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How to Give Your Novel a Kicker of a Concept

Note: This is a guest post by C.S. Lakin, she is a multi-published best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique. *1 lucky commenter on this post will win a digital copy of C.S. Lakin’s new book!

Every great novel starts with a basic idea.

You could phrase an idea by starting with “What if . . . ?” What if a comet was about to crash into Earth and scientists had to find a way to destroy it? What if a man on death row was innocent and only one person believed him? What if a woman fell in love with a man and it turned out he was her brother?

Writing Idea

Writers generate innumerable ideas for stories, and many ideas they come up with have a germ of potential—the potential to be turned into a truly great novel. Every great novel, in the beginning, started with some idea.

Ideas Are a Dime a Dozen

But, a great idea does not make a novel. Some ideas are fine for a short story, but they don’t have the “legs” to be fashioned into a lengthy novel. Almost all ideas fall way too short of novel potential.

Well, how can you determine what has legs and what doesn’t?

It’s only when ideas are developed into a “Concept with a Kicker” that they start to have the potential to be worked into a novel.

Think about a lump of clay. That’s your idea. That lump of clay is not a beautiful vase. It’s just a lump of potential. That is what your good idea is.

We all have a lot of lumps on the table, but they are not going to turn into vases by sitting there. You are going to have to work on them to get them into shape.

So in this way, ideas need to be taken to a higher level; they have to have a kicker. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Maybe even two dozen.

So, What Is a Kicker?

A kicker is the very specific, unique “shape” that idea is going to take on. The kicker takes the blah lump of clay and turns it into a stunning vase. Or sculpture. Or whatever you have in mind as the finished product.

Just how in the world do you take an idea and infuse it with a kicker?

I might be so bold as to say that you could take just about any idea, even if it’s pretty lame, and turn it into a terrific concept if you come up with a great kicker.

What It’s Not

A kicker isn’t the same thing as a plot twist. Plot twists are “kickers” in their own right—meaning they are surprising turns or reveals in a story, and, as such, they “kick” the plot into high gear.

Some novels have a great plot twist at the end, like Jodi Picoult’s best seller My Sister’s Keeper. The plot twist is so intense and unexpected, it evokes a lot of emotion from many readers. Picoult masterfully created a shocking ending to this very heavy drama.

Yet, the twisty ending wasn’t the kicker. A novel can’t ride four hundred pages on a kicker in the last chapter. And likewise—if you have a plot twist early on in the book, if it’s just a simple plot twist, it won’t give the novel “legs” to last the entire read.

In My Sister’s Keeper, Picoult creates a great kicker. This is the story of a girl named Anna, who is conceived for one purpose: to be a donor for her older sister, Kate, who has leukemia. That, in itself, is quite a kicker, for it brings to mind all kinds of conflict (resentment, jealousy, anger, etc.).

A girl with leukemia needs a donor, and the best choice would be one who is blood related and as closely compatible as possible. But Picoult kicks her idea even higher by centering the book on the plot element of Anna seeking legal action against her parents to prevent them from forcing her to be a donor.

Now look at how the stakes have been raised. Anna’s actions can now endanger Kate’s life, as well as cause a painful rift between her and her parents. And deeply embedded in this kicker is yet another one—which has to do with how Kate feels about both her illness and her sister’s role as her blood and bone marrow donor.

Plot Twists Are Not “Concept Kickers”

Think about the blockbuster movie The Planet of the Apes. Do you recall the great twist/surprise kicker at the end, showing Commander Taylor coming upon the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizing, to his horror, that he is on Earth and not some other planet? That’s a great moment.

But if the movie failed to have a great Concept with a Kicker all the way through, no one would have stayed in the theater long enough to see that ending.

What is the Concept with a Kicker for the movie? I would say it is something like this: “An astronaut lands on a planet run by intelligent apes that enslave humans—who are the unintelligent animals. Taylor’s intelligence threatens to destroy the apes’ entire way of life and worldview, and so they do whatever they must to stop him from reaching his goal (which is to escape).”

The movie as a whole is not about the twist at the end; it’s about the problem created by the situation and what the hero must do to remedy it and reach his goal. The secret of the apes’ past is an important plot element in the movie that drives the story and tension, but it’s not the core of the concept.

In a similar way, the Concept with a Kicker for The Sixth Sense is not wrapped up in the fact that Dr. Malcolm Crowe realizes, to his shock, that he is actually dead. That is a brilliant plot twist, and certainly is foundational to the plot.

But just what makes that movie so compelling—all the way up to where we actually see the scene in which Malcolm has his moment of realization?

The story concept has a great kicker. It’s about a therapist racked by the guilt of failure and seeking personal redemption through helping a very disturbed boy who can “see dead people.” He thinks that by helping young Cole he will find the peace he urgently needs, and by using his skills as a therapist, he succeeds in both reaching his goal and in helping “cure” Cole.

The playing out of this concept is fascinating, and even without the twist it would be a strong story.

Writer/director of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, uses a similar technique with Unbreakable and Signs. Both these movies have surprising plot twists near the end, but the concept for each has a great kicker that supports the whole story. Both are about rich characters driven by extreme need and passion and going after a specific goal, while facing tough inner and outer conflict along the way.

His themes are huge and powerful in these stories. These essential elements need to accompany a strong kicker of an idea.

You Don’t Need a Wholly Original Basic Idea

You’ve probably heard it said there are only so many basic plot ideas, and that’s true. Every general plot for a novel has been done many times over. And many terrific novels are just variations on the same old story.

So, if it’s not required to come up with a wholly unique plot that no one else has ever done, how can a general idea get turned into a Concept with a Kicker?

By tweaking the norm or expected. Bring to that tired old plot idea something unexpected, something intriguing—some factor or component that will shake the traditional, basic, simplistic story and make it a Concept with a Kicker.

So don’t be satisfied with that unformed lump of clay. Work on it until you fashion it into a stunning object that grabs attention.

What novel or movie comes to your mind that has a great kicker (not plot twist)? Think about concept. What makes it unique, fresh, original? This is great practice – I’d love to read your ideas in the comments.

*Random drawing for a copy of C.S. Lakin’s new book:

One of the commenters to this post will be the luck winner of a digital copy of The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. Drawing will take place Friday, 20 March 2015. So be sure to leave a comment. The only requirement, besides commenting, is that you must be a Positive Writer subscriber to win.

About C.S. Lakin

I’m a novelist, a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things. Connect with me on my blog at Live Write Thrive and on Twitter.

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  • Priya

    “So don’t be satisfied with that unformed lump of clay. Work on it until you fashion it into a stunning object that grabs attention.” Reminds me to not settle. Thanks 🙂

  • Charles Ray

    Having a real ‘kicker’ is the hardest part of writing a novel – or so I’ve discovered. Taking the time to come up with one is time well-spent.

  • Susanne Lakin

    You’re welcome! Too many writers spend way too much time writing novels about ideas that just aren’t compelling enough to sustain such a large scope of story.

  • Stephanie Sanchez

    This was a very thought provoking article (at least it was for me). I never thought to look at the kicker (outside the plot twist), yet I have felt them in both reading and watching (movies). I love how the point that not all ‘ideas are novels’ was stated. Many people who have an idea DO think that it can evolve into a full length novel. In the end this may be what causes books or movies to seem watered down (either in the middle of the book or in sequels). *Contemplating* Thanks for the posting.

  • Rebecca Glesener Davis

    Great article. Yes, coming up with ideas is easy, but making them into a story that draws in a reader and keeps them turning the pages is really the hard part. Don’t want our story’s legs to give out before we reach the end, right? Thanks for this!

  • luckykat

    Telling the difference between my lumps of clay and my kickers is no easy task though. I struggle with it a lot. It’s so much harder to figure it out in my own writing.

  • Wow. Well I guess that further justifies the success. I never put a name to this concept but it makes total sense! It’s easy to see why characters act in ways that a more “reasonable” character would because they are driven by some other innate desire. This is why it’s easy to get frustrated as a reader and it’s brilliant. Loved this! So great for my own writing and being able to put different words to concepts!

    • Susanne Lakin

      I’m glad this helps you! Way too many writers don’t work hard to develop their concept and end up with a fairly boring novel.

      • I am new to writing outside the academic versions so it’s strange to have so much freedom with where a story can go. It’s a beautiful thing! Thanks for the insight.

  • Laissez Faire

    There’s a lot to think about here. I didn’t consider that a kicker was a separate animal from a plot twist. I’ll add this to my list of “things that give me doubts.” 🙂

    • Susanne Lakin

      it’s an important distinction because many writers think if they just have a great twist at the end, that’s what will make their story great. But they first have to grab readers’ attention and keep it all the way through, before they get to that great plot twist.

  • Elissaveta Marinova

    Insightful article, as usual. One of my all-time favourite books is This Blinding Absence Of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun and I think that is because its concept is solid. It is not unique of course, there have been many survival books exploring the endurance of the human spirit but the authenticity with which it is told is heartbreaking.

  • Kathy

    Your insights on the “kicker” gave me lots to think about as I am trying to conclude my current novel. I have completed 47 chapters and now have two more in which to give this concept some credibility. I’ll re-read your article and hope to give the “kicker” more emphasis by “tweaking the norm.”

  • Nick

    It seems to me that a Story-Concept ‘supports’ a story-to-be if it provides enough ‘umph’ or ‘energy’ to sustain developing a novel from it. Many story-concepts can provide enough energy for the writing of a novel. But a ‘good’ story-concept will have that ‘kicker’ item either within in it or attached to it.

    However, that can be a bit like Monday-morning quarterbacking for the writer. How can a writer tell if the story-concept has a ‘kicker’ since the ‘kicker’ could be almost anything (e.g., limitations on a superpower, environmental or setting constraints, personal issues, themes with a heart, etc.). So how can one ‘tell’ whether or not one has a good story-concept, a Concept with Kicker?

    It seems to me that the writer can determine whether the ‘kicker’ is present in the story-concept if the story-concept passes the following test: the story-concept makes/causes people to ‘react’ to, engage with, the story-concept (almost in a visceral way)–it emotionally and/or intellectually piques a person’s (ok, better if it’s many persons’) curiosity and/or grabs the a person’s attention and/or makes a person focus upon (however you want to phrase it) the story-concept the writer has posited.

    IF the story-concept has this effect upon people, then it has a kicker and is thus a ‘good’ story-concept for the reason set forth below.

    In essence after hearing/reading the story-concept, a reader (agent/publisher) begins, right off the bat, to ask ‘tell me more-about-this-concept’ type of questions – in effect BEGINNING, in a substantial manner, the process of READER IDENTIFICATION with the characters and/or situation in the novel to come.

    Just my two-cents worth after struggling with this Concept issue for a while now.

    • Susanne Lakin

      Thanks for sharing those thoughts. I agree. A great concept will grab readers’ attention and raise curiosity to know how the story will unfold and resolve. The reader indentification comes with setting up a compelling protagonist who is empathetic and passionate about a goal (one of the four corner pillars of novel structure). I present a holistic view and way of building a novel that requires more than just concept, because a strong novel can’t just ride on that alone.

  • Nick

    I would add that another way of looking at this initial reader identification is that one could say that a good story-concept, by causing the reader/agent/publisher to start asking the questions, causes the questioner to start investing a part of him/herself into the arena of the writer’s story-concept.

    • Susanne Lakin

      Nick, asking questions is a terrific way to get deep into concept. And by adding mystery and tension to create questions in the reader’s mind is the objective!

  • laughingman2

    Well, I read the blog post. It came across as a nice intro, but there was little substance. So I clicked on over to Amazon to just buy a copy of the book. 22 reviews, 4 and 5 stars. Only one was from an actual purchase, however, and that was the purchase of the workbook, not the book itself. I’d like to see Amazon separate the “paid” reviews from the reviews by people who actually bought the book. In this case, from what I could see in the preview, there’s not much more substance in the book than the blog post. Great concept, though.

    • Susanne Lakin

      The book just released two weeks ago, and so many of the reviews, as stated in the reviews, are from early readers who were given a complimentary copy. if you’d like to know more about the content, most of it was part of my blog course all last year, and the book is 75k words with very in-depth discussion of all the major novel components. Most writing craft books are half as long and not anywhere near extensive. I hope you’ll give it a look 🙂

  • plenty to think about here. Really appreciate the insight and can’t wait to sit back down and apply it.

  • I’ve been following Live Write Thrive as well and rather enjoy the informative and educational nature of Ms. Lakin’s posts! Thank you for continuing to inspire me!

    • Susanne Lakin

      Thank you!

  • mariakaramitsos

    Thank you for this insightful article. I’m working on a novel– a story that’s been with me for a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about the kickers and plot twists, and are there enough here to keep the reader engaged. This is helpful as the story continues to unfold and finds its way to the written page. Much appreciated!

  • Nicole

    True its all in the execution and ideas are a dime a dozen!

  • John A. Zangari

    Gone Girl is fabulous in that it incorporates all of the sensationalism that some missing person stories receive when the media picks them up.

  • Albert Bowes

    I would say Snowpiercer for its’ comments on social ills, inequities, and how those in power justify the debasing of humanity in the name of saving it.

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