A couple weeks ago, a friend who writes edgy, contemporary fiction said that she didn’t think she could write a story with a “hook”– and didn’t think she wanted to.
I got her point–books that lend themselves to an elevator pitch often feel blatantly commercial, and my friend doesn’t want to compromise her art.
But, at the same time, I felt that she didn’t get that a hook is just a tool, and all books need them.
As Tami Lewis Brown says, “Nobody will ever know your novel is complex or interesting or well written or anything else if they don’t read it. And the only way to get a potential reader to pick an unknown book up and open the cover is to give them a tempting hint of what they’ll find inside.”
So, this is for “e” with her unique stories and point of view, and all those writers out there who don’t think they have or need a hook.
I’ve called in three experts to help define what a hook is, what it does, and how you can craft one. Lending their wisdom and expertise are author Tami Lewis Brown, Greenhouse Literary agent and founder Sarah Davies, and Editorial & Publishing Consultant with drydenbks (www.drydenbks.com), Emma Dryden.
What the heck’s a hook, anyway?
Hooks Capture the Story
A hook is quite simply a phrase or sentence or two that capture the story and entice a reader to buy it whether that reader is an agent, an editor, or a ten-year-old boy.
Many people think of a hook as “Well Known Book meets Well Known Book,” but a hook is more than that. Sarah Davies describes a hook as a “distillation,” a “unique summing up,” or a “shorthand term for getting the story across.”
Putting on my bookseller hat, one of my favorite hooks is “Female Indiana Jones” for THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS by R. LeFevers. It conveys the main character’s dynamic spirit and her archeological adventure. It’s just three words, but every kid I tell it to goes, “Wow.”
As Emma Dryden says this type of phrase hooks the reader by “ making a book feel familiar to a reader based on information and a frame of reference they already have.”
But a hook doesn’t need a film reference or to be expressed as “Well Known Book meets Well Known Book” to be effective. In fact, a completely different type of hook is needed for books that aren’t “high concept” books.
Dryden explains. “Hooks can also be universally understood emotionally-charged ideas that drive a story, such as “the search for home” or “the journey towards self reliance” or “the search for love and acceptance,” or things of that nature.”
A great example of this is Tami Lewis Brown’s hook for her literary middle grade THE MAP OF ME. “Two sisters, one stolen car, and a whole flock of chickens.”
I love this hook, because it expresses how this is a story of family, larceny, and desperation, and it intrigues me with a tantalizingly odd promise of chickens. Brown succeeds in conveying not just the core of the plot, but also the “vibe” of the story.
Clearly, a hook can’t communicate everything about a book. As Tami says, “The novel is a whole lot more than that- it’s a melancholy journey of self discovery, a coming of age story, a tale of loss and redemption, and as I struggled to write it, maybe even a meditation on how spare language can convey intense emotion. But yeah, it boils down to two desperate sisters driving a stolen car to the International Poultry Hall of Fame.”
Hooks Entice Readers
Like I said, the main job of the hook is to get someone to read your book. The first person you want to attract is an agent.
Sarah Davies lays it out. “Every book needs some kind of angle; something that makes it different. If I described a contemporary YA novel as ‘Another story about a girl who has difficult things happen to her but ultimately grows up into a better person’, you wouldn’t feel very excited, would you? But I have vague pitches like that arriving every day in my submissions inbox…I can see 25-50 queries per day. I want to be made to sit up, eagerly. That doesn’t necessitate something wacky and bizarre or over the top. Just a clear, strong, different idea pitched in an enticing way.”
But you’re not just trying to entice an agent. Your hook’s next job is to motivate editors and publisher sales departments to sign your book, because they’re excited, and they can easily identify the market for your story. And perhaps more importantly, they can see there isn’t another book like it on their list or in the market.
Next, your hook can sell the publisher’s sales force on the book. You need your book to get on bookstore shelves–and when the publisher’s sales people are excited, and hand a great book and hook to a bookseller, that helps get your book into a reader’s hands.
Hooks Guide Writers
Most importantly, a hook is a tool for the writer as well.
As Sarah Davies says, “ I think every story has to have some kind of hook or it will splodge along rather tediously.”
A hook isn’t just a way to get the story across to others, it’s a strong concept that underlies a story, and guides how you write and revise it.
Two key questions to ask yourself according to Davies, “What is your story ABOUT? And is it ABOUT something that makes it unique from all the other stories out there?”
She explains that the hook is the essence of the story boiled down into one or two sentences. If an author can step back and objectively look at their plot and where it is going, it will help them identify where their hook lies and allow them to be able to work with their hook and craft outwards from it.
We’ve all seen or written manuscripts that have meandered around or gone off on tangents or spent way too much time with the wrong character. Stepping back from our stories and asking “What is this story ABOUT?” and “How is it unique?” can keep us focused as we creatively explore.
Davies also offers two more questions to guide you through the creative process: “Do you know WHY you are writing this story? And very importantly, do you know what you are trying to SAY through the story?”
The why and the what. Answering why you are writing it will connect you to the passion driving you to write this story. What you want to say will focus the story itself.
Tomorrow: Crafting Your Hook