Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is a "Concept"?

The way I see it, every story--regardless of its genre or form of medium--can be broken down into six different aspects:

Some of my favorite stories of all time excel at all six of these, but a solid story will do well at least at a few. Some of these aspects are more complicated or time-consuming to work on than others, but that mostly depends on the author. Some aspects just come naturally to some writers; other writers may struggle with all five. But I think most writers usually have at least one that comes easily.

Today, let's look at that first aspect: Concepts.

Concept

If you ask somebody what a certain show is about (and insist on keeping it spoiler-free), they'll probably tell you the Concept. The Concept is what the story is about, what's it like, what's its main focus. It is NOT a summary of everything that happens in the story (that'd be a summary of the Plot/Pacing). The Concept is a hook--it's something interesting about the world, the characters, or the plot that draws audiences in.

This means that although the Concept might include a tidbit of the plot (what happens in a story; more on that in the weeks to come), it is separate from the Plot/Pacing. After all, you could sit there and tell people exactly what happens in the entirety of Game of Thrones (it'd take a while, but it's possible), but that's not telling people WHY they should watch or read Game of Thrones. That's what the Concept is for--it's the why. Why people should care about the story, why people should watch or read or play, why the audience will enjoy the story.

To find the Concept of a story, ask yourself this: "Why do I watch this show/read this book/go to see this movie?"

For example, here's a few Concepts of some stories you might be familiar with:

Beauty and the Beast - A prince cursed into the form of a hideous beast must find true love before his transformation becomes permanent. But will the woman who stumbles upon his castle be able to break the spell?

Super Mario Bros. - Plucky plumber Mario and his brother, Luigi, fight a medley of monsters in order to save Princess Toadstool from the evil Bowser.

The Blacklist - One of the FBI's Most Wanted abruptly turns himself in after twenty years of successfully eluding capture. He agrees to give them the names of criminals so dangerous that even the FBI isn't aware of them. The catch? He insists that the only person he'll speak to is someone he has no right to even know about: a brand-new profiler and no-name, Agent Elizabeth Keen.

The Big Bang Theory - A group of stereotypically socially awkward but brilliant and men humorously shed light on life as a nerd, especially highlighting what's most important to them: comic books, quantum physics, and finding out how to get (or keep) the ladies in their lives.

Notice that some Concepts actually introduce questions. That's another way they can hook their audiences. If a story raises questions, we're naturally inclined to sit down and hear more, even if the rest of the story doesn't seem to be something we'd enjoy as much. It takes advantage of our innate human curiosity.

What's It About?

Ever been in this scenario?

You're in the middle of a TV show when someone walks by and asks what you're watching. You tell them the title, and then they ask the inevitable followup question: "What's it about?" But you discover you have no idea what to say. Of course it's not that you don't know what your show is about; it's just really hard to define. You say it'd just be easier to show them rather than explain it.

A story's Concept isn't bad if it's hard to express; it might just be a Concept that's less focused on the plot and more focused on the characters or on the setting itself. This isn't the norm, but it does happen.

For example, I could tell you the plot of one of my favorite video games, Journey--it's about a person who goes on a quest, a journey. That's it.

But it's not so much the plot (the "what happens") in the story that is the Concept of the game. It's not the plot that keeps me playing it over and over again, that sucked me into the world. In the case of this game, its irresistible qualities were a combination of the Style (its aesthetics, in this case) and the Concept--because the Concept of this game is that while your character goes on a long journey, they don't do so alone--they meet a companion along the way, a randomly-selected real-world human player, and together you battle the elements and puzzle through the challenges to complete the journey as a team. The Concept of Journey, then, is the protagonist undergoes the trials of a journey while forming an indescribable bond with their companion.

Sometimes a story's Concept is the world itself (the Setting, or where and when a story takes place). I think this was the main draw of James Cameron's Avatar: its setting was so breathtaking that it was what people went to see the movie for.

Sometimes a story's Concept is the Characters, especially their interactions with one another. These are perhaps the hardest Concepts to define because it's really hard to clearly sum up what a character (or characters!) is like.

What Makes It Different?

A Concept is equal parts what your story is about and what makes it unique. Uniqueness is another thing that attracts an audience like bees to a flower. If something about your story stands out, more people are probably going to take notice.

For example, plenty of stories take place in a post-apocalyptic future. But what makes something like the Fallout series so popular with gamers? It's a post-apocalyptic radiation-mutated world in an alternate universe that is probably forever locked in something akin to Earth's 1950's. That 50's flavor is something very different from other post-apocalyptic stories and is something that both differentiates and endears Fallout to its fans' hearts.

Why Should I Care About Concept?

Sometimes a Concept is the very first thing developed in a story, and sometimes a Concept is one of the later things a writer may consider. Often it's not the last thing to be developed, though, since a writer needs to have in mind WHY an audience would want to pay attention to their story in the first place. Remember, this is exactly what the story's Concept is--the why.

A story--any story--runs off the "why": "Why should I care about this character?" "Why should I care about these events?" The audience is too busy being bombarded by other media to pay much attention if a story doesn't answer those questions in a way that satisfies them. If the writer isn't considering the why, people probably aren't going to see a point to pay attention to their story.

This is why the Concept is so important--and is the first in my list of the six aspects of a story.

Next we'll be looking at Characters--what they do for a story, why they're so important, and why the best characters really stand out!

Thanks for stopping by!

From Him, To Him

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