Concept Vs. Premise, My Takeaway from a Workshop by Story Coach Larry Brooks

“Voice is like air: the best air is crisp and clean.”—Story coach, Larry Brooks

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Books on the craft of writing line my desk like dominos. Openings, character development, scene execution, theme, it’s all there. But those that examine structure are my favorite.

Every story needs a strong foundation. Beautiful sentences fill us with wonder, and well-developed characters are a must, but no matter the genre, higher stakes and escalating tension keep readers turning the pages.

Of course there are exceptions, notably some literary fiction, but in general our stories are stronger when certain plot elements are in place.

Larry Brooks Writing Craft Books

Click image to visit Brooks’s Amazon page

My most dog-eared and marked-up books on structure are those by Larry Brooks, so you can imagine my excitement a few weeks back when I attended his live workshop in Columbus, Ohio. His insights and humor made the day fly by. Some of the topics he covered were: the four parts of story, the six core components of storytelling, and the six realms of story physics.

He also elaborated on the difference between concept and premise, an issue few others address. Per Brooks, concept is a subset of premise. “It’s the rocket fuel that will make your premise soar.” If your concept is weak then your premise will be too.

Larry Brooks, Concept Vs. Premise

So what’s the difference? A concept is more general, a framework if you will. It can lead to many different premises. The premise, on the other hand, is the specifics of your story. It’s what makes your book different from those with similar concepts. According to Brooks, it should include certain elements, starting with who the character is and ending with how he or she resolves his or her conflict.

For example, in Eating Bull the concept might be stated as:

An overweight teenager sues the food industry for contributing to his obesity.

The premise, however, takes this concept further and individualizes it (note, I purposely kept the last part of this vague to avoid spoilers):

When an overweight teenager gets recruited by a headstrong public health nurse to sue the food industry, he becomes the poster boy of fat, drawing the attention of trolls and bullies and worse: an obsessive-compulsive, fitness-crazed killer who takes it upon himself to rid the world of overweight people. As the murders escalate and move closer to home, the self-doubting teenager must overcome lifelong insecurities and find the courage to take down the killer in order to protect himself and his loved ones.

Premise definition, Larry Brooks, Storyfix .com

Why is nailing down our premise before we start writing so important?

Because per Brooks, “the purpose of premise is to identify the dramatic arc.”

Our story’s dramatic arc is what draws our readers in and keeps them reading. Bonus? The better fleshed out our premise, the better our first draft. Second bonus? The better our first draft, the less painful the revision.

For the key components of premise and other craft elements, I encourage you to check out Brooks’s books. If you get the chance to take one of his workshops, do it. In the meantime you can visit his website and find invaluable content for free.

Authors Larry Brooks and Carrie Rubin. Central Ohio Writers Workshop

Larry Brooks and me in the highly sought-after vacation land of Columbus, Ohio.

An update on my newest book

My latest manuscript is with my publisher, ScienceThrillers Media. Hopefully the ARC will be ready soon, with a publication date in the first half of 2018.

In The Bone Curse, Western medicine meets Haitian Vodou when a skeptical med student must enter the occult world after a vengeful priest unleashes a centuries-old curse upon him, one that causes him to spread a deadly infection to his loved ones and can only be cured with Vodou.

Think Robin Cook meets Preston & Child.

Boo!

*     *     *

standing color cropped tiny for blog postsCarrie Rubin is a medical thriller author with a background in medicine and public health. Her novels include Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. For full bio, click here.

140 Responses to “Concept Vs. Premise, My Takeaway from a Workshop by Story Coach Larry Brooks”

  1. Kerry Boytzun

    I met Carrie at Larry’s Columbus, Ohio workshop. I agree with Carrie totally (where did the Valley Girls of the 80s go?) and I’ve been following Larry through his blog, books since 2012.

    Larry’s structure-physics is invaluable to keeping my muse’s runaway train from flying off the rails as it speeds through the pre-designed scenes in all four parts of my novel.

    Some may say, “But Kerry, what if you find a better way to write some of it–do you have to redesign all of it?”

    Answer, “Not all of it.” But you don’t have to re-write all the bloody scenes! It’s like working with Game of Thrones episode descriptions and you realize ways to improve the compelling nature of the story arc, the character arc, etc.

    What I have done is by repeatedly using Larry’s “stuff”, I have redesigned my novel several times. However–the overall story remains the same. The story arc (the scenes that carry the character) stays the same overall from part 1 through part 4.

    When I’m designing a scene, I have the direction already mapped out by the structure as to what hero, antagonist, are up to and doing. Within the scene however, my muse freewheels the narration and dialogue, as I imagine I’m those characters–and I’m known to be “off the wall” in that regard.

    FIXING your novel using the above is much, much easier! You know you have a problem/issue when a scene doesn’t feel compelling, right, or just off. Using Larry’s “stuff” I have deconstructed the anatomical points of the scene (character arc, story arc, goals) to see what parts of the scene are “relevant” or even if the scene is relevant. This fine tuning will elevate the book from “okay” to page turner.

    Larry’s structure-physics allows me to maintain a big picture view of a very complex world down to the micro-view of a character’s psychological motivation. **Actors always want to know “what’s my motivation?” What they and ultimately the viewer is saying, is “Does what this character is doing–make sense?” This is not easy to answer.

    An example is where you have a character who has been a skilled rebel living in the 16th century Scotland. He has stayed alive and built a thriving business smuggling liquor thorough the cities. His business plan is to “hide” this from the government that watches for this sort of thing. His process is to PAY OFF said government inspectors. Get it? You make $ because you pay the inspector to ALLOW you to smuggle your booze.

    Here’s the BIG question: would you STOP PAYING the inspector and expect him to NOT stop your smuggling of booze? Answer: This is what Outlander did in season 3. Jamie stopped paying the inspector so that this “mistake” would move the plot forward with the burning down of Jamie’s print shop. MAKES NO SENSE.

    Using Larry’s structure-physics would have the writers realize that they made a 180 degree reversal of Jaime’s established behavior. Why? A human only makes a change like that due to an event of crisis proportions.

    That’s like saying, Destroy your Business for no reason! Really? What’s Jamie going to eat? Isn’t this the guy that has been whipped, thrown in prison? Exactly, a man with his experience will NEVER make this kind of ludicrous choice.

    At this point I get accused of “too much detail”. Really? Outlander, a very successful $$ series makes a change that stops my wife (who loved the show) from watching it (there were more blunders).

    Incidentally, people want–this kind of detail when a patient DIES.

    The story DIED. Don’t you want to know why so that YOUR story doesn’t die either?

    Best,

    Kerry

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Hi Kerry, thanks so much for stopping by to leave such a thoughtful comment. I’m so sorry it went to spam. I just found it there and have rescued it. Nothing more frustrating than leaving a long comment only to see it disappear! It was wonderful to meet you and your wife in Columbus.

      I agree with what you’ve said–so much easier to revise our stories when we have the basic elements in place, and, as you point out, it also keeps us on track so we don’t do something that’s out of the blue or inconsistent with what we’ve already written.

      I read the first book in the Outlander series years ago, but it just wasn’t for me. Haven’t seen the show and probably won’t watch it. Especially now. 🙂

      Like

      Reply
  2. Kate Johnston

    I continually refer to my copy of Story Physics (don’t have a copy of the other books), and I love it because I find new gems each time I read it. I like his no-nonsense approach. I have a feeling, though, that his books are the kind of education that aren’t readily accepted by just any writer, and certainly not a die-hard pantser!

    If I’d read his book five years ago (no clue if it was even around back then), I’m not sure I would have been completely on board with some of his advice/lessons. I think some writers might have to be in a certain mindset (like, having suffered through 38 gazillion rejections) to be willing to cast aside the pantsing philosophy and start structuring.

    But he backs up and supports his reasons, plus he cites solid examples from bestselling books like The Help and Hunger Games. You really can’t go wrong when you’re able to dissect novels using the principles he’s teaching.

    I have found his coaching invaluable, and if I ever get lucky enough to go to one of his workshops I’d be there in a flash!

    Love knowing we’re getting closer to reading another book from you! Can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I’m glad you’ve found Story Physics so helpful. Yes, I think for diehard pantsers, these concepts can seem restricting at first. But like you mentioned, a string of rejections might make one re-evaluate his or her methods.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. jeanjames

    Carrie this was a great post with such valuable information. Glad you got to attend Brooks’ conference. Looking forward to The Bone Curse! I could have used some Vodou last night at work lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. philosophermouseofthehedge

    Having the books and attending a workshop sounds the best way to do it. Must have been exciting with the speaker and all those attending. Thanks for the heads up with Brooks.
    Can’t wait for your next book – med meets mystery meet spooky. Winner!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  5. Sue Slaght

    Looking forward to the release next year Carrie! The workshop sounds excellent and fabulous to meet a mentor in person. Although I won’t be writing any books any time soon I have no Mr Brooks’ resources would be helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  6. Jennifer J. Chow

    This reminds me of a piece of advice I heard before. Some people recommend writing your query letter before your manuscript for the same reason. That way you know you have a huge dramatic arc before even putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  7. Ted

    “A concept is more general, a framework if you will. It can lead to many different premises”.
    That’s good, that is. I’m in the middle of something which involves another writer and I needed that idea. He’s thinking screenplay, I’m thinking writing a “story”. This will help give him a something better that his imagination can run with.

    The Concept must inspire though, otherwise the Premises’ll never get off the ground.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      “The Concept must inspire though, otherwise the Premises’ll never get off the ground.”—Exactly. No matter how much we dress up our premise, if the concept itself is weak, it won’t be of much interest to the reader (or viewer).

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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