Concept vs Premise

Here’s an interesting post by Larry Brooks at Kill Zone Blog: Concept vs. Premise: The Inherent Opportunity in Understanding the Difference

I’ve read this rather long post once and need to read through it again. My first thought is: I think I agree about the difference between concept and premise, but I don’t think I agree about which genres are particularly concept driven.

Brooks asserts:

Relative to story development, concept, as it relates to premise, is the contextual framework for a story. A notion that infuses the premise with compelling energy. A proposition.

I think I have also seen “high concept” defined as “summarizable as one particularly catchy sentence.” Like: “A man is stranded alone on Mars and has to survive an impossible length of time to have any hope of rescue.” I suppose what is seen as particularly catchy depends on who’s listening to the pitch.

And then it’s clear that Brooks is basically using “premise” to mean “plot summary.” When he’s discussing premise, he offers a generalized description of a plot, the sort of thing you would see in a query letter.

Anyway, here’s the bit that particularly caught my eye:

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean. When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

And again, later:

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept, yet they are totally dependent on a premise that gives their hero’s something to do. Which can and should be conceptual in nature.

However, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent. Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are almost totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

What about that? Agree, disagree? I’m almost sure I disagree. That is, obviously SOME SF novels are very strongly concept-driven; Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind here, and probably works like Seveneves, not that I’ve read it, but that’s the point, you just glance at the back cover and think, Wow, high concept here.

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space….Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

So, I guess that’s two high concepts in Seveneves.

But I’d argue that character and voice are primary, not secondary, in a LOT of SF and perhaps the majority of fantasy. I’m getting the feeling that Brooks, like so many others, is treating SF as though it’s always plot driven and high concept, when it isn’t necessarily so — adventure fantasy is often very dependent on character and narrative. I also stuttered over defining paranormal as intrinsically high concept; I think that’s a subgenre that particularly emphasizes character and voice.

And then I think Brooks is conflating SF and fantasy, which I think is a mistake.

Still, it’s an interesting post and I do want to read it again more carefully and think about the main point Brooks is making, which is that the more high-concept our stories are, the more likely they are to appeal to agents, editors, and a broad audience of readers. One does notice that Seveneves appears to have done just that …

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1 thought on “Concept vs Premise”

  1. It sounds to me like he’s saying a concept is something either unreal or out there in the magic / science fiction sense, or something very unexpected, perhaps oxymoronic or extremely ironic or paradoxical. In that sense, everything SFF is conceptual by definition (though not high concept).

    So yeah, I agree with you. Sure, a high concept is appealing, but can the writer pull it off? A book can have a great concept but fall completely flat in the narrative or the characters (or believability).

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