Since moving to Austin, I’ve finally picked up a Roku, which is a device for streaming on your TV (I used to use my Nintendo Wii for streaming–ancient, I know!!). And some of the programming on Netflix is different, depending on which device you’re using.
The other day I was scrolling through when I came across a movie I hadn’t seen on there previously. It was called “The Matchbreaker.”
Intrigued by the title, I clicked on the image to see a description of the movie. And this was essentially the plot: a guy gets paid by a disapproving mother to break up her daughter’s relationship, and this one-time gig turns into a career, which then becomes a problem when he falls in love with one of his clients.
If you’ve been following me for a while now, you likely remember a screenplay I’ve been talking about that I’m working on right now. It’s called The Breakup Coach.
In my story, the Protagonist is a female who’s been dumped so many times that she decides to become a breakup coach and help other people break up with their significant others, and she’s doing just fine until a client she doesn’t want to take on blackmails her into helping him.
Similar idea… but two totally different stories. How can this be? How can the exact same idea become two (or more) totally different stories?
For one very simple reason: Concept.
Concept is the landscape of your story. In the case of these two stories, The Matchbreaker, and The Breakup Coach, the Concept is the same: a person whose job it is to help people break up with their significant others.
Yet the plots are totally different.
And that is how you know you’ve got a good Concept. Not only is it compelling and conflicted in and of itself, but an unlimited number of plots could be created from it.
The Matchbreaker (or the Breakup Coach) could even be a TV series. The Concept would be the same–a person whose job it is to break up other people’s relationships. And then the plot would change in each episode.
Just like any other TV show.
Same Concept. Different plot (aka: Premise).
Concept is one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling craft. It may even be the most powerful. Because Concept creates the landscape for your story.
But it doesn’t give you a plot.
A landscape is like a stage for the story to unfold on. In this case, the Concept is a character: a person whose job it is to break up other people’s relationships.
That is the stage the plot will unfold on. But it’s NOT a plot on its own.
This is a seriously important distinction to understand. If you don’t get this distinction, you will be headed toward “episodic narrative land.” And that is the worst thing you can ever do for your story.
And a Concept like this, without a plot, lends itself very nicely to an episodic narrative. You could sit down and just write 50,000 words about a person whose job it is to break up relationships. And what you’d end up with is 50,000 words that show us the day-to-day life of a breakup coach.
Interesting to some, maybe. But not powerful enough to be an actual story.
Because something’s missing.
And that’s a Premise, a plot. A purpose for the story. Opposition that’s going to get in the way and make things harder for that break up coach to achieve his/her story goal.
Without that, you don’t really have a story.
The Matchbreaker is now on my Netflix list of movies to watch. I’m insanely interested in how this version of my Concept plays out.
The other reason why it’s important to fully understand Concept (and Premise, and all the other pieces of story craft) is because otherwise you’ll think you need to have a super original and unique idea to be able to write a good story.
But you really don’t.
All you need is a Concept that’s worth writing about. A Concept that, even if it’s been done before, hasn’t been done by you.
You being you is what brings the unique twist to things. Because you’ll take the Concept of “a person whose job it is to break up people’s relationships” and create your own version of the plot.
And if that same Concept was given to 10 other writers, what you’d get are 10 totally different stories. All built on the same Concept.
Now, not every Concept warrants doing over and over again with multiple plots. Some Concepts are good just for that one story.
But what makes a really killer Concept is that it has potential to be multiple plots. That’s when you know you’ve stumbled upon something awesome.
So even though the Matchbreaker is a movie on Netflix, that’s not gonna to stop me from writing my version of the Breakup Coach. Because that story hasn’t been done before.
Yeah, the Concept has, but it’s a good Concept, one that warrants multiple stories.
Same goes for stories like Superman or Spiderman or James Bond or any other Concepts out there that have been used over and over again with many different plots.
The Concept is the same for each story, what changes is the plot.
And, really, that’s why they’re able to do so many versions of the story. Because Concept lends itself to that.
Without Concept, a story falls flat. It becomes average and everyday. Which is not what bestsellers or box office smashes are made of.
Concept provides the stage for your plot to unfold and your characters to come to life.
Want to know if you’ve got a killer Concept for your story? Ask yourself the following questions:
> Does this Concept provide inherent tension and conflict to the story, before the plot is introduced?
> Is this Concept compelling on its own? Would someone hear this Concept and want to read/watch the story, before you’ve told them what it’s actually about?
> Can you use this Concept to create an unlimited number of plots?
If you can truly answer YES to all three of those questions, then congratulations–you probably have a killer Concept, one that’s worth writing into a story (or several).
But if you didn’t answer YES to all three questions, then you may want to keep digging and developing until you have a Concept where you can answer YES to all three.
Coming up with a killer, compelling, I’ve-got-to-read-that-right-now Concept isn’t always easy (although once you fully understand craft, it can be). But it’s always worth the extra time and attention spent making it so.
Otherwise you may end up with an episodic narrative. And that’s not really a story.
Or, at least, it’s not a story that will get you published, land you on the NY Times Best Seller list or get turned into a movie (and I know that’s what you REALLY dream of and want to happen, right??!!).
Spend the extra time working on your Concept. Play around with as many ideas as you can until you’ve landed on one that makes you scream HELL YES!!!
Your story is worth it.
Dream life or bust,