About three weeks ago I posted a piece here on MW titled “Where’s The Big Idea?” which talked about the power and effectiveness of putting your story’s ‘big idea’ at the beginning and then exploring the consequences of that idea, rather than building your story to conclude with the reveal of your ‘big idea.’ If you haven’t read it already, now would be a good time to pop into the old way-back machine and get caught up.
All caught up? Splendid.
If you delved into the comments section of that post, you’ll have noticed a few requests for further discussion about the difference between ‘big ideas,’ ‘twists,’ and ‘hooks’… so it shouldn’t be too terribly difficult for you to figure out where today’s post is going to go.
Hook: A ‘hook,’ in my mind, is best compared to the barb on an actual fishing hook. A story hook isn’t the entire fishing hook, it’s just that really sharp-edged extra bit at the very beginning of the fishing hook that, once the fish takes it into its mouth, prevents the fish from escaping. A properly executed barb on a fishing hook is designed to slip into the fish’s lip or cheek smoothly, but once the fish has passed that point of no return, that point where the barb is set in place, escape is no longer possible.
That’s precisely what your story hook should be, too: 1) At the very beginning. In a short story, ideally in the first paragraph, at a minimum in the first page. In a novel, it’s definitely in the first chapter, and ideally within the first few pages. 2) Easy going down. Nothing complicated. 3) So compelling that once the reader is past it, there’s no escape, no going back.
What does that look like? It’s generally either a question to which the reader MUST know the answer, or a situation to which the read MUST know the outcome. The question or situation—the ‘hook’—does NOT have to be the ‘big idea;’ in fact, it doesn’t even need to relate directly to the ‘big idea,’ though the author will score bonus points if it is.
Let me give you one of my favorite examples. It’s from a short story by James Maxey, titled “To The East, A Bright Star.” The opening sentence is an immediate hook, and he builds it up from there throughout the opening paragraph (I’ll add commentary as we go along):
There was a shark in the kitchen.
All-righty, then. Mr. Maxey, you have my attention. I’m hooked. A shark in the kitchen is not something you’d expect. Let us proceed.
The shark wasn’t huge, maybe four feet long, gliding across the linoleum toward the refrigerator.
I’m intrigued, and now the author has added a striking visual to this unusual situation.
Tony stood motionless in the knee-deep water of the dining room. The Wolfman said that the only sharks that came in this far were bull sharks, which were highly aggressive.
Here some specific details have been added, so we know the main character isn’t hallucinating or dreaming. The whole first floor of the house is flooded (for some yet-to-be determined reason). I’m still intrigued, but (importantly) now I also trust the author because he’s promptly given me a solid answer to a improbable-sounding situation.
Tony leaned forward cautiously and shut the door to the kitchen. He’d known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life. With only hours to go, he wasn’t about to let a shark do something ironic.
And that’s the end of opening paragraph. Maxey then goes on let the reader know that the world is going to be struck by a giant asteroid, ending life as we know it, and that the proximity of the asteroid has caused ocean-levels to rise, flooding coastal areas. That’s his ‘big idea’–the world is going to end. As ideas go, you’ll probably agree that that’s pretty big. And he hints at it in the opening paragraph (He’d known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life), but not before ‘hooking’ the reader with a shark swimming through the kitchen. The shark is an immediate, jarring, attention-getting device that no sane reader (or editor) could walk away from. You read that and you have to know what f*&k is going on. The asteroid causes flooding, one detail which is used to create the hook. The rest of the story then proceeds to unfold and show us what the main character does with his last day on Earth, i.e. what are the larger consequences of the ‘big idea’?
All in all, I think that’s a pretty tidy example of the difference between the story’s ‘hook’ and the story’s ‘big idea,’ and how they can intersect.
Now let’s throw the old twisteroony into the mix. To me, a twist is the polar opposite of the ‘hook.’ It’s yang to the hook’s yin. So if a great hook is that thing that pulls the reader into the story, making him or her say “I have to read this…”, a great ‘twist’ is that thing that helps to spit the reader out the ass end of the story, saying, “Holy crap, what a ride!”
Great openings make readers start stories; great endings make readers look for more stories by that author. Important point here: A ‘twist’ is only one way to end a story, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that every story should end with a twist. After a while it can become more of a carnival trick than a legitimate tool in your toolbox. And twists don’t have to come exclusively at the end, either. They can be employed along the way, used as a tool to set up a great ending.
In a nutshell, a twist is nothing more than this: the author sets up one expectation (or set of expectations) and then finds a way—a believable, plausible way—to subvert the readers’ expectations and deliver something totally different. It might be the opposite; it might be a hard 90 degree turn to the left; it might be a lot of things. The one thing it isn’t is exactly what the reader was expecting.
The key to doing this well, though, is the believable, plausible part. The reader has to simultaneously say “I did NOT see that coming, BUT it makes total sense.”
The most obvious and common example of this concept is found in the movie “The Sixth Sense.” The big idea: boy believes that he sees (and talks to) dead people. Twist: his psychiatrist (who was supposed to be helping him understand that this could not be really happening) was actually dead himself and talking with the boy. It was awesome. It’s one of the few movies you can actually watch a second time and it’s a completely different movie. Fifteen years later and I’m still talking about it. (That twist worked so well that M. Night Shamalamadingdong went on and made a career (and a lot of money) making dozens of movies that either sucked, didn’t make sense, or both, solely on the strength of how good “The Sixth Sense” was.)
Okay then… to summarize.
Hooks—draw the reader/viewer into the story. May or may not be related to the big idea.
Big idea—the underlying concept that drives the story. It can be as big as the end of the world or as personal as a dead psychiatrist who doesn’t know he’s dead (the big idea the second time you watch “The Sixth Sense”). But vast or intimate, you need a driver for your story, an engine that makes it go, and I call that the ‘big idea.’
Twist—turning the reader’s expectations inside out and upside down. Done well=reader joy. Done poorly=cheating/reader irritation. Not a vital component, so tread lightly and execute well.
Clear as mud?
Edmund R. Schubert is the author the novel, Dreaming Creek, and some 40+ short stories, about half of which are in his collection, The Trouble with Eating Clouds. He’s held a variety of editorial positions, currently serving his eighth year as editor of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. He’s co-edited three IGMS anthologies with Card, as well as editing and contributing to the non-fiction book, How to Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. Schubert still insists, however, that his greatest accomplishment came during college, when his self-published underground newspaper made him the subject of a professor’s lecture in abnormal psychology.
He can be found online at: www.EdmundRSchubert.com