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Idea Versus Concept: How to Tell the Two Apart

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

People have about 6.5 thoughts per minute. That’s 6,000 thoughts per day, and doesn’t even include the ones that float to the surface while we’re sleeping.

With so many thoughts every day, let alone every minute, we should be pretty good at coming up with concepts, right? Wrong. I hate to be the one to burst your bubble but, there’s more to concepts than meets the mind. I mean, eye.

For example, a structurally sound foundation requires concrete and rebar. Technically, you don’t have to have the rebar installed and bound together with wire ties, but it’ll make the foundation a heck of a lot stronger so that the framing, piping, conduit, and finishes you’re hauling in on top of that foundation can actually support the load. The same process needs to happen when generating a concept for your novel or social media post or lesson plan or whatever you’re building.

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Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering (2011), says, “If all you begin with is an idea rather than a concept, you are setting yourself up for failure.” Designing a concept right the first time will save you time, effort, and more ideas down the road.

Differentiating an idea from a concept is easier than you think, and you’re gonna hate me for it, but first we need to understand what an idea is.

Defining Idea

Identifying an idea is easy. We come up with ideas all day long. “I should do the laundry.” “Oh, that’s a cute top.” “That video’s boring.” Those are all ideas. They’re all thoughts with a possible course of action. I might follow up that thought by lugging my laundry hamper downstairs. I might look up where I can buy an oversized t-shirt with Taylor Swift on it. I might scroll past that video and move on to the next.

The Oxford Dictionary defines an idea as “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.” An idea is not the course of action itself. It is not a plan. It hasn’t had time to stew and develop and evolve. Ideas are merely flashes of inspiration. To become a concept, an idea needs yet another idea.

Imagine your mind like a game of billiards. Each idea is a colored ball, rattling around, smacking into each other but only when the cue stick directs it there. And that takes effort. You are the cue stick. You must act in order to get one ball to smack into another and sink the concept corner pocket. That is concept. In fact, this metaphor is a concept; it’s two ideas coming together into a conceptual frame of reference.

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, (2000) Stephen King demonstrates the principle of idea versus concept perfectly. “Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

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Defining Concept

The Oxford Dictionary defines a concept as “an abstract idea,” or “general notion.” Other definitions of concept include a plan or intention to accomplish something, a building block, or a collection of items that seem to belong together.

No one can tell you when you’ve identified a concept, but there are some indicators you can look out for. Larry Brooks describes a concept as “an idea that has been evolved to the point where a story becomes possible.” He continues that, “Concept is not the plot itself, only a window into it.”

For example, let’s say we’re an architecture firm and a client comes to us saying they want a building. Okay, that’s an idea. Once we start brainstorming what that building should look and feel like, then that building becomes a concept.

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A concept is the design stage of a construction project. In construction, designing involves reviewing the client's program, their requirements and needs of the facility. While developing the drawings, we as architects must explore every method and material of construction to find the best way to go about achieving the client’s goals.

The design phase for a construction project is incredibly similar to the brainstorming phase for writers, authors, and creators. In writing, designing looks like idea generation. Coming up with ideas, seeing where those thoughts lead, will guide the conceptualization process as you figure out where there's a story to be told. And that can take time! Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Demystifying Key Differences

The difference between an idea versus a concept is that an idea can stand on its own while a concept requires relationships between two or more ideas. And, a concept is not to be confused with a premise, but that’s for another discussion.

Concept is hard to grasp because concept is made up of various categories of information. In construction, architects, engineers, and consultants have to consider structural and fire life safety, ADA accessibility, and existing conditions — just to name a few — when designing their drawings all while eliciting a feeling for the end user experience in the finished building.

Similarly, authors, writers, and creators have to balance characters, theme, and plot before they put down their first word in order for the story to succeed. Larry Brooks writes, “If you write from an idea that is not yet a concept, your drafts will suffer for it until you do. If you write without a concept, settling for a linear flow of episodic narratives, your drafts will fail until you do.”

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Authors have to think about:

  • what characters could do?

  • what problems could they have?

  • who is the antagonist or what is the antagonistic conflict?

  • is the conflict big enough - scalable?

  • what self-sabotage stands in the protagonist’s way of getting what they want?

  • what message am i trying to send?

  • what message needs to be said?

  • what message is coming out from these ideas I wasn't anticipating?

and it is all impossibly tangled up for you and your hamster running a thousand miles an hour on its wheel. When you’re working with ideas to come up with a concept, or trying to unravel a concept into its foundational ideas, you have to be patient with yourself. (But you can jump start your creativity with these hacks.)

Anyone who claims that their concept came to them as a single idea probably had two ideas that ricocheted off each other so fast that it felt like one. It’s hard to nail down those billiard balls. They always seem to be rolling. And headed nowhere near each other.

Recapping Idea Versus Concept

No, an idea is not a concept. And no, that does not make a concept an idea. Concept and idea are not the same. One is built upon the other.

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Understanding the distinction between an idea and a concept is the artist's compass. With ideas serving as both the concrete and rebar — the raw materials — of creation, a concept is the blueprint, the placement out of those materials into a possible design.

Whether you're wielding a brush or a pen, these definitions are your allies in crafting richer, more meaningful stories. Embrace the nuances, let them guide you, and watch your project unfold with newfound depth and clarity.

Now, with this knowledge in your tool belt, how will you direct your creativity and ideas?


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