Larry Brooks is one of those guys who makes me nuts. His advice in StoryFix so straight forward that I find myself shaking my head and saying “Why didn’t I see that coming?”
Today’s post is all about concept. Concept is really at the heart of your story. He uses a few great examples to make his point. I’d like to do it here with a mystery I’m currently re-writing. And the re-write starts with concept. Here’s the original concept of my mystery:
“A retired Detroit Homicide detectives moves to a northern Michigan town to open a diner, but his dream is put on hold when his landlord is murdered in the diner just before the grand opening.”
I know. Big deal, huh? So he has to wait to open his diner. Not much of a grabber as far as stakes go.
Mercifully, before an agent saw it, that concept has gone through several iterations (that’s the nice thing about concepts–no limit on the changes). Here’s where I’m at now:
“A retired Detroit Homicide detective retires after his wife’s murder, then moves north to fulfill their dream and re-open the diner where they met. When his landlord is murdered and he is a suspect, he’s forced to re-enter the world he left behind to solve the case, but soon finds that he never really left his past behind.”
A little better? Please say yes. It still needs some massaging, but the stakes are definitely higher. Now my protagonist won’t just lose a diner, but may end up in prison. Not a happy place for an ex-cop. The murder of his wife adds another element. Is her murder related to the murder of his landlord? What’s up with the past he left behind?
Your Concept opens doors for you
Those questions aren’t for you. They’re for me. By adding layers to my concept, I just opened up a whole can o’ possibilities. How deep do I want to go with this? Do I want a one or two layer cozy mystery or do I want to go all twisty turny and make my readers (and possibly me) say “I never saw that coming!”
Not that cozies are easy. They have their own nuances. But ever layer I uncover requires a lot more work on my part. That’s okay. That’s why we get paid…well, next to nothing…but it’s what we love.
Notice I brought up the issue of stakes several times. Not only did Larry remind me to re-visit my concept, but another author I have great respect for reminded me that my protagonists stakes need to be higher, off the charts if I can get it there. He needed to have a lot more to lose than a diner.
Turning the Screws on your friends
So I asked myself, what would be the worst thing that could happen to my retired detective? Loss of freedom? Not bad. His only daughter’s life in danger? Better. I’ve taken his wife before the story opens, but how about if he discovers that her death wasn’t just a random shooting, but that someone near to him was directly involved in her murder? Now everything my protag ever believed is on the table.
I have the same problem most newbies have. I love my characters. I want to be nice to them. Good grief, the poor guy just retired from the Detroit Police Department. Hasn’t he been through enough?
No. He has not yet begun to suffer.
So how about you? Write your concept down and measure your own reaction. Is it “that’s fantastic!” or is it “is that it?” If it’s door #2, there’s good news. It’s easy to re-write those few lines. Add a little heat to the mix. Turn up the stakes. Make someone you love suffer.
They’ll thank you later…or at least your publisher will.