My apologies to all of you regular readers of the ranty blog out there (I think there’s ten of you now). Many deadlines at the magazine these past two weeks, plus apparently I turned old last weekend. These things happen, and I thank you for waiting semi-patiently. Unless something goes horribly wrong, we’ll be back on a regular Thursday schedule for the foreseeable future.
Enough of my lame excuses, though. That’s not what any of us are here for…
So, if you’ve been playing around in the creative fields for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard people talk about concepts. A concept is really just a fancy way of talking about an idea. Alas, it’s now become the standard term in many story-related industries, and you’ll hear far more people talking about concepts than ideas. From a filmmaking point of view, there’s a solid argument to be made that many development people talk about concepts because they don’t have any actual ideas…
But I digress.
Pretty much every story starts with an idea. Stephen King talks about the “What if…” question some writers ask. Hollywood talks about “high concept” ideas where just a few words sum up your whole movie. Not all ideas are good ones, though, and not all ideas work for all types of stories. One problem I’ve seen from many fledgling storytellers is that they don’t understand what kind of idea they have, and this inability to distinguish often leads them down the wrong path.
There are, in my experience, really two kinds of concepts. Unlimited ones and limited ones. You may also have heard them referred to as open and closed stories.
Allow me to explain.
An unlimited concept generally has a very broad scope. The crew of the starship Enterprise is exploring space. The old house up on the hill is haunted. Doctor Who travels through time in his TARDIS. Spider-Man and Batman fight crime to make up for the death of their loved ones. James Bond is a kick-ass secret agent who fights enemies of the British Crown. These ideas are unlimited because you can just keep going and going with them. There are always more idiot college student to wander into the haunted house and more villains to fight Spidey, Batman, Bond, and the Doctor.
However, an unlimited concept is almost never a story. While they can be parts of a story, they tend to be traits for characters or key points about settings. A lot of time when I hear people say “I have a great idea for a story,” they’ve usually come up with an interesting unlimited concept. But there needs to be more to it past that. Which brings us to…
A limited concept. By its very nature, a limited concept can only go so far. It is a bare-bones story, though (more on that below). Richard Kimble wants to find the one-armed man who killed his wife. Robinson Crusoe wants to be rescued from his tropical island, as do the passengers of flight Oceanic 815. Atticus Finch wants to keep his client out of jail, and possibly from a lynch mob. The crew of Voyager wants to find a way across the galaxy and back to the Alpha quadrant.
All of these have straightforward, distinct goals, and once said goal is reached, the story is over. That’s the limiting factor–attaining the specific goal. It doesn’t mean Atticus Finch never tries another case or the Voyager crew doesn’t go into space again, but those would be different stories that have nothing to do with the limited concept we’ve started with.
There are a few common problems with limited concepts. One is when people try to keep pushing the goal away artificially to extend the story (for example, when Dr. Kimble catches the one-armed man only to discover he really needed to find the one-legged man…). Another is when a writer piles on the limited concepts in a single story, creating dozens of goals that need to be achieved. Often this is to make up for a lack of interesting characters or because none of these goals are that challenging. You also see it a lot in genre pieces, where many fledgling writers take the kitchen sink approach to their storyline.
It’s tough for either of these, the unlimited and limited concepts, to work alone. When you can combine these two, though, that’s when you get a solid story. It’s a bit like when I prattled on about horror stories a few months back. You can have a big overall story, but you can still focus on this particular, contained part of it.
–Bond is a kick-ass secret agent (unlimited) who is currently trying to stop the terrorist banker known as LeChiffre (limited).
–The old Marsden Mansion had been haunted for decades (unlimited), and the six people locked inside somehow have to survive until sunrise (limited).
–Batman fights criminals (unlimited) and right now Rhas Al Ghul is threatening to destroy Gotham City with a fear-inducing gas (limited).
Look over all those story ideas you’ve got jotted down (you know you do) and figure out if they’re limited or unlimited. Then figure out which ones work best together. You may have a great short story, screenplay, or novel sitting there, waiting to be noticed. Dissect some of your older work and see what the ideas at the core are.
And then come back here next week, when I shall teach all of you how to dodge bullets. Seriously. Because if you can’t do that… well… you’re not really taking this seriously.
Until then, though, get back to writing.