Kicking High Concept into High Gear

We’ve been exploring the first key pillar of novel construction—concept with a kicker. Last week I explained that a novel has to have an overarching concept with a unique, compelling kicker. But this is not to be confused with a plot twist or surprise, which is a kicker in its own right. But not the kind of kicker I’m talking about. A novel or movie has to stand on a strong pillar of concept all the way through. It can’t depend on one high moment in the story—regardless of placement in the plot—to support the “structure.”

If you’ve read the previous posts, I hope you are now getting a bit clearer about this concept of concept. Let’s take this a step further.

Is a Kicker a “High Concept”?

Hmm, maybe this “kicker” definition is a little hard to pinpoint. It makes me think of “high concept”—a term you may have heard. Here’s how Wikipedia defines high concept: “High concept is a term used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that aren’t as easily summarized. The origin of the term is in dispute.” Well, that’s a bit vague.

One person defined “high concept” this way: “You tell me your amazing pitch for your book, and then I decide I have to kill you so I can steal your idea.” Well, it’s funny, but quite to the point. We’re talking big idea. Just how intriguing is your concept or idea?

Think about a novel like The Hunger Games. If all Suzanne Collins came up with was “a girl in an oppressive dysptopic future society has to struggle to survive (and gets caught in a love triangle),” do you think she would have sold that book to a publisher? If the kicker—the premise of the games themselves—was not a part of the book(s), she might have had a good idea and maybe could have sold a few copies—but perhaps not millions.

The kicker in that novel was a fascinating predicament. With a game that forced children to murder each other, Collins introduced an element into the primary structure (pillar) that could support the entire novel. Again, this is not just an idea or premise or plot point of a novel. This is a foundational concept that creates tension, mystery, keen interest, curiosity. It makes readers ask questions they really want the answers for. How in the world could a child make it out alive? What kind of emotional damage would they suffer? How could people stand to live in a world like this, and what would it take to stop this insanity?

Kickers make readers ask questions they want answered. Kickers move the ordinary into the extraordinary. Kickers take ordinary ideas and put them on steroids. Wouldn’t we all want someone, albeit jokingly, to say to us: “Wow, that is such a kicker, I’m going to have to kill you so I can steal it and write that book myself”?

Yep, Another Caveat

Okay, you’re right. I’ll concede this point: not all novels have to have a great kicker. If you are writing formula romance for Harlequin’s Love Inspired series, you may not have a high-concept kicker. Same with a post-modern literary work—although I may pose the challenge that with every novel, a writer should be able to come up with a kicker of some sort. Even a baby one. Some readers want to read the same kind of book over and over. Some publishers want to publish the same kind of story over and over (because of those readers willing and eager to buy those same stories again and again). And that’s all well and good.

But I’m all about writing great stories—ones that will stand the test of time, like a well-built house. Yes, well-built romance novels written to formula are structured well. And many will endure the ravages of time. Formula novels follow “building codes” and are a fine example of a builder using a blueprint correctly to build a specific kind of structure.

But if you are striking out “on your own” to create an original novel with a high concept, you’ll need some kind of kicker.

Brainstorm Key Questions

So when you are brainstorming your ideas and honing in on the one you want to develop into your next novel or if you are already writing a novel but feel it’s not all that extraordinary, spend some time thinking about the kicker. Here are some of the questions you want to ask, and some that will be on your “inspection checklist.” These should get your creative juices stirring.

  • What is unique and compelling about my central idea for my novel?
  • How can I tweak this idea and infuse it with something outrageous, tense, full of conflict?
  • Can I elevate the stakes dramatically for my main character to give the concept heightened drama and suspense? (Again, think of The Hunger Games and the element of death/murder.)
  • What kind of goal can I give my main character that will seem impossible to reach?
  • What controversial or sensitive issues or themes can be at the core of this idea so that it will tug on readers’ hearts?
  • How can I twist the whole idea so that it poses an intriguing dilemma or conflict?

If you paid attention in an earlier post, you’ll notice I’ve brought in here the other three key corner pillars! What are they? Protagonist with a goal, conflict with high stakes, and theme with a heart. I mentioned that in order to have that concept with a kicker, you need to develop it with the three other corner pillars, and so these questions are meant to have you start thinking holistically.

So spend some time thinking about your core concept for your novel. I highly suggest you brainstorm on a piece of paper (remember all those posts in which I showed you ways to mind map your novel?—that is a great way to work on your four pillars). Start with your basic idea. Then work on coming up with a kicker. Answer these questions by thinking up different plot elements that could take your ordinary idea and turn it into a terrific one.

So many novels lack a concept with a kicker. Of the hundreds of manuscripts I’ve critiqued, I’ve seen very few with a strong concept accompanied by a kicker. Many are just “same old, same old” plots with stereotypical characters and predictable story lines. Nothing truly compelling happens in the story. Sure, there may be a scene or two here or there that has a great twist. But as we’ve seen, a singular twist does not constitute a kicker.

Have fun working on this, and then share some comments and ideas with us. However, be aware that if you truly have come up with a great kicker, I may have to kill you so I can steal your idea! (I hope you know I’m just kidding . . . hmmm . . . am I?)

And I know you’ve been waiting for this, so here is your Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker. Twelve questions (or rather, groups of questions) are listed for you to answer. They’re meant to get you to think deeply about the pillars you are constructing and to help hone your focus so your novel will be strong. If you can answer them to your satisfaction, you’re on your way to building a great novel!

Photo Credit: rocketsareneat via Compfight cc

15 Responses to “Kicking High Concept into High Gear”

  1. Roberto Santos February 5, 2014 at 1:24 am #

    I met you in a guest post you wrote on the site thebookdesigner.com, and since then I have been reading his writings directly on this site. Superb!

    I have to thank you for all that you share with us. Their knowledge is of great value to all writers or for those who wish to publish a book (a good book, of course!)

    Many thanks Charlene Whitman! I mean… C.S. Lakin 🙂

  2. Lorrie Beauchamp February 5, 2014 at 7:33 am #

    Good post! Let’s not forget that we are all products of our own consumption, and that one widely-publicized idea often begets another. When I first read The Hunger Games, I immediately saw all the parallels with the popular US reality show called “Survivor.” The author simply took it to a new level, and hooked us with the drama of involving innocent children. But then again, I see trending everywhere, it’s one of my filters. Ultimately, we don’t have to be first with an idea, we have to be better.

    • Norah Jansen February 6, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

      That’s what I thought about The Hunger Games also Lorrie. I read afterwards that it was from somewhere else (I cannot remember right now) that Suzanne Collins got the idea but I still feel Survivor was pretty apt.

  3. Beth Havey February 5, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks for the Inspection Checklist. It’s going to be very helpful. Beth

  4. Susannah MacDonald February 5, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Very timely! I’m in the process of yet another bout of revision on a long term project, and, feeling my ending was weak, was playing with a few ideas. I read this post and the stuck penny dropped!

  5. Diane February 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Love the inspection checklist / brainstorming questions. They definitely get the creative juices flowing. Thanks for putting together this series. Looking forward to the next one 🙂

  6. Traci Kenworth February 5, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    This looks like it’ll help a lot. Thank you!!

  7. cslakin February 5, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Glad this material is making sense and hitting home with you all. I can’t emphasize enough how important a great concept is and the need to spend time really thinking it through before embarking on such a huge undertaking (writing a complete novel). That’s why I chose the concept as the first pillar to discuss. But the other three corner “supports” are just as important, and we’ll be delving deep into those too!

    • Roberto Santos February 5, 2014 at 11:31 pm #

      That is what attracts me to follow your series of articles here on the site. The way you see the whole building structure of a novel, for me is spectacular. In other words, what you are teaching us here is something that the big publishers have mastered long ago! And you, with all your literary knowledge and humility, is slowly revealing to us.

      The list of questions you prepared, does our mind really stop to “think”: I’m really following the right path? And this alone is genius. Because when more we think on the right path to follow, more and more the right one appears.

      Although I don’t know you personally, but only by your writings, you deserve all my respect and gratitude for all you are doing. I say this from the bottom of my heart.

      • cslakin February 6, 2014 at 6:22 am #

        Thank you so much for such kind words! Putting all these courses and posts together takes a lot of hours and hard thinking, but it’s a labor of love! I want to help writers get the hang of building a novel, and it’s not easy!

  8. Jeremy February 6, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    I just came upon this article from a retweet, and I am glad that I did as I found your article interesting and helpful.

    I have been writing since I was young, but haven’t written a novel. It wasn’t until this past August that I began incrementally publishing the novel that I had been working on, and your article encouraged me to examine my work from the lens you propose.

    I enjoyed the checklist that you provided, and the point that you make to consider twisting the idea to create a dilemma. This is something that I am doing with my novel that I am writing as three different parts. I am establishing the characters in certain forms, but as the novel progresses, positioning their growth in ways that force the reader to reconsider their perceptions and understandings of them. This process has been fun in my writing!

    Anyways, I am glad that I found this article, and I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Thank you,

    Sincerely,

    Jeremy

    • cslakin February 6, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

      Hi Jeremy, glad you found this blog and dropped by to share. Hope you get a lot from all the posts and guests sharing their insights!

  9. Angela Byrne February 10, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    Thanks for another great post – that checklist will come in very handy! As someone who also spends a LOT of time analysing and blogging about story structure, I really appreciate the time and effort that you’ve put into building this framework and sharing it online. General story principles are surprisingly tough to get your head around (let alone convey in a practical context), and you do a truly wonderful job…looking forward to the next pillar!

    • cslakin February 12, 2014 at 8:31 am #

      Thank you so much. It’s a lot of work mulling over all this and presenting it in a way that allows writers to wrap their heads around it.

  10. Freya Shipley August 9, 2017 at 3:01 pm #

    I’m still having some trouble understanding what a kicker is, as distinct from a concept. Could someone give me some more examples from famous fiction? (I haven’t yet read *The Hunger Games*.) What might the kicker be for Jane Eyre, The Golden Compass, Coraline, anything by Sarah Waters? (Or for any other novels you have in mind.)

    Thank you, everyone. I just found this wonderful blog a few days ago, and I’m thrilled to be learning so much!

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