Concept vs Execution in Fiction

Any productive creative effort consists of concept and execution. Concept is, of course, the idea behind the thing, the description of it, or the mental image that we have of what the thing is meant to be. Execution is what happens when we try to actually produce the thing, as in: “His execution of the dive was flawless”. Or it is the final fleshed-out form of the thing, as in: “While the architect’s vision for the building was sound, the execution is marred by awkward flaws.”

And my point, of course, is that concept and execution can be either good or bad (or so-so) independently of each other. The overall value or quality of any creation derives from the interplay between concept and execution, in ways that vary depending on the field or medium involved. Some creative fields are more concept-driven, some less, and different crafts and art-forms may be more or less tolerant of inexpert execution depending in part on the audience.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Fiction covers a lot of territory and so does the relative importance of concept and execution in fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you’d better have top-notch execution. For genre fiction, this can be less important. Some genre fiction readers are very forgiving as long as the story contains the genre-specific tropes and elements they’ve come to enjoy. The importance of concept to readers also varies. Science fiction readers may demand something truly new in the concept department, whereas readers of mystery or romance – or even literary fiction – may not really care about that. How much readers of any stripe care about concept versus execution depends basically on the extent to which they read to get new thoughts and ideas versus reading for the experience of reading. And of course, they may be after both. But the one place where concept really trumps execution is in getting agents and publishers to look at a manuscript from an unknown author, which is something I find a bit problematic.

It can be a little hard to say exactly where a fiction manuscript’s concept leaves off and its execution begins. The core of the concept consists pretty much of what can be fitted into the infamous “elevator speech” – the nutshell-sized description that’s used to “sell” the manuscript to an agent or a publisher. One might extend concept to include the set of plot points that go into a synopsis or outline of the story, although this begins to grade into execution. Any sample pages or chapters that may be allowed as part of a submission clearly speak to execution, but they really provide only a glimpse of it. The truth is that execution consists not only of the quality of the writing, and things like “voice” that one might see in a sample chapter, but actually includes all the word choices and phrasing, and all of the details of how the writer has chosen to unfold the story – from beginning to end. Basically, execution is the whole thing, and the only way an agent or acquisition editor can fully assess the execution of a work is to read the entire manuscript – which isn’t going to happen unless they’re “sold” on the concept. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a lot of agents don’t even look at the synopsis, let alone the writing sample, if the first paragraph of the query letter doesn’t “grab” them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is so: there are just too many manuscripts. Agents are inundated, and they just don’t have time to read everything that comes their way. Plus, they really shouldn’t take on manuscripts they don’t think they can sell to equally busy and concept-oriented acquisitions editors. Still, it means there’s a possibility of works being passed up that are well-executed but have ordinary-sounding or hard-to-pin-down concepts. This is clearly a loss for those readers who value the experience of reading a rich, nuanced, and well-crafted tale, over the whiz-bang of nutshell novelty. (You can guess where my preferences lie.)

There are people – agents and others – who argue that the essence of any novel ought to be reducible to one or two brief sentences. I simply disagree. Consider these two familiar works in the fantasy genre: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both works have essentially the same core concept: A young girl is transported to a magical land where she has a series of adventures before managing to get home again. Yet these two works are in no sense the same story, and in fact could hardly be more different in execution.  I could easily add a few choice details to the nutshell description that would tell you instantly which book it represented, but that’s not the point. To begin with, the plot of Alice in Wonderland is scarcely important in capturing the work. How could I convey the cleverness of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, or the book’s wild non-sequiturs? The Wizard of Oz is more conventional in its plot-reliance, but simply stating the elements of that plot hardly captures the charm and nuance of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale.

To be honest, I first became aware of how much traditional publishing is biased towards concept years ago when I tried querying book one of The Nagaro Chronicle. That discovery is one reason why I’ve opted for independent publication. My work’s strength lies in its execution. Producing a short, plot-based, nutshell description of the first book that made it sound in any way unique or special proved challenging to the point of exasperation.

So what are your thoughts? As a reader, where do you come down with respect to concept and execution? If you’re a writer, where does your own work fall?