What do you want more than anything as a writer? (Again, millions of dollars in income is out of the question. I don’t know who keeps spreading that ridiculous rumor) Someone to read your work. You accomplish that by submitting queries (also known as pitches or proposals, depending on the genre you’re writing in) to agents and editors. And, depending on the submission guidelines, you include the first few chapters of your book with your cover letter. But before the hapless victim dives into your genius, they’re going to read your ONE-PAGE letter and look for a key element (no, it’s not the endorsement from your mom): the hook. If you haven’t delivered on that, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your chapters might be – odds are they’ll pass. Because you’ve failed on one of the most crucial building blocks of writing.
What is a hook?
At its most basic, the hook is your elevator pitch written out. You whittle your book into one sentence – make that one interesting sentence. It’s your five-second chance to snag the agent or editor’s attention and convince them it’s worth their time to read not only the remainder of your query but those sample chapters. (Not to mention send out a request for the full manuscript)
And there are a couple of ways to craft them (depending on your genre):
- Summarize the major plot points
- Pose a question relating to your predominant theme
- Use your most outstanding comps
- Spotlight a character’s most unusual traits
- Focus on the setting
Word count doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t get beyond two sentences MAX. (Remember, this is a quick summary, NOT a blurb) And there’s no wrong way to approach the hook. You’re just trying to generate interest and attention. If you do so – without verging into the realm of lies (think clickbait for novels) – you’re golden.
The Elements of a Good Hook
Obviously, you can approach your hook however you want. But there are a few things an agent or editor expect to see. Particularly if you’re a writer they’ve never heard of or spoken to about this project before. (That’s going to be most people out there, FYI)
You want to get your main character in there. You don’t need to mention them by name; providing details about them (especially if that’s more interesting) works fine. But people need to know who they’re going to follow throughout the narrative.
If you have multiple characters who share the story, skip it and move on to the next key element: the major problem. Yes, you’re proud of that secondary quest you threw into Chapter Seven. But it doesn’t apply to the overarching problem. So leave it out of the hook (you’ll get to write about it in the synopsis, don’t worry). What is THE ISSUE your character (or cast) is struggling to deal with?
Finally, what’s the setting? This doesn’t need to be a long, drawn-out description (we’re trying to save on sentences). But you want to have a suggestion in there of what unreal qualities you’ve crafted. Or what era you’re writing in. Or why readers will want to keep the lights on. Yes, you’ll have mentioned your genre elsewhere in your letter, but this hint sets you aside from everyone else writing for the same shelf space. What do you have that’s different from everyone else?
Start at the Beginning
Now, plenty of writing advice goes into developing the hook for query/pitch letters. And you do need to have it at that point. But I advocate for sitting down and writing out your hook earlier.
Realistically, you need to sketch out at least a rudimentary hook before you type so much as “Chapter One” in a document. (Yes, I’m serious)
Let’s think about it. Those one to two sentences contain a shocking amount of information. They identify the most important details of the book. You can pull your theme out. Odds are you’ll even wrangle comps from the writing process.
As you write, that hook can help keep you from veering off-track from your original vision.
So, yes, I want you to sit down and figure it out as soon as you get a new idea for a book. Ask yourself how you’d pitch the idea to an editor. Then write it on a notecard and prop it against your monitor. If you’re a plotter, print it across your outline. If you’re a pantser, show it to your characters when they attempt to go rogue. (It probably won’t do much good, but it’ll at least make you feel like you tried)
Every time you get stuck or find yourself at a loss, that hook will remind you what your goal was. No, it won’t give you the answer to, “What am I supposed to be doing in this chapter?” but it will tell you, “So-and-so is fighting for this,” and give you an idea of where you need to meditate.
Will you need to do some revision once the book’s finished? Of course. But not as much as if you were starting from scratch. (To say nothing of the help it provided along the way)
“I Have to Know!”
I hated writing hooks when I first started writing. Distill my 96,000 words into ONE SENTENCE? Impossible! (Of course, I also stumbled over how to describe my books, period) Couldn’t agents and editors just read my brilliance and come up with the tag lines themselves?
It took participating in hook-writing contests and reading thousands of examples to finally understand the process. And realize they weren’t as horrible as I was making them out to be. Then I worked with a mentor who told me to write one on a new project.
“But I haven’t even written the book yet!” The idea was pure insanity.
Except it wasn’t. I had the idea planned out in my mind. I already knew where the story had come from (will you look at that? Comps!), and without an outline, I had a rough story arc ready to go (boom! Major problem!). Despite all my protests, I was able to cobble together a hook in less than 30 minutes.
And it helped when I started writing.
Any time I stalled, I went back to it, remembering the thought process I’d put in. What had I said? Were there other comps I’d considered? How else had I phrased things? Was there another event I’d scrapped in favor of the one I’d written? (Hint: Keep all of your drafts. You never know what might come in handy!)
Yes, I ended up rewriting my final hook. But I also put the original to work throughout my writing.
And not starting from square one? Yeah, made the query letter much easier.
Give it a try. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.