Written 12.10,2016 on Facebook, added to JoeActon.com 6.3.2017
Concept and Premise with the Big Idea thrown in and out
I knew I was destined to be a writer when I got this call, “Acton, I just had this wild-ass idea and instantly thought of you.” If you get a call even remotely similar to this, you can be sure everything you’re about to hear is a concept – the big idea, the GREAT idea, the 35,000 foot view, the dream bubble that popped when the alarm clock blew up three shots of Jack Daniels too late.
A lot of those who opine about writing insist the order crescendi of a story is idea, concept and premise, each of which succeeds the other and builds the previous. So, the way it would work in their world is… let’s say you were a fisherman watching the calendar flip over, seemingly faster and faster. One day, as you’re pulling on your socks and make that old man groan, it suddenly occurs to you, “Well, I know what. I’m going to write a story about an old guy fisherman. There’s lots of old-guy fisherman and they’ll love this story.” OK, there’s the idea.
You give it some thought and then, “All fishermen are basically liars, so let’s say this guy is just plain unlucky at fishing – couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat – and hasn’t caught anything in months.” Now there’s a concept-like thought.
Now you’re really cooking and it’s, “So the guy takes his boat way out into the ocean, chums up his lines and BAM! gets lucky with a huge fish, so big it tows him around for a couple of days until the old dude comes to understand the fish and meaning of life – but in a showdown, stabs the fish to death. The end. Sorta… probably need some fill-in, but there you have it.”
Right. Well… this story is so boring, Hemingway killed himself after writing it and Spencer Tracy wanted to after he played the fisherman. But, you’re a fisherman, so it’s THE BIG IDEA.
But when you get right down to it, the idea and concept can conflate into the Joe Acton Lazy Writer’s “No Big Idea” Concept: “An old, unlucky fisherman catches a big fish which damn kills him before he kills it.” Done. That’s the conceptual heart of the story. You need a starting place and you got it without spending $200,000 for an A.B. Literature, Harvard. It ain’t “high concept” like “Planet of the Apes” or “Snakes on a Plane,” but you’ve where you need to be to start lining up the dominos of your story.
The premise… where all average stories come to die. What you had when you dreamed up your “old-guy fisherman” story was just a thought which inspired you to write. Now you add character (timbre, persona, tone), a problem and a goal and you got yourself a premise looking for some laptop time. So now, you’ve got, “An old unlucky fisherman catches a big fish which damn near kills him before he kills it as he learns the meaning of life.” This kind of premise writing will likely get you kicked out of any good Lit department but if you were in a Lit department you wouldn’t be reading me. And you’d be an author… I’m just a lowly writer.
All right, settle down. This is just a blog and you’re not paying for it and we ARE cutting some corners on a classic to wander around holding our shovel of discovery about writing. So I dug a hole, big deal. And Hemingway probably didn’t kill himself over “The Old Man and The Sea” given he won a Pulitzer for it and it rocketed him to higher levels of fame and fortune. But it was his last work, he wrote it in eight weeks, and called it the best he could writer “ever, for all my life.”
Eight weeks is really hauling the freight for writing a book, never mind a boring classic. This was not a Big Idea book; it had been cooking in his head for a long time and he clearly had concept, premise, character, theme, problem, goal, resolution well mapped out. This kind of clarity just does pour from you as quickly and easily as The Big Idea. My point, circuitous and rambling as it now well seems, is Big Ideas are for politics, investors and preachers. Writers need a frame work in which to build the world in which they torment their characters, be it comedy or drama.
This may be a little late in the missive to mention, but the best writers (IMHO) strictly adhere to the KISS principal: KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID. Honestly, you can get quickly and easily wrapped around the axel of academia and lose sight of the goal – to tell your story, in your own voice, in a manner which fulfills you. That’s it. No amount of conforming to the rigors of academia nor convention will make your story any better. Acton’s Rule: think big, do it yourself, don’t follow convention. My experience is that there are no rules and you break them at your own peril (not a typo); nonetheless be bold, be audacious, dare to be different.
Everyone isn’t going to like your concept. And if they do, they might not like your premise. And if they do, they might not like your thematic direction. And if they do, they might not like the narrative throughline. And if they do… you get the drift. By definition writers are an acquired taste that not everyone will spark to. There are no end of reasons people won’t like your writing and the only thing you can do is bash on. You’re not writing for them, you’re writing for you.
Concept and premise are important because understanding them helps you better interact with people pretending to care about your writing. A little sarcasm there but you need to understand that when people ask what you write, a) they’re being polite because they don’t consider writing a big boy/big girl job; and b) they’re asking you a concept question – they’re not asking about the story itself. If an editor or producer asks what you write, you do not come back with, “First the earth cooled.” If a friend of your ex asks, however, you can go with, “Sadomasochistic religious horror for the young adult market” and they WILL toddle off while texting.
I should have a clever sign off line like Rick Stevens on PBS, “Keep on traveling.” But I don’t.