Hooks, Twists, and Big Ideas, Oh My


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 CloEd Schubert - self-inflicted headshot 2013uds. 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



18 comments to Hooks, Twists, and Big Ideas, Oh My

  • As good an explanation of these three elements of storytelling as I’ve ever seen. Seriously, that was great. I mean, I knew this stuff coming in and still found the post compelling. Here’s a question for you. Actually, a bunch of questions: How would you say a novel differs from a short in its relationship with these elements? How much leeway does a novelist have in getting the hook in — does it still have to be the first line? First graph? First page? Does the big idea need to be bigger in a novel? Or does the existence of subplots and multiple character arcs make a novel inherently LESS big-idea-driven? And do all novels need to have at least some twist, or is a true twist even more risky in a novel, because readers tend to get really mad when they feel they’ve been cheated after reading 400 pages?

  • This was a great explanation of hook, big idea, and twist–the Maxey example really showed how the hook and big idea and different but potentially related. (And it added another story to be TBR list.) I’ve read books before where the ending seemed to come out of nowhere–for me, a poorly managed twist can ruin the book and make me never want to read anything else by that author. Do you have any advice about how to set up the twist so that it is believable while still unexpected?

  • David, High praise from someone whose posts I have always admired for their clarity and specificity. Thank you, good sir.

    Regarding your questions: I think in the fundamentals these concepts apply equally to short stories and to novels; the difference is in the execution. You are spot on when you say that the existence of subplots and multiple character arcs is what most differentiates novels from short stories, but I don’t think either novels or short stories are inherently more or less big-idea-driven. I think a lot of that depends on the author. Some authors are more drawn to BIG ideas, while others are naturally inclined to more personal stories. But either way, any tale needs a ‘big idea’–a central driver. ON the subject of twists, I’d agree with you 100% that a twist is more risky in a novel because the reader will be much less forgiving for wasting their time for 400 pages. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, just that it needs to be done well.

  • SiSi,

    You can find James’s “To The East, A Bright Star” in his collection “There Is No Wheel.” The whole book is worth reading. In the interest of full disclosure, I bought several of those stories for original publication in IGMS and wrote the book’s introduction, so I am terribly biased towards it and James’s work.

    I agree with you that a poorly managed twist can alienate a reader from future works. It speaks to a resulting lack of trust. Trust is absolutely vital between a reader and the author. I’d say then that keeping the twist effective is a matter of staying honest. It’s a tricky balancing act. Write only what’s truth and let the reader’s imagination take them in the wrong direction. Much easier said than done.

  • Such a great post! This distills all of these elements. I’ve always thought of a twist as something shocking and stunning when you see it, but utterly unavoidable and necessary in retrospect. So when it happens the reader (or watcher) is caught in a “wait, what?!?!” but then after a moment (or a re-reading) says “oh, of course, it had to be that way….” and “the clues were ALWAYS there for me to see and I didn’t see them because I was looking the other direction, or I read them wrong, or I followed the normal rules, not thinking that the normal rules didn’t apply, even if I’d been told the normal rules didn’t apply.”

    It’s NEVER because the author didn’t give the reader some piece of vital information that they would have had otherwise and had no other way of knowing. Like the MC has a twin no one ever mentioned. Or there was someone else in the house all along. And it must NEVER violate the rules of world. (That is, suddenly Sherlock can fly when he never could before and no one else ever could and no one else ever will be able to or something).

    The trick with a twist is the audience, for the most part, MUST be able to figure it out. Done well, most of them won’t. And done really well, the ones that do figure it out will be impressed anyway.

  • Thanks. Emily. You’re exactly right about what makes twists work, and doubly so about the fact that it’s inevitable that some readers will figure it out. The harder you try to fool 100% of the readers, the more likely you are to do something foolish and annoy them.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay. Thank you Edmund. You’ve given us a fabulous explanation and example of hook versus big idea. I’m going to have to hang onto this post for quite a while. Of course, now I despair of every producing something with such cool cohesion as your example, but without aspirations, where would we be?

    I’ve still got a lot of thought-chewing to do about twists, though, since for the most-part I’m less interested in the complete-turn-around style twists ala Sixth Sense (yes, excellent movie, but not something I want all the time.) However, I’ve recently been re-watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and have been reminded that that one comes with two twists, one that comes more as an Aha! (Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew) and one that’s given more of a slow unwinding but is still pretty darned cool (turning back time). I like the slow unwinding because it allows everyone to savor the ramifications of the twist, but then I worry about making my own ideas cool enough to warrant that kind of a treatment.

  • Nice post, and something that should be bookmarked, IMO. You know, I read this and then went back to look at your advice on your “First 200 Words” post (and another rejection letter I received for my short story for exposition recently), I’m taking another critical look at the beginning of Taera’s Hope and doing another rewrite. Not sure where else to send it at this point in the rejection game, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. That’s always been my motto, anyway. I’ll figure something out. Great info. 🙂

  • Oops. Hit comma by mistake. Where’s the edit feature when ya need it…

  • Heps,

    I understand your concerns, but if I could give you one overarching piece of advice, it’s to write as much as possible and give yourself permission to make as many mistakes as possible. There’s no better teacher in the word.

  • Daniel,

    I don’t know how may times you’ve rewritten “Taera’s Hope,” but there does come a point where you need to learn the lesson but let the story go. As I said, I don’t know where you are in the process with this story, but you mentioned being at a certain “point in the rejection game” and I wanted to put it out there. It’s hard advice to give and harder advice to take, but there it is.

  • Heh! Yeah, I don’t think it’s time to give it up, but with it’s length (almost 9k words), it limits where I can send it. And the fact that I got some actual feedback the last place I sent it regardless of rejection, I think it deserves another critical look. I honestly hadn’t done anything with it after following your advice on the 200 word thing until recently when I heard of a new e-mag looking for subs. It’s got a shaky opening. I’ll admit that. Just looking at it after evolving with my last few works, I can see the things that might be why the rejections have occurred. I think it’s still got life. Just need to shop around some more. And learn more of the craft of writing solid short stories. I suspect I’m far better at writing novels and novellas. 😉

  • And there’s that desire for an edit button again… 😉

  • If you’re getting personalized feedback you’re already ahead of 80-90% of the crowd. I’d agree with you that it’s probably not be time to shelve it just yet.

  • quillet

    This is marvellous. I’ve read it twice already, and will doubtless read it again. It sounds like the twist — if you have one — needs to have an inevitability to it. Not just a twist for twist’s sake, but something the story earns.

    Yep, wheels are turning in my head now. Always a good thing. 🙂

  • Thanks, Q. Setting wheels in motion always makes me happy.

  • Edmund, Like Quillet, I’ve read this several times. This is totally brilliant. Clear, concise, excellent in every way. Thank you.
    Now, I shall rewrite the opening to the first novel in the new series.

  • Razziecat

    In reading this and then going back and re-reading the previous post, I see that I actually had the Big Idea and the Hook reversed in my mind. This post makes it all very clear, and has me rethinking several stories. Yay! Thanks Edmund!