Do You Have An Idea Or A Concept?

“Why won’t this draft work?!” I threw my notebook down in a fit of brattiness. I was on the third draft of a novel. My first novel. The one I wrote back in 2008.

I’d been writing it for months, and still nothing was going right. The story wouldn’t flow like it should, my heroine was a whiny, alchy mess, and the plot didn’t quite make sense. There were so many holes and I had no idea how to fix them.

I was in over my head. This draft, this story, was not working. I was finally ready to admit it.

Problem was, admitting didn’t change the fact that I’d spent close to a year writing and rewriting and rewriting a draft, just to still be sitting in a mess.

I had no idea what I was doing. I was ready to quit.

If you’ve written a first draft before, you know where I’m coming from. You know what it’s like to have a story feel not quite right or parts that don’t seem to fit. No matter how much you rework it.

Why Your Novel Won’t Work

Instead of quitting, I stopped working on my draft and took a short break. Immediately following that break, I had a breakthrough. I came across a website called and an author named Larry Brooks. Brooks pulled no punches in talking about what it took to write a novel that “worked.”

A major thing I learned from him–from studying his teachings, his methods–was there are story “ideas” and there are story “concepts.”

Most novelists don’t have a “concept” when they start writing, they only have an “idea.” And that lack of concept is what turns their drafts into a hellish nightmare where they either rip all their hair out, quit or end up in a mental institution (OK–maybe not a mental institution, but the drafting process really can drive you NUTS!).

If you’ve experienced this before it’s because your story was only an “idea” when you started writing it, and not a full-blown “concept.”

It’s like you put the bread in the oven and baked it, but you never added any yeast or gave it time to rise (two essentials for baking bread).

You can’t write a strong first draft unless you’ve dug deep enough to have a concept for your novel. (And writing drafts based on “ideas” can kill your spirit–and your fiction career.)

So What’s The Difference?

Stories, at their core, are all about one thing: something happening.

It’s all well and good to have a story with a fancy theme, a cool setting and an amazing protagonist, but if nothing actually happens, your story’s a dud.

Think about when you tell stories to other people–what are they about 9 times out of 10? Something that happened! An action, a conflict.

THIS is what differentiates an “idea” from a “concept.”

An idea is often a seedling, such as a:

  • Location
  • Backstory
  • Theme
  • Character
  • Setting

But that’s all there is. There’s nothing to elevate the seedling to the next level.

And while these seedlings are great and are completely needed, they don’t, alone, make a story work.

A concept is the stuff great novels are made from–a concept is a full-blown picture of a journey.

Every great story (of modern day writing) has a protagonist who has “something happen,” and then he’s forced (by the antagonist) to go on a journey in order to solve a problem/defeat the antagonist/get what he wants. 

Idea Or Concept?

An “idea” becomes a “concept” when it has:

  1. A Character (Proagonist/Hero)
  2. A Goal (Something the Hero wants)
  3. A Motivation (The ‘why’ that’s driving what the Hero wants)
  4. A Conflict (The Antagonist, what’s standing in the Hero’s way of getting what he wants)

Here’s an elevator-pitch formula you can use to begin turning your idea seeds into a fully-sprouted story concept:

(Character) wants (Goal) because (Motivation), but (Conflict)

Some examples:

  • Jack Dawson (Character) wants to get to America so he can start a new life (Goal) because he’s a street rat with nowhere else to go (Motivation), but little does he know the ship he’s on is headed for disaster (Conflict). (Titanic)
  • Dr. Leo Marvin (Character) wants to enjoy his vacation and the success of his book (Goal) because he’s been working hard and has finally become a well-known psychologist (Motivation), but his newest patient, Bob Wiley, has plans of his own (Conflict). (What About Bob?)

This formula can help you take an idea seed and turn it into a full-blown concept.

Share With Us

Do you have an idea or a concept for your current novel? In the comments 1) Share your concept, OR 2) Using the formula above, turn your current idea seed into a concept and then share it with us.

Image courtesy of Andrew Tarvin

16 Replies to “Do You Have An Idea Or A Concept?”

  1. I like the formula! Here’s my current novel project ->
    Lissa Morane wants to develop her newly discovered Memorian abilities because they’re not just super-cool but also add meaning and purpose to her previously aimless life, but the proverbial man behind the curtain will stop at nothing to keep a Memorian from discovering the history he has fabricated, and the secrets he is hiding.

  2. Hello,
    I am happy to have come across your site! I took the long road to writing but am confident that it only served to give me more material.
    After many years of having ideas, I think it has evolved to a concept!
    I have written a prologue and am completing chapter one. I am writing on my pad which I may end up switching because it simply can’t do some things in the word processing that I would like.
    The concept originated as two very distinct images that came to me; one from memory and one from present day. Instantly I felt like I finally knew what I had to say.
    Would you be interested in reading the short prologue?
    Thank you very much,

    1. Hi Deborah! It’s great that you were able to turn your idea into a story concept and premise. As for the prologue, right now I only have bandwidth to take on paid projects. If you’re interested in hiring me to give you feedback, send an email to: Best of luck with your book!

  3. If you are a fan of George R.R. Martin, you may have run into this phrase; “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” I’ve always identified with these words. However, now that I’m writing my second novel, and this time I fully intend to publish it, I can say that that doesn’t compared to writing a story that comes from within. Creating characters and blowing into them the spark of life, is far beyond more satisfying and infinitely more meaningful than stepping in on someone else’s imagination. I quite literally feel their pain, their triumphs, there is a sort of kinship between us. This is so gratifying, everyone should do it at least once before dying.

  4. Thanks, Jennifer,

    Great post. I’ve had a lot of failed novel attempts because of this very issue.

    Here’s an elevator pitch for something I’m still in the early planning stages on:

    John Steele is a good cop. He’s also a Strong, a group of people born with extraordinary powers and abilities after the Earth is bathed in a comet’s tail more than thirty years earlier. He is on the trail of a serial killer who is targeting Strongs. There’s just two problems: his superhuman strength and invulnerability is failing, and he’s next on the killer’s hit list.

    1. @James … Nice!! That’s a really cool story! Definitely has a lot of conflict and action, which is exactly what a badass story requires. Good luck with the planning stages!

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