Concept, Premise, and Story

Every time I log in to Reddit, I see posts from authors that go something like, “My story is about a wizard who’s only able to do magic that involves cats. How’s my plot?” First, interesting idea and I want to read your story. Second, not a plot.

But it is something, and it’s a necessary step to form the story. This is what’s generally called a concept. It’s the interesting part of the story, the hook that pulls you in; the person, place, thing, or idea around which the story revolves. It’s that thing about a story that makes you say, “Oh, neat!” In Harry Potter, it’s “a boy attending a wizarding school.” In Fight Club it’s “an underground, illicit boxing club run with nihilistic undercurrents.” In Frankenstein, it’s “a monster made of body parts from various corpses.”

This helps us get to the premise, which is more specific. It describes the main character, her goal, and who or what is in her way. So, Harry Potter is about a boy learning to be a wizard who must overcome the Dark Lord Voldemort as he tries to restore peace to the wizarding world. Fight Club is about a man who wants to find meaning and identity in a society that revolves around consumerism and superficiality, only to find himself in the middle of a nihilistic cult. Frankenstein is about a man who must destroy a monster of his own creation when it develops misanthropic tendencies.

Plot is what comes after the premise. It’s the sequence of events sandwiched between the beginning and the end. This one is a little harder to develop, but thankfully more brilliant minds than I have developed formulas to create one. Here’s Blake Snyder’s as an example:

  1. Opening image
  2. Setup
  3. Theme stated
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into act II
  7. B story
  8. Promise of the premise
  9. Midpoint
  10. Bad guys close in
  11. All is lost
  12. Dark night of the soul
  13. Break into act III
  14. Finale
  15. Final image

In his book, “Save the Cat,” Snyder gives even more information about what each plot beat should contain as well as their timing in the story. It looks a little strict and rigid, but it doesn’t have to be. These frameworks allow a lot of room for creativity. Play around with them a little bit. If you don’t like one, try another; there are tons of them out there. I’m personally partial to Jack Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story.”

Bottom line: Concept, premise, and plot are three distinct ideas and story development flows through all three.