Concept vs Plot

For roughly an hour each night after our son goes to bed, my wife and I stay up to watch TV. We tend to have only one major criteria for what we watch: we both must enjoy it. Fortunately, due to TV being in a golden-age, it has been easy.

Shows are not only entertaining, but well written. Where in the ‘old days’ dramas/procedurals would often follow a bad-guy-of-the-week format with sprinklings of an occasional overarching plot, nowadays many shows are essentially shot like long movies moving the plot along over the course of 6 to 13 episodes. Or shows, like iZombie, that still follow a bad-guy-of-the-week style do it in an entertaining way, such as the brain of the week. But they also take into account that there is a greater plot underway.

Recent additions like Stranger Things on Netflix absolutely nails every aspect of good TV. Trust me. Watch it. And we can’t forget the TV branches of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) like Agents of Shield, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, the latter two being two of the best shows out there.

These shows represent a thing I personally call writing for plot (aka story) vs concept.

Another show that my wife and I watch, somehow still enjoy, but is really not that good when push-comes-to-shove is Between on Netflix. It’s a dud. It follows a town under quarantine where everyone over the age of 21 dies of a mysterious virus. The plot is so riddled with holes that there could be no hope of ever holding water. Even as we watch it, we tell each other that it is such a cool concept, just it has no plot. It reeks of being something written around the concept.

This is not only restricted to TV. One of my chief complaints in science fiction and fantasy is that this used to happen a lot. It happens in other genres too. And no one is immune (or so I tell myself so that I feel better). Many of my stories start out as concepts.

Writing about a concept isn’t a bad thing. The problem there is whether or not the writer takes the concept and writes the story around it, or if they choose to make the concept only a part of a story. For me, I have two examples. One a success; one a dud.

Without mentioning details of the dud, it is a concept that fascinates the hell out of me, but I have failed to write it because I cannot figure out what the story is. If I don’t have a story, I don’t want to write it. This concept has sat on my lap for years, but nothing comes of it.

The second is the story that I  recently released part 1 for: Of Earth and Ice. This story was born out of a concept – what happens to the people left behind if Earth became a frozen planet. In the concept I found the story of Evie, so now the concept became the environment, the scene. Now I write about the people involved, not the concept. Granted, it is a rather easy path to take, but it worked.

For a show like Between, the concept is a little trickier to work around. For starters, how is it possible that any biological agent is able to distinguish that a person is 22 or older? Though there might be an answer, so far they haven’t even come close to tendering it. Liberties can be taken, but often it can then lead to a snowballing of poor plot/story decisions that continually compound on itself. Sometimes it can just be a lack of research or experts consulting. An example, I cringe each time I see a character as a HAZMAT responder in a full-face respirator that has no cartridges (I am Hazwoper certified, that’s why I see it so clearly).

What frustrates me though in this is that there are so many things in the plot that end up appearing as though they are written simply to keep the show moving in some direction. It is like a shark, just keep it moving and it won’t die. But it needs to. Oh god, it needs to.

Just like I keep going back to the concept I didn’t mention but rather spoke of its existence, I know there are people out there that just want to get a story out using their concept. Or in the case of what likely happened to the show (this is another ‘out-of-Jeremy’s-ass-guess’) is that they sold the concept to Netflix, but then were forced to write it, so they just did what they could.

My whole point though is that sometimes concepts just aren’t viable, no matter how cool they sound. Stories are what is important. Stick to the story, and you cannot go wrong.

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