Most stories begin with a concept. Some begin with characters, basic plots, or even titles, but most start off with a conceptual idea. I think this is especially true of speculative fiction, where the speculative element is often the notion that kicks off the story. But a concept on its own is not a story. No matter how intriguingly described or vividly imagined, a concept without plot is just that.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget this. I frequently have exciting ideas that spark the beginning of a story, but until I find the story that goes with them, they’re just ideas. I might wonder what the world would be like if dinosaurs still roamed, or if cyborgs became a species in their own right, or if the dominant government was secretly controlled by ants. They’re all ideas. They’re all concepts. They’re all typical speculative questions of ‘what if?’… but on their own, none of them are stories.
I can hit on an idea that really grabs me, that I just have to write, but until I find the story that goes with it, it isn’t ready. Some of them are never ready. I have a little black notebook full of them, and the ones that don’t get written are the ones without stories.
The story comes with the characters, and with the concept’s effect on them. Perhaps a frustrated gardener pours boiling water down an anthill, ignorant of the fact that it’s populated by secret government agents monitoring crucial developments in his neighbourhood. He is arrested in the depth of night and hauled to an unknown location in which there is an underground cell with transparent walls, surrounded by earth and an intricate network of ant tunnels, like a giant ant farm. He is interrogated, tortured, placed under ant mind control, and released as an unwitting informer, to spy on his neighbours and report to the ant masters. And… there’s your story.
This is merely the bare bones, of course, but the fleshing out can come later. It’s at this point that you can embrace the concept entirely and wholly integrate it into a story. You now have a character’s head to get into in order to view this weird world from his perspective. There’s conflict in his bewilderment, manipulation, and subsequent betrayal of his community. There will be consequences to consider and an overall change of some sort which will be wrought by the protagonist and his struggle. The initial concept becomes a backdrop… a canvas to work on… a setting with far-reaching consequences that directly affect your characters’ lives, thereby providing the story.
Concepts are great. I love having ideas that spark my imagination. But the eureka moment always comes when I find the story. That’s liftoff. That’s where it really begins.