Coming Up with a Kicker of a Concept

We’re taking a close look in these first posts on novel construction at the four main corner pillars. To recap briefly, I’m introducing twelve key pillars writers must construct to build a great novel in any genre. The corner pillars are not only the most important, they must work together, and my experience has shown me that if I work on all four of these pillars at one time, fleshing them in bit by bit until they are solid, I can be satisfied that the framework of my “house” will hold up.

After those four are in place, the other eight can be developed and fashioned to fit into the framework. Just as when building a house, tasks need to be done in order. You can’t put on the roof or wire the house if you haven’t put up walls. And walls can’t go up without appropriate framework.

So Just What Is a Kicker, Anyway?

I spoke a little last week about the first pillar: a concept with a kicker. I explained that ideas are a dime a dozen, and plenty of great ideas fail to make great novels. Why? Because ideas or concepts have to have 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.

So what is a kicker? Just to be clear here: 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 was so intense and unexpected, it caused a lot of emotion on the part of many readers. I thought it was a terrific twist, but some of my friends hated it. Without doing a spoiler here, 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 and it’s just a simple plot twist, it won’t give the novel “legs” to last the entire read.

Plot Twists Are Not “Concept Kickers”

This makes me think of the blockbuster movie The Planet of the Apes. Do you recall the great twist/surprise kicker at the end, where Commander Taylor (Charlton Heston) finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes, 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 that movie? I would say it is something like this: “An astronaut lands on a planet run by intelligent apes who enslave humans, who are the unintelligent animals. Taylor’s intelligence threatens to destroy the apes’ entire way of life and worldview, and so they will 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 and 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 until we actually see the scene where 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 “sees dead people.” He thinks that by helping young Cole he will find peace (his goal), 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, would be a strong story.

Writer/director Shyamalan uses a similar technique with Unbreakable and Signs. Both of these movies also have great 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. Being a very character-driven writer, I find the most successful element in stories like these are the characters and their goals, whose core needs and passions are intrinsically woven into the concept of the story. Underneath all are intense themes with a heart. And often the inner conflict has higher stakes than the outer ones, but conflict is found in spades.

Which is the point I’m trying to get across in these opening posts. Concept cannot be just about plot. A great concept for a novel can’t hold up if it’s just a good idea or an interesting premise. It has to have the support of the three other corner pillars. That’s when the concept gets kicked into high gear with a kicker.

Next week, we’ll take one last long look at this first pillar, and then you’ll get your first inspection checklist!

Share your thoughts here. Can you think of other movies or novels that have a great twist at the end? If so, think about what the concept with a kicker is for the entire story, and see if you can identify what makes it great.

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  1. Thanks for this excellent article! Definitely got me thinking about the story I want to pursue for (deep breath in, exhale slowly) NaNoWriMo this year. Your writing instruction is right on target, and I always look forward to reading your posts. Thank you!

  2. I may be being dense here, but I can’t see where you’ve explained what a kicker is? I see two examples, but you haven’t explained what part of each example makes it a “kicker” rather than just an idea.

    1. As I’ve been explaining, a good idea isn’t enough for a novel to fly. The idea should be fresh, with some original take on the idea. When you look at great movies or books (knowing there really are no new plots), you can see there is something that gives it a new, interesting spin. The Hunger Games wouldn’t have been so hot without the games. You could write a future dystopian society novel like that and make it interesting, showing people trying to survive under oppression. But the focus on the games and the premise that kids have to kill each other is the kicker that pushes the idea into gear. Ask: what is the one element in my novel that sets it apart and makes it unique from other similar novels? Again, this will tie in with theme, central conflict, and the protagonist’s goal.

  3. The two plot twists I thought of first were Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    What I guess I would identify as the kickers would be an everyman who becomes involved with a fight club and finds himself getting in too deep. And an unconventional hacker investigating a missing person’s case allowing herself to connect with another human being.

    I too am character driven and have to have a strong connection to the people’s problems and growth to really fall in love with a book.

    1. Right on! The compelling characters set in the scenario given provides a big conflict with high stakes. As I go on discussing these elements, it becomes clear they are all needed to have that powerful concept. Thanks for sharing that.

  4. Thanks for posting this Susanne. I’ve been reading Robert McKee and John Truby, and what you’re describing as a “kicker” seems very similar to what they call a “premise.”

    McKee explains premise as an open ended “What if” statement. What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? (Jaws) What would happen if a wife walked out on her husband and child (Kramer vs. Kramer).

    Truby defines it this way. “The premise is your story stated in one sentence.” For Jurassic Park he proposes the premise might be, “What if you took the two greatest heavy-weights of evolution – dinosaurs and humans – and forced them to fight to the death in the same ring?” For Casablanca, Truby writes that the premise would be, “A tough American expatriate rediscovers an old flame only to give her up so that he can fight the Nazis.”

    Both McKee and Truby emphasize the importance of having a strong premise to drive a story. Story structure definitions are new to me. Are these basically the same thing, or is there some clear distinction between a premise and a kicker? Thanks.

    1. Yes, there is a lot of different terminology used. I am in agreement with the above, but I add the kicker bit because the premise is still an idea expressed with ” what if” and doesn’t necessarily ask for a kicker to elevate it to a higher level. I don’t mean to say there is a specific measurement to do that, but you want to pinpoint the compelling component. I’ll be talking about that next week.

  5. I really enjoyed this post and appreciate the examples you used to explain it. So the concept of Cinderella would be the poor girl with an evil step family finds her HEA despite them, is that correct?

    1. Jacquie, thanks. That’s pretty much the basic idea or premise. If you can come up with a “what if?” question about that story that shows it’s uniqueness, that would be the concept with a kicker. What if a simple, poor girl who wants to find true love and escape from her oppressive family is helped by a fairy godmother who transforms her and magically makes the way for her to attend the palace ball and meet the prince–whom she ultimately marries and then lives HEA. The kicker is that she gets magical help for her situation, which is what made this story so famous and timeless. If she didn’t have that help, there wouldn’t be much of a story. If the story was just “a simple poor girl finds a way to go to the ball and has the prince fall in love with her,” you could still have a pretty good concept and kicker, since it’s not easy for a commoner to garner the attention of a prince so long as you highlight what she does to win that audience with the prince and gain his favor.

  6. I guess a kicker is a nice-to-have, but not a must-have. I looked at a variety of successful books like The Room; The Kite Runner; The Ibis Trilogy; The Grapes of Wrath; To Kill a Mockingbird; Gone with the Wind – they don’t necessarily have the unexpected big twist.

    Yes, I agree the ending in The Sister’s Keeper was unbelievable, but the entire story itself was so dramatic, intense and emotional and it would still fly with perhaps another ending.

    1. I haven’t read The Room or The Ibis Trilogy, but I could tell you the kicker for all the other stories. And if you thought long enough, you could too. Each had something unique about the story that sets it apart from other similar stories. As I mention on the blog and in the book The 12 Key Pillars, a kicker is not an unexpected twist. It has to do with the premise and character goals. Surely Scarlet’s goal to win Ashley is not the type of story line you find in most novels about the South and the Civil War. Showing the South’s entry into the war through the eyes and life of a spoiled Southern Confederate woman is a kicker and unique. Having a lawyer in a small racist Southern town represent an innocent black man at trial is plenty of a kicker, especially when woven in with the themes of the “innocent mockingbird” and noting the story is told from a girl’s POV who watches this drama unfold. Kickers have to do with presentation more than general plot. Kite Runner, by being set in Afghanistan, puts a twist on the themes of sacrifice and redemption, as does the symbolism and authenticity of the kites and kite runners. I could spend hours going into these kickers.

      And just by reading this Wikipedia synopsis of The Room, the kicker is evident: “The story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, Jack, who is being held captive in a small room along with his mother.” Wow, what a kicker!

      1. Completely my bad. I was reading your post late night and a bit sleepy here in India and it misread everything you went at great lengths to explain that a kicker is NOT a plot twist. Thank you!

  7. I’m a bit stuck. I want to write a comedy novel (that’s also steampunk). How could I come up with a concept with a kicker for this? I hope this isn’t a foolish question and thanks for taking the time to read this!

  8. Thank you for the helpful post! I am going through your 12 pillars posts and have found them to be excellent so far and just what I was looking for. I love stories with plot twists and think it is so fun to try and guess what is really happening.
    A show I watched recently with a plot twist that also has a great kicker is Mr. Robot. The main idea for the show is so interesting (a hacker with a personality disorder) and a twist to boot. However, I would have to agree with you that the kicker itself is what drew me into the show.

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