Thursday, 4 February 2016

What is a 'concept document'? – And how to write one – by David Thorpe

I just wrote a fight scene in a novel I'm engaged on for older children. Three against three. I had to choreograph it, visualising the space, what was in it, and where everyone was at any given time. Interleave moments of action that would, if watched, be simultaneous. Lay in lines of witty dialogue. Pace it.

The fight lasts maybe three pages. It took a morning to draft.

Over the last several weeks I've been writing something that, by contrast, is just one page long. But it's one of the toughest pieces of writing I've ever attempted. It is not from a novel but based on one of my novels. It is what's called a 'concept doc'.

Its purpose? To attract the attention of a production company or executives that dramatise books for television.

One page. The pithier the better.

Structurally, a concept document is broken down into four sections, following the title and the number of episodes/length:

First: the hook. This is really challenging to get right. It must encapsulate the essence of the idea while enticing the reader on.

Here is a brilliant example of a hook, for The Collection, a new original VoD tv drama series set in a Parisian fashion house after WWII, made by some of the people who brought you the BBC's War and Peace. It's from the keyboard of its writer, Oliver Goldstick:

"It's not so much about what they're wearing as what they're covering up".

Terrific, huh?

This is followed by a short summary of the core concept. What manner of beast is this thing? Not just the genre and audience but the central characters and setting, and narrative thrust, so we know what to expect if watching it.

If it's based on a published book, say something about how it was received.

Third is a plot summary. Mine has three paragraphs. To sum up seven hours of drama. That really focuses your mind.

It's not just about leaving out all those lovely subplots and deciding what is peripheral but conveying the story elements, the broad sweep, the flavour of the key characters' motivations, and the emotional mood swings, so that it is convincing and without non-sequiturs.

Finally, a note on style and format. This is where you say what it's like (e.g. 'Sherlock Holmes meets Star Wars' – say, that's not a bad idea), and why audiences around the world will stop everything they're doing to watch it when it's on. What are its vital selling points that distinguish it from anything else on the screens, while being not so different that it's too risky to undertake?

Every word in the concept doc must fight for its right to be where it is, keeping also in mind it is likely to be scanned by someone with the attention span of a lepidoptera. So you also have to minimise cognitive dissonance in your attempt to summarise the plot while intimating its depth and distinctive qualities.

But the trickiest part of writing it is being able to step back and see it afresh, again and again – a vital discipline to pick up for a writer.

Even if you've no intention of selling your book as a tv series (or film), doing this with one of your own books could be a useful exercise, because it really helps you to fine-tune its uniqueness, the central dramatic attraction, and what should make your book compulsive reading.

  • If you undertake this exercise while or even prior to writing the book, you may find it helpful for focusing on what the story is really about.
  • If you have completed your book, then it is could be useful for constructing your cover letter to an editor or agent. 

I was fortunate in writing my concept doc in being able to bounce it back and forth with my son, Dion, who's in the business and loves the book, and who is ambitious to see it on the screen. His feedback was invaluable, as was that (as always) of my wife, Helen.

I think we went through about 35 drafts. So far. I think it's taken half as long as it took to write the novel. I think we're nearly there. But then every time I say that we think of an improvement.

You see, you only get one chance at pitching to an agent or producer, and everything hinges on it. There are a zillion ideas out there, and a million people pitching them. That's why it's so crucial to get it – pitch perfect (sorry, couldn't resist).

If you'd like to take a look at it, get in touch.

Now, back to my fight scene.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.


Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds like a very interesting and useful process!

Penny Dolan said...

Useful stuff, David. These terms can be so mystifying!

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Penny and Sue