1. It matters. It’s the key to selling your story to other people. It’s one of the first things, along with genre and word count, that you’re going to put in a query. It’s the reason why someone is going to buy your book after they pick it up off the shelf or read the blurb online. It’s why blurbs exist–to convey the story’s concept.
2. It has to convey to people what is both unique AND familiar about your story. Humans are funny animals. We like things that are familiar, but have contempt for things that are TOO familiar. We like something unique, but if it’s too weird, we’re often repelled by it. When creating a concept, you need that balance. Sneer all you want at E.L. James’ 50 Shades Of Grey, but if nothing else, it’s a conceptual triumph.
3. Immediately cast out any snobbery you may have concerning the word “concept.” I think this has to do with Hollywood films often being categorized as “high concept.” Or people think it means the story’s “gimmick.” Gimmick has a negative connotation, as if it’s some kind of trickery on the part of the writer.
Literary fiction and art films have concepts, not just commercial fiction and movies. Sometimes, they take a bit longer to explain. (Hence, perhaps, the box-office failure of Cloud Atlas, which can’t be explained in a sentence or two, or three or ten.) But the concepts of many prestigious novels and movies can usually be summed up in a sentence or two:
The Hurt Locker – a soldier becomes addicted to the dangers of war.
The Mayor Of Casterbridge – the life of a successful man is upended when the wife and child he sold to another man many years before suddenly return to town.
The Great Gatsby – a self-made man tries to win back the woman he loved when he was poor.
Whatever the genre, whether it’s commercial or literary, if you can’t boil down your concept to a few short sentences, you will need to rethink it.
4. The best concepts have something about them that makes reading or seeing the story almost an imperative. About a year before it was released, I remember talking to a friend about the movie version of Jurassic Park. I told her that Stephen Spielberg was directing the movie.
She said: “I really want to go to that.”
I said: “You will. Spielberg is directing the movie.”
She said: “No, you don’t understand. I want to go to a REAL place like Jurassic Park.”
Since she could not go to a real Jurassic Park, the book and the movie were the next best things. Making the movie something she HAD to see.
It was no surprise to me when Jurassic Park was an huge hit. If the central concept was that compelling to my friend, it was going to be as compelling to a lot of other people, too.
Consequently, if your concept seems meh to you, it will to other people, too. You’re on the right track when you think, “Oh, yeah, people will want to pay to read/see that.”
5. Concepts are specific. Many times you’ll see someone explain the concept of their story this way:
A woman has a moment of revelation that leads her to reexamine the direction of her life.
This is way too vague and conveys nothing unique about the story or the character. What was the revelation? What direction did her life take?
Be specific. Be specific about character, about what the character is doing, why are they doing it, what is unique and compelling about the character. Such as:
A reclusive billionaire, traumatized as a child from witnessing the murders of his parents, becomes a masked crime-fighter.
An actor, who is so difficult no one wants to work with him, pretends to be a woman to get a job on a soap opera.
A middle-aged woman travels back in time to high school and decides to change the course of her life by breaking up with the boy who became her husband.
See? Very specific. WHO is this character. WHAT is the character doing. WHY is s/he doing it. The unique aspect(s) of this character. The conflict(s) inherent in the story. All spelled out in the central concept, and all conveying why this would make a compelling story.
6. The time you invest in creating your concept is worth it. It’s extremely difficult to make a great story from a poor or mediocre concept. No matter how superb the writing, it’s something you really can’t hide.
Sometimes, a fantastic concept will come to you in what seems like an instant. In that case, yay for you! You’re very lucky. Most of the time, though, you’ll need to work on it for a while before you get it right. Take that time. It will save you a lot of grief and wasted energy.