Really struggling to define the concept for my latest project, something which I know is crucial to completing the book, but which for some reason I can’t quite get. To add to the issue, I’m a classic overachiever, so encountering failure like this is literally torture. And unacceptable.
I liken it to that movie Anger Management with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. You know, the one where the therapist (Nicholson) is working to help someone with their anger issues (Sandler) through therapy and everyday interactions? There’s a scene in the movie where Jack Nicholson is asking Adam Sandler who he is, and every answer that Sandler gives isn’t good enough. If Sandler says what he does for his occupation, Nicholson says “That’s what you do, I want to know who you are.” So Sandler tries another tack, explaining that he’s a pretty good guy, that he likes to golf or whatever, and Nicholson interrupts him again, “Not your hobbies, Dave, just tell us who you are.” Essentially Nicholson’s just screwing with Sandler, there is no answer that will work, everything he comes up with is shot down to deliberately infuriate him.
This is how I see defining your novel concept. I’ve read a lot about story physics and how the concept is the most important tool, I’ve read every posted example of someone attempting to define their concept with Larry Brooks, but every time I read one I get this feeling he’s just screwing with us. Is there a right answer? Does anyone ever write a concept and submit it to him for analysis and have him say “Hey, that’s bang on, awesome job!” Some of the analyses even seem to contradict each other, he says in one it shouldn’t name the character or get into the plot at all, it’s the overall concept, but then in another, where someone names the character and his goal, and he corrects some other failing of the concept…huh? And when I read his definitions of concept, I’m further tortured because all of them are one line clips that don’t really tell me anything or further my overall knowledge of how to pinpoint my concept.
To further muddle matters, every website I’ve been to defines the concept as something completely different. Some of them mix up concept and premise, or, even worse, theme. What I want it someone to read my story and say, “Oh, that’s easy, your concept is THIS.” Why do I have to go through this hellish struggle myself? Oh, I know why, because finding the concept is part of the process.
I’ve recently come across a website that really helped me a lot, and it isn’t one that defines the concept of a novel at all, it’s a description of screenwriting log lines (which Larry Brooks refers to on his blog, saying you can learn a lot from movies about story physics). A log line is a one-sentence description of your story line that is intended to incite interest, outline the main character, their overall goal in the story and their opposition to achieving that goal, along with the stakes should they fail.
Kind of like the log line for the movie Groundhog Day: An egotistical TV personality must relive the same day in small town Punxsutawney and be denied the girl of his dreams unless he can become more selfless.
This log line delivers everything you need to convey the overall story in one sentence, including the protagonist, his goal, his opposition and what’s at stake for him.
Despite the fact that all of this is similar to what I’ve read in so many other places, it didn’t resonate for me until I read it in reference to films. Then all of a sudden everything clicked. Larry Brooks isn’t crazy, nor is he bent on torturing us with an unanswerable question, it’s just that sometimes the concept people come up with works, and other times it just doesn’t. Getting it to work is the hard part.