced to take radical steps to try and bring things under control. In ESCAPE, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison, walled off from the rest of the country, once you’re in you don’t get back out. In THE PURGE, all crime is legalised for a single twelve hour period each year. So far, so good… both approaches sound like decent starting points for dystopian movies (provided you don’t think about the practicalities of either ‘solution’ for too long). So why is ESCAPE hailed (by me) as a classic and THE PURGE hailed (again by me) as a misfire? Well, I could write for hours about the relative merits of both films, but I think much of it boils down to concept versus story. ESCAPE starts with a cool concept which it explores through the use of interesting characters and an engrossing story. THE PURGE doesn’t.

I know I’m being unfair and overly simplistic here and there’s more to THE PURGE than I’m letting on, but I think it’s an important distinction to make: a good concept alone does not an interesting book or film make.

As I said at the beginning, when I started writing, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this differentiation, and until I did understand, I didn’t get anything decent written.

Take STRAIGHT TO YOU, for example. It’s corny, I know, but the end of the book came to me in a dream, and from that ending I was able to work out the basic conceit: the sun’s dying, the planet is heating up by the hour, and it won’t be long before it becomes uninhabitable. That’s the concept in a nutshell. Roll the clock back twenty years to when I started writing the original version of the book, and I crowbarred a number of implausible characters into a series of equally implausible situations to get from A to B. And whilst I managed to finish the book and a few people enjoyed it, as time went on and I looked back at the novel again, to me it felt deeply unsatisfying. The plot was underwhelming, serving only to get the reader from the prologue to that ending I’d dreamed.

When it came to rewriting the novel last year, I better understood the difference between concept and story. The book wasn’t about the death of the sun at all, I realised, it was about Steven Johnson and his wife Sam: how their relationship had broken down following the loss of their unborn child, and how Steven’s inability to come to terms with his feelings had driven a wedge between them.

Hater by David Moody

Steven and Sam became the true focus of the novel (i.e. the story) with the death of the sun (the concept) taking place in the background, driving events forward and giving Steven a deadline (the end of the world) for making things right. Does that make sense?

Again, with HATER: the concept is that for an undisclosed (and wholly unimportant) reason, a third of the population has turned against the other two thirds, and those people are driven, through fear and hate, to wipe out the ‘unchanged’. The story, however, is all Danny McCoyne – how events affect him and his family, and what he’s forced to do to survive and to find his place in the new world (dis)order.

You’re probably reading this thinking patronising b*stard… we know this already, and that’s great if you do. But I don’t think everyone does. Here’s a friendly word of warning: if you’re planning to write the next great zombie novel (and it seems just about everyone is these days), then throwing a handful of elements (such as a devastating pandemic, the reanimation of the dead, and a merry band of the usual characters finding increasingly gruesome ways to cull the dead) into the mix just isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to need much more than that if you want to find an audience and hold their attention. Why are your characters doing what they’re doing? Why are they sticking together/falling apart? What are they hoping to achieve? What’s in it for them? Why do they care? Why should we care?

Use your story to sell your concept, don’t ever use a concept to try and tell a story. That’s what works for me.