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Using Concept To Focus 
The Story
Copyright © 1994, 1998, 
Dorian Scott Cole
Twenty-four-hundred years ago the stage play was just in its infancy and already teachers were making rules and developing theories. Not long after Socrates was sentenced to poison himself for poisoning student's minds - with strange philosophical ideas - following in his footsteps came another original thinker, Aristotle, who was writing his own desk set on literature, philosophy, and science - and making up most of the rules himself. 

Aristotle profoundly deduced that every part of a play was a microcosm of the whole. Since then writers have discovered that if you cram a story into small enough box, you squeeze out all the fat and render a concept. A "concept" is what the story is about in its simplest terms.

A concept is basically a general idea of what the story is about. Think of it this way: you have one line in which to write what the story is about. Maybe you can, or you give up and take three lines, but that's the limit. A concept is a very concise general statement - very short on specific details. What do you put in a concept?

Following are some very basic concepts I gleaned from movies: Orphaned tall man meets short brother. Detective and slobbery dog. Man marries genie. Man rooms with woman disguised as a man. These concepts put unusual people together and a story comes out. Every part of the story is dictated by the concept. 

Myself and the Director of National Writers Workshop agree, concept is the single most useful tool for writing a screenplay, or any other type of story. If you don't know what your story is about, you go in all directions, wasting your time, and the time of everyone who reads it. Many of the problems with characterization and plot that are common to most screenplays, show that not enough work went into development, so no concept ever emerged. 

Concept is analogous to the "log line" at the top of studio critiques. That is an after-the-fact concept, and would probably be of great value to the writer for rewriting, if studios could give them out. They can't. Every writer would argue with the reader's perception of his concept, rather than use it as a tool to focus the script. We're our own worst enemies. In critiquing, I always write down what I perceive as the concept. The writer is always free to believe differently or change it. 

Concept is usually extended to encompass more of the story. For example, Aladdin: A poor orphaned young man and an overprotected princess fall in love. Aladdin tries tries in vain to win her hand with wealth, then rescues her from marrying the villain, with the aid of a genie. But he wins her only through being himself.

By comparing a story to the concept, you can easily see where a story moves off in some other direction. For example, if Aladdin spent most of the story roaming the countryside with the genie, rescuing people, you would be talking about a series of stories, not a storyline. You can see that isn't really what the story is about and that section would need to come out.

You will often hear the term "high concept." High concept is a very simple concept that others can easily relate to. High concept is when something is involved for which there is a universal pattern with which we all can easily identify. An archetypee. Good versus evil. Romance. Family separation. High concept movies sell very well, so if you can apply the term high concept to your story, you can expect a better response.

Developing a concept

I suspect the reason most of us don't do much with concepts is that we never learned how to develop one. Businesses have also gone through this learning experience... the hard way. I'm going to use business as an example because businesses use a similar mechanism called a "mission statement." 

A concept is similar to a business mission statement. In the seventies, many businesses saw that their products went through up and down sales cycles or were outmoded during changing times or replaced by other products, threatening their jobs, so they began "diversification." By getting into many different kinds of businesses, losing one product wouldn't put the entire company out of business. Nice theory. So companies that made egg cartons began buying motorcycle companies. 

Egg carton companies don't have a clue how to make or sell motorcyles. So by buying and mismanaging a motorcycle company, both companies went out of business. "Hmmm," they said. "We need to do things we know how to do," and they began to narrow their focus. 

Companies that made motorcycles began buying products for which they could leverage their expertise. Making engines for small cars, and light engines for other products were much more related to their story. They new all about making and selling engines, and when the buying public stopped buying motorcylces they bought cars with small engines.

Companies were very worried about results. Money. Profit. Some companies bought other companies that made gears, so they had a cheap source of gears for their engines. The gear company, now an internal "cost," stopped making a profit. Their story had a bad ending - the combined company went under. The focus on controlling cost became such a consuming story that it overshadowed the main story- making a profit. Once again they had lost focus. 

The successful companies, understanding that bringing things into focus made them much more efficient and profitable, began making mission statements that would keep things in focus. A mission statement would include every aspect of the business.

Mission statements are totally boring. They go something like this: "In order to make the expected profit for our stockholders, we will make widgets of a certain quality for a certain vertical market, so that we can maintain or increase our market share, in a way that reimburses our employees so that they want to stay." Most employees gag on this hot air, and don't realize how valuable mission statements really are. 

The good news is that concepts aren't boring like business plans. Notice how the business plan mentions all aspects of a business. Such as, "Why are businesses in business?" For most of them, to make a worthwhile profit for stockholders. 

What products are they going to make? Products that fit in a certain market where sales are comfortably predictable. Are they going to plunder their employees to do this? No, they know from experience that the employees will go to work for their competitors, so they write "good treatment" into the business plan. So when a manager in a toy manufacturing business suggests they start making automatic weapons and reduce wages, they give him ten lashes with the mission statement. 

What we learn from businessís experience with getting focus that brings success, is that the concept we create has to include all aspects of our story, or the story becomes unfocused and crashes. Concepts have to encompass what a real story is about. 

To form a concept, first ask a question: "What happens if this crosses that?" Cross an elephant with a turtle. When the elephant dies, his shell will make an ivory appointed mobile home. If you bring things together, there is going to be a result. Something is going to happen. So a fully developed concept creates an interesting question and a result. What happens when you bring two people together who want opposite things? But like the mission statement, concept accounts for things important to the story. Those important things are character, motivation, plot, subplot, conflict, climax, and resolution.

Typically a character wants something, which brings him into conflict with a second character. After a series of conflicts, which are handicapped by a subplot, and after a plot twist, the final battle erupts, and character one finally resolves the conflict. A fully developed concept should have all of the bold words in place. I'll explain them in the following:

Character. This is where the "detective and slobbery dog" or "orphaned tall man meets short younger brother" comes in. This is the characterization side of concept. Using a "fish-out-of-water" type character is a favorite for audiences and producers. It's unexpected and leads to interesting situations. If you fully develop the concept, then you prevent yourself from letting the interesting characters and situations take over the plot and ruin the story - they are subplots at most.

There should be some statement about the main character or protagonist. Adjectives like dying, wealthy, mentally impaired, loner... tell something about the character's situation and what he will have to overcome. 

Look at the Aladdin example. A poor orphaned young man and an overprotected princess... Here are two people who are fish out of water in each other's world. Aladdin is rootless and has no visible means of support. The Princess is strangling on support and roots. 

Wants something. This is the character's motivation. Wants a child back. Wants to marry the forbidden man. Wants revenge. All main characters should have very specific objectives. If the story is high concept, then keep the subplots to a minimum.

Look at the Aladdin example. They fall in love... They want each other. This is a high concept plot.

Conflict. The antagonist wants something. The protagonist or situation won't let him have it. Mention what the antagonist wants. This is the beginning of the plot.

Look at the Aladdin example. Aladdin and the Princess are from two conflicting worlds. A member of the King's court schemes to marry the princess.

Series of conflicts. This is the meat of the story. It's usually two or three conflict episodes that precede the climactic battle. But instead of spelling these out, like you would in a synopsis, mention each in two or three words. This forms the path that the plot takes.

Look at the Aladdin example. Aladdin rescues her from marrying the villain, with the aid of a genie. This is the main plot, and takes place in several battles.

Subplots. The subplot intertwines with the main plot and helps develop it. In Alladin, Aladdin's battle is partly with himself. He doesnít feel acceptable to the Princess. He pretends to be a wealthy prince, in order to be accepted. It doesn't work. In the end, it's because of his love that he is able to conquer the antagonist. Include the subplot because it is important to the story.

Plot Twist. Put it in if there is one. 

Final battle. Tell what it is about, but not the details. 

Resolve. The satisfaction the protagonist, and the audience, get at the end of the story. 

All of these things go into three lines. When you get those three lines written to your satisfaction, then you will know exactly what your story is "about," and can keep it focused so you avoid a myriad of problems. 

Look at the Aladdin concept: A poor orphaned young man and an overprotected princess fall in love. Aladdin tries tries in vain to win her hand with wealth, then rescues her from marrying the villain, with the aid of a genie. But he wins her only through being himself.

Concepts can be formed before the story is written, or during the writing of the story in the early stages. Or they can be created to guide a rewrite. They are a useful tool for making your story stay in line. Unlike plot statements, concepts include statements about character, motives, and plot so are excellent for telling others exactly what your story is about. 


A note about premise: "Premise" is a common term used to describe what a screenplay is about. It is very similar to concept. You can develop a concept with a question, "if you do this, something is going to happen." You may have to develop characters and write some of the story before you know what will happen and can write the concept. The premise, on the other hand, can be stated as an if.... then.... statement. If this happens, then this will happen. Your screenplay will always have one or more premises that can be drawn from it, and people may quarrel with your premise. 

It is often suggested that writing a screenplay is about proving your premise. When you write the story, it proves that your premise was true. For example, in the example of Ralph and Stix in chapter 24, the concept could have been stated as a premise. "If you save someone, then you save yourself." For Stix, in her situation, it was true. But stating that as a premise and then trying to write a screenplay from it, as some would suggest, is highly problematic. If someone is already "saved," then it has no meaning. And for some, saving someone else would do nothing for them. What was true for Stix was for an exceptionally narrow set of circumstances and character.

Stix's actions might tell us something about human nature and the human condition. But we can't generalize from that that everyone needs to save someone in order to save themselves, or even that every person in trouble needs to do so. 

In this book, I de-emphasize premise because it has little value except as a critical tool after something has been written. Premise, as a developmental tool, is far too authoritarian and restrictive to be of any real use. For example, a writer might presume that all rebels are misunderstood children and write a story that "proves" it. Or that all people have "unusual" sexual urges that undo them if not addressed, and write a story to "prove" it. But the story, while it might be true for some, would be a fallacy. 

An example from real life: Reader's Digest reports in their May 1994 issue that the face of the Vietnam Vet commonly chosen by the news media, is that of the loser so mentally crippled by the war that he can barely function, let alone make a success of himself. The image gains pity from the public and government. Not only is this not true for most Vietnam vets, it does most of them a disservice. The losers pictured have often masqueraded as something they are not. So if a story premise is, "being in a horrible war without public support makes mental cripples of its soldiers," the premise is wrong.

Instead of premise, I favor using concept and integration as writing tools because these are things a writer actually uses, and can use successfully for focus and discovery. Honest characters for whom the writer has feeling, put in honest situations (plot), and allowed to develop freely, will develop honest stories. Writers should develop the storyline before writing the story, and if he is wrong the characters will tell him. If they don't, the readers (and ultimately the audience) will.

For another example of concept development, look at the concept developed in the Wife For Sale example script. You can find another example of using the concept to focus the story in Using motivation to form characters and plot.

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