Most writers understand the basic equation that plot equals a story.
Plot = Story
But what is plot exactly and how can you break it down to the point where you can understand each moving part, so that the whole will come together in a moving body of perfection? There are actually three very basic things to know about plot and how it is conceptualized. This is done through 3 elements called idea, concept and premise. These three things are distinctly different from one another, but build upon one another to make the full idea of plot a thing of reality. If we know each of these steps of plot then we can better understand how it is created.
What is the Idea of a story? An idea is simple. It is one thought that can sum up the whole of a story in the most basic terms. To help show examples of a story idea I have chosen three well known literary stories Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Vern to draw upon.
Examples of a story IDEA…
Treasure Island= finding treasure
Adventures of Tom Sawyer (this book has multiple story arcs but this is the main idea that the rest of the book is centered around)= murder of a man
Journey to the Center of the Earth= search for an ancient passage to the center of the earth
What is the concept of a story? A concept gives a bigger picture of the story. It is where the conflict can be found and asks the main question of the story. It is a snapshot of the story or a window into the plot itself, but is not the whole of the plot.
Examples of story CONCEPT…
Treasure Island= finding treasure sought by every pirate and cut throat in the known world
Question of the story: Who will get to the treasure first?
Conflict: Many unsavory and ruthless individuals looking for the same treasure, who are willing to do whatever it takes to get there first.
Adventures of Tom Sawyer= murder of a man leads to another man being wrongfully accused of the murder
Question of the story: Will the wrongfully accused man be found innocent?
Conflict: The truth of a murder is covered up by subterfuge, false assumptions, and innocent lies.
Journey to the Center of the Earth= search for an ancient passage to the center of the earth that leads to an epic journey of fantastic discovery
Question of the story: What will be discovered in the journey to the center of the earth?
Conflict: A journey that halted and stalled by events that can be controlled and some that cannot.
What is the premise of a story? A premise is a concept that is expanded to include a character(s) that is brought into the mix of things. This is when plot becomes flesh and blood. If you have a premise, then you have a fully developed plot.
Examples of story PREMISE=
Treasure Island= finding treasure sought by every pirate and cut throat in the known world, but a youth unwittingly becomes drawn into the fierce competition when he accidentally stumbles across Captain Flint’s treasure map.
Adventures of Tom Sawyer= murder of a man leads to another man being wrongfully accused of the murder, the only witnesses to the truth are two boys Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who happen to have a knack for finding trouble
Journey to the Center of the Earth= search for an ancient passage to the center of the earth that leads to an epic journey of fantastic discovery lead by an eccentric professor of science whose impatience is rivaled only by his obstinate nature
As you can see the idea, concept and premise build upon one another to help build the story to a completed plot. Once this completed plot is discovered the story can then unfold. Sometimes the seed of a story can sprout without first knowing the idea behind the story. The seed can come in the form of a concept, character, or theme (theme is the essence of the story such as Treasure Island’s theme is about truthfulness and loyalty. Can you figure out the themes for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Journey to the Center of the Earth?). This seed can then be watered by inserting in whatever information is missing from the idea, concept and premise. If you have a missing link in any of these three basic elements then there will be a hole in your story, which will cause your plant to wither and die.
What can all of this information do you for you? It can help you have a better understanding of your story and how a story is born. Remember that your concept must ask a question and be the catalyst for major conflict in your story. Also keep in mind that a story cannot stand by itself without a character to propel it forward. These things once known become the life blood of your story and act as a skeleton for the rest of your story as it blossoms into a beautiful flower or tree. So what are the idea, concept and premise of your creation?