Written by John Jarvis
The story concept (also known as “premise” or “theme” – or “logline” for Action-Category stories) is the ultimate summary, the quintessential idea, behind the story you want to tell. As such it is the heart of every good story and the very first writing stage of the Jarvis Method.
Every Category has its own Concept syntax or structure.
The syntax of a Story Concept is a short, one-line sentence describing either the plot or character conflict or thought of your story. You begin with a character or idea (the subject or substance of your story), then find the conflict (the verb or verb phrase), and finally reveal the resolution (the object, the end word or phrase).
Let us use as an example the film Lethal Weapon to illustrate the three main types of Concepts – plot, character, and thought (Myth). If Lethal Weapon is considered an Action-Category story, its plot would be constructed like this:
1. The subject is the phrase “A lonely cop.”
2. The conflict is suggested in the verb phrase that follows the subject. This can usually be indicated with some form of such phrases as “does through adversity,” or “is greater than,” or “leads to.” In this example, the verb phrase is “solves through adversity.”
3. The resolution – the object of “a lonely cop” – is the most powerful part of the sentence. In this example, what the lonely cop solves through adversity is “a major crime.”
Putting it all together then, the Concept is “A lonely cop solves through adversity a major crime.” (Or, one might reword it as, for instance, “A lonely cop, through great adversity, solves a major crime.”)
But if we suppose Lethal Weapon is a character-driven story, it requires a Character Concept. The question then we’d want to answer would be: what happens to the nature of that cop?
1. The subject is still the phrase “A lonely cop.”
2. And the cop does something through adversity, but this time, rather than solving through adversity, he “finds through adversity.”
3. And the object of this lonely cop is now “himself.”
Thus: “A lonely cop finds through adversity himself” (or: “A lonely cop, through great adversity, finds himself.”).
Finally, to illustrate a thought-based (Myth) Concept, let’s suppose our lonely cop has a girl friend. In that case, we would make the subject more abstract, thus:
1. The subject is “Loneliness.”
2. The verb phrase is “leads to.”
3. And the object is, of course, “love.”
In short, “Loneliness leads to love.”
This last example shows how you can plan a story with a message. Think, for instance, of the classic Romeo and Juliet. Do you see the Story Concept there: “Love is greater than death”?
1. Although the main characters are Romeo and Juliet, the abstract subject of the story is, in fact, “love.”
2. The conflict is suggested in the verb phrase, “is greater than” (or “leads to”), which is the means by which the subject, love, will be tested.
3. The resolution – the object that “love is greater than” – is the most powerful part of the sentence, and in this example, it is “death.”
Hence, by this simple formula – subject, verb-phrase, object – we arrive at Romeo and Juliet’s Story Concept: “Love is greater than death.”
The premises of such Myth-Category stories as Romeo and Juliet are similar to a scientist’s hypothesis; for in Mythic plots, the writer, like the scientist, is trying to prove something. In Romeo and Juliet, the author proves that love is greater than death. A more recent example is Forrest Gump, in which the author proves that innocence (even foolishness) is greater than evil.
Instructions for completing Stage 1:
Do not start any story without an idea of where it’s going. You should at least be able to write that idea in a short sentence. If your concept goes beyond the subject/verb/object phrase template as described above, keep working till it feels right.
1. Keep your Concept simple. Avoid “and” in your Concept. Doing so leads to a double story and confuses your audience/readers, lowering the temperature of your plot. (For the same reason, concentration on subplots usually weakens good stories.) For instance, if the Concept in Romeo and Juliet had been “Love and Beauty lead to death, do you think we’d still be reading the story today? Rather, create a single Concept that is as short and as dramatic as you can make it.
2. Action-driven Concepts must never ever be static, but always dynamic. A static premise would be, “Batman visits his friends on a vacation.” A dynamic Premise is “Batman battles an evil person who wants to blow up Fort Knox.”
3. Base your Concept and Plot on timeless, universal, and, therefore, commercial themes. In other words, make sure it works on an emotion or desire we all have. Stories about love or fear or war or greed continue to fascinate and persuade and are, in that sense, highly commercial because they deal with timeless, universal subjects.
4. Make sure that the object of your story is as extreme as reasonably possible. We would not be much interested in a story with a Concept such as: “Love is greater than cat food.”
5. NEVER make the mistake of confusing fiction with life; fiction must be an exaggeration of life. Most of us have often felt like killing ourselves for love; therefore a story about someone who actually does kill himself for love, as in Romeo and Juliet, makes a great piece of fiction.”