Stories, Concepts, and What Ifs

by Terri J. Huck

Story - isolated word in vintage wood letterpress printing blocksI can be a bit of a fanatic when it comes to Larry Brooks’ approach to story structure. That’s because I have struggled mightily with structure, and many of my writing friends have, too. I have seen talented writers give up in despair because they couldn’t find the right way to tell their stories—or worse, realized they didn’t have a story after they’d written hundreds of pages.

So since I stumbled onto Brooks’ website (and now books), I have never looked back. He doesn’t make the process of writing easier—there is no magic potion that can do that—but he makes the process clearer.

Lately I’ve been reading his book “Story Engineering” and thinking about concept.

The concept is the foundation of your story. Brooks’ argument is that without a good concept, a novel is mediocre at best. In fact, a great concept can sometimes trump execution. And vice versa—sometimes brilliant execution can overcome a mediocre concept.

But it’s preferable to develop as compelling a concept as you can—and do it before you start writing rather than try to discover it through a time-consuming series of drafts.

How do you find a good concept?

“A concept is an idea that has been evolved to the point where a story becomes possible,” Brooks says. It is a window into plot, but it is not the plot. The best way to get at it is to think in terms of “what if?” questions.

The concept asks that question in a way that demands an answer. The answer is your story. Here are two examples from Brooks:

  • What if a murder victim can’t rest in heaven because her crime remains unsolved, and she chooses to get involved to help her loved ones gain closure? (“The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold)
  • What if Leonardo da Vinci implanted clues to his views on Christianity and the veracity of scripture within his painting of the Last Supper? (“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown)

Concept is all the specificity that happens after you decide to write, say, a romance novel about a young woman in Washington, D.C., which is pretty vague. But what if that woman has a detailed plan for her life that involves marrying an up-and-coming politician and then she falls for a man who doesn’t fit that plan, and what if that man is a bartender who’s hiding his true identity because he wants her to fall in love with him and not his money?

Your initial question should lead to more “what if?” questions as you deepen and add complexity to your original idea. But your main “what if?” question should imply a goal or a conflict of some sort. That’s how you go from an idea to a full-fledged story.

If Brooks’ approach doesn’t speak to you, some writers swear by K.M. Weiland’s books “Outlining Your Novel” and “Structuring Your Novel” to achieve the same clarity.

Either way, save yourself hours of unproductive writing by fleshing out your concept before you begin.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at

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