What Works for Me – Concept Versus Story

Here’s another in my irregular series of posts about writing and publishing. As always, feel free to completely ignore everything that follows because as the title implies, this is just what works for me. Today I wanted to talk about something which I didn’t think about enough when I started out, but which makes an immeasurable difference to any creative project.

Ever put down a book or walked out of a cinema and felt disappointed because what you just read or watched didn’t live up to your expectations? Maybe it sounded like a good idea, but the author/film-maker’s execution of that idea left you wanting? When I started writing, dumb as this might sound now, I don’t think I fully appreciated the difference between a story and a concept.

You’ll hopefully have noticed a couple of recent film recommendations here (well, one recommendation and the other a less than enthusiastic write-up). On Saturday I wrote about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and on Monday just gone, THE PURGE. It struck me when I sat down and watched these two movies in quick succession that there’s a commonality between them I hadn’t appreciated before: they both deal with variations of the same basic concept, but take them in wildly different directions and with varying degrees of success.

Both films start with a similar premise – crime rates in the USA have exploded, and the authorities have been forced to take radical steps to try and bring things under control. In ESCAPE, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison, walled off from the rest of the country, once you’re in you don’t get back out. In THE PURGE, all crime is legalised for a single twelve hour period each year. So far, so good… both approaches sound like decent starting points for dystopian movies (provided you don’t think about the practicalities of either ‘solution’ for too long). So why is ESCAPE hailed (by me) as a classic and THE PURGE hailed (again by me) as a misfire? Well, I could write for hours about the relative merits of both films, but I think much of it boils down to concept versus story. ESCAPE starts with a cool concept which it explores through the use of interesting characters and an engrossing story. THE PURGE doesn’t.

I know I’m being unfair and overly simplistic here and there’s more to THE PURGE than I’m letting on, but I think it’s an important distinction to make: a good concept alone does not an interesting book or film make.

As I said at the beginning, when I started writing, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this differentiation, and until I did understand, I didn’t get anything decent written.

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Escape from New York

Escape from New YorkI have a habit (and I can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad habit) of neglecting everything else when I start writing a new book. I’ve been neck-deep in the first novel in the SPACES BETWEEN series for the last few weeks and haven’t been posting here as often as I’d planned. I’ll try and put that right.

I’ve just re-watched a classic. A real blast from the past for this Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club selection, and for good reason. I’ll be referencing this film, and the film I’m going to talk about next, in a new ‘What Works For Me’ article, coming up shortly.

There are three directors I regularly cite as having had a huge impact on me during my formative years. In no particular order they are George Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter. Romero is self-explanatory: without him there’d be no Autumn. Cronenberg – well, he’s responsible for some of my very favourite horror movies… The Fly, Shivers, Rabid – need I go on? I was once told that he’d been passed a copy of Hater. Just the thought that Cronenberg’s held one of my books is something I still find hard to believe.

John Carpenter completes this weird holy trinity. His films are, I think, more accessible than those of Cronenberg and Romero, but not less influential. I’m a particular admirer of his golden period: from Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, through to The Thing in 1982, and pretty much everything in between. During this time he made a series of consistently strong, often ground-breaking horror films.

Escape from New York (1981) is a cracking movie, one which I’m sure you’ve probably seen. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Here’s the synopsis, followed by a trailer. Click the link below for my thoughts.

In the future (well, 1997 was the future back then!), crime in America has spiralled out of control. Surrounded by impenetrable defences, New York City is now a maximum security prison: once you go in, you don’t come out. When the President of the USA crash lands in Manhattan, Snake Plissken, a disgraced special ops soldier, is sent in. Plissken has twenty-four hours to find the president and get him out.

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