Friday, July 22, 2011

Does a Book Need a Hook?

An orphan explores his magical powers at a school for wizards. Twins discover they are really genies. Death narrates a World War II story. The young descendants of Sherlock Holmes tackle one of his unsolved cases. A boy discovers a world of monsters, where he has superpowers. Twins deal with pirates, some of them vampires.

A hook—in this case the “high concept” idea—can grab the reader’s attention and make a book stand out. Here are the books with the above hooks.

        Harry Potter series, by J. K Rowling
        Children of the Lamp series, by P. B. Kerr
        The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
        The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett
        Billy Hooten, Owlboy, by Thomas E. Sniegoski
        Vampirates, by Justin Somper 

Do you need a hook? Well, in today’s competitive market, it sure doesn’t hurt. It’s a quick way to summarize your idea for an editor or agent, handy for writing conferences. So how do you figure out what yours is—or if you have one?

One option is comparisons—I So Don’t Do Mysteries was described as Nancy Drew with a Devil Meets Prada makeover by the publisher sales team trying to sell the book to bookstores and libraries. After Die Hard, action movies were often described as “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a boat.”

On the jacket flap, books often used an “except” or “but” twist. The second part is the twist on a common plot. — A woman thinks her ex-husband is going to try to kill her, but he kidnaps her daughter instead.

If your book isn’t trendy, don’t despair. What hooks the reader is individual to that reader. Some may read any book set in a certain time or place, or love talking animals. Don’t try to make your book sound like it fits some hot trend, if it doesn’t. Instead try to hook your readers. Who are your target readers, and what will draw them to this book?

A good hook is simple and short—sometimes it’s referred to as a one-sentence synopsis or an elevator pitch (from the idea that you might have 30 seconds in an elevator to grab an editor’s attention). It’s not long-winded, where you are trying to cram everything into one run-on sentence. The hook doesn’t necessarily tell you the plot, but it gives you the flavor of the book and arouses interest. It may be simply the premise.

EXERCISE: For practice, name a favorite or recent book—how would you describe it to a friend? Would you pick it up if you heard that description?

EXCERCISE: Write a simple synopsis of your work. Don’t worry about length or clarity. Jot down the who, what, when, where and why. Now you have some idea of the most interesting aspects of the work. Time to turn it into a one-sentence synopsis with your hook.

To start focusing on your hook, ask, What is the conflict, in terms of X versus Y?

        A girl in ancient Egypt battles a mysterious prince as she hunts for her missing friend (The Eyes of Pharaoh)
        A Mayan girl challenges the high priest trying to take over her city (The Well of Sacrifice)
        A shy historian races thieves for a long-lost treasure (Rattled)

Once you have your hook, you can expand upon that one-sentence synopsis for a query letter or longer conversation.


  1. I love the exercise of trying to write hooks for well-known books. It really does help you learn how to write them for your own books.

  2. Nice explanation of what exactly a hook is supposed to accomplished, and some very good examples. I like the exercises, too. I'm tweeting this post.