Side Hustle Author | Why Forming Your Ideas into Concepts Saves You Time
If you're anything like me, you have at least a few story ideas that have been swimming around in your mind for a long time. The spark that ignited the idea for the creature in my first novel, Latcher, came from watching the intro to The Outer Limits over 25 years ago. If you have read Latcher, then you'll know exactly which image in the opening intro I was inspired by.
While basing a story around an element like a creature can work—as it did for me on my first book—a more stream-lined approach to ideation is to hone in on a concept, which was how I approached my second novel.
What is an element vs. a concept?
Elements are the things in the story: characters, scenarios, settings, etc. Concepts represent the story as a whole, and give you a snapshot into what it's all about.
To illustrate what I mean by an elemental idea vs. a conceptual idea, here are two fictional scenarios for how Stephen King could have come up with the idea for Misery:
1. Maybe Stephen started with the idea of writing a horror novel about a nurse who tortures her patients. From there, he could have brainstormed an exciting situation in which this crazy nurse is challenged by one of her captive patients, and so on and so forth until the novel Misery came to be.
2. Or, maybe Stephen started with a question that popped into his mind: What would happen if a best-selling author was held captive by his biggest fan and forced to write the next book in the series?
The main difference between the two scenarios is that #1 starts with a specific element of the idea, and builds it into a concept; while #2 starts with the concept itself, and then builds the elements around it.
Both are approaches you might take—and your approach might look like a bit of both scenarios at the end of the day. However, having written a book centred around a specific element and another centred around a solid concept, I must admit the latter was much easier, more enjoyable, and saved me a whack ton of time and creative energy.
Just in case you're still a little foggy on what I mean by a concept, here are a few other concepts for books/movies you'll most likely recognize:
A killer robot travels back in time to terminate the mother of the unborn child destined to lead the resistance.
A young woman living in a dystopia must fight to the death in a reality-TV style game designed to appease the masses.
A child murderer seeks revenge on the people who burned him to death by hunting and killing their children—in their dreams.
Below, find reasons why I recommend starting with a concept, followed by an idea for coming up with one yourself.
A Concept Keeps You on Track
Writing a first draft is like wandering across an uncharted landscape on a foreign planet not knowing where the hell you're going. With a simple, solid concept in your pocket, you can return to it anytime you start to feel lost, and it will naturally steer you back on the course of your writing.
This is especially important if you need to be economical with your time and creative energy, like I do. I'd love to be able to go live in a cottage for a year in Ireland and just wander through a novel at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury—which means that the concept is my friend.
You've Got Your Elevator Pitch Down Pat from the Start
When people find out you're writing a book, the first question will always be: What's it about? With my first novel, I must admit I had a hard time explaining it to them—because I hadn't quite nailed down the essence of the concept. I arrived at the concept later, but during the first draft I was floundering a bit.
This might seem like a minor thing, but for me not quite knowing how to explain my novel in one sentence left me feeling even more disoriented (Do I even know what I'm writing?). If you can explain your work-in-progress in a single sentence, it really instills confidence in yourself that what you're doing is going to be great.
Marketing Marketing Marketing
This may be the ad agency copywriter in me speaking, but having a solid concept means that you have a solid marketing plan. All branding projects I work on come down to a single line—called the brand promise—that should be present in some way in every piece of marketing. Think of your book's concept as the promise your story makes to thrill your audience.
And this is true if you're going to self-publish or traditionally publish. If you're going to query your book to agents, you'll have your concept ready to hook their interest and provide them a digestible POV of your story in just one line.
Coming Up with Your Concept
It takes practice to start thinking conceptually vs. elementally. I'm still trying to get better myself. And in a lot of ways, thinking up elements of a story is more fun than concepts. It's the difference between coming up with a really wicked monster for a story vs. coming up with a monster that fits with your concept. It feels a bit less ... spontaneous. In the end, however, I strongly believe the concept makes for a more enjoyable writing practice, and a more solid story when you're finished.
One of the most straightforward ways to start ideating concepts is to use "what if" questions.
What if a dinosaur zoo malfunctioned? (Jurassic Park)
What if a kid could see dead people? (Sixth Sense)
What if a caretaker and his family were stranded in a haunted hotel? (The Shining)
What if aliens that see via sound invaded Earth? (A Quiet Place)
You could also look at common, everyday scenarios and imagine things that might happen to shake things up. For example, I can guarantee the film Office Space came from a what if question like: "What if someone who hated his office job was hypnotized to not care about it?"
And I definitely don't think you should toss out cool elements you come up with. What you can do with that wicked monster you've thought up, or an incredible character you've created, is to see if you can combine them with a scenario that turns them into a concept. For example, ask yourself: what if [character you've created] was thrust into a world where alien plants were replacing humans while they slept (Invasion of the Body Snatchers].
However you arrive at your story ideas, it's never going to be A to B. You might stumble on them randomly, they might come to you in your dream, or they might be sitting right in front of you at this very moment.
That's half the fun of it.