Four Steps for Writing a Tantalizing Hook for Your Book
By Deborah Halverson
We all know part of being a writer is telling the world about our stories. In person, at conferences, on social media and in book blurb copy. But going about that “telling” can be challenging. Too often I’ve heard writers decry their ability to sum up their books and then burrow into a long description of the plot and characters. Rarely are their listeners looking for such a full recap when they ask, “What’s your book about?” More likely, those listeners are seeking a soundbite that’ll tell them the book’s premise and why they should be interested in it. Being a novelist, I totally get that it’s hard to reduce your 100,000-word story into a soundbite that’ll do it justice. But I’m also an editor going on two decades of writing jacket blurbs and catalog copy, and pitching books to editorial boards and to sales reps who then pitch them to their bookbuyers, and helping writers draft their query letters for submission to agents and editors. Along the way I’ve developed a process for writing these soundbites—these “hook” statements—and I’d like to share that process with you, in two sets of four.
First Set: Four Things Your Hook Should Do for You
A hook statement is an informative, tantalizing sentence of about forty words or less that distinguishes your novel for readers, editors, and agents. (And for yourself, too—but more on that in a moment.) Your hook will tell people
1. what your story is about
2. why your story is a fresh approach to its subject
3. where your story fits in the marketplace
4. who your audience is (It won’t be “everyone who reads NA”; don’t fall into that pitfall belief. Some NA readers want adventure, some want character-driven plots, some want mushy stuff, some want humor, some want drama...your story may be great, but it’s not great for everyone. Identifying your true target audience will help you sculpt a hook that’ll, well, hook that audience.)
Above all, your hook is your place to proclaim what makes your story different. Notice I didn’t say it “describes” your story. If you think of the hook as a mini summary, you’re in danger of overwhelming yourself because there’s a lot of super stuff in your story and trying to cram it all into forty words will make you insane. You want to highlight your distinct specifics in order to pop your story out from other stories with the same theme.
And there will be plenty of others with the same theme. Consider how many stories about love exist in the world. Oodles! But there’s only one story about a garbage guy who writes sonnets at night and hooks up with a girl who can travel to Shakespeare’s England thanks to a genetic mutation. In a hook, the details matter tremendously.
A hook is as much a craft tool as a promotional tool. Craftwise, formulating this concise statement early in the process can help you shape your story, keeping you focused through months of writing and making you confident that you’re crafting something with distinct elements. That’s why I said the hook is for you, too. If your story is already written, you can still write a hook to use in your blurbs and in social media—and which your happy readers can then cut-and-paste into their own social media.
Okay, enough with the abstract. I like examples when I’m learning, so here are some sample hooks I crafted for my book Writing New Adult Fiction. Both hooks have the same basic story premise—normal people saving the President’s life—but their specifics reveal vital differences about the stories’ genres, market niches and audiences, themes, plots, and character journeys:
Sample #1 - A shy Georgetown student saves the President from a backpack bomb during a campus visit, gaining head-spinning access to dinners at the White House, parties in DC mansions, and the hottest guy on Earth—the President’s twenty-three-year-old son. (35 words, contemporary romance)
Sample #2 - A chef’s apprentice at the Waldorf-Astoria who’d rather study Mozart is assigned to serve FDR on a secret train below the hotel, where he’s shocked to find a beautiful chambermaid being set up as the patsy for an assassination attempt. (40 words, historical thriller)
Neither of these examples employs generic hyperbole like So-and-So saves the world or So-and-So risks everything for love. Hyperbole is energetic and at first glance seems high-sell, but it lacks the detail to distinguish the story from others in the marketplace. Hyperbole is peppy, but it doesn’t pop out your book.
Second Set: Four Steps for Creating Your Hook
My entire purpose as an editor is to support writers, and I’d be one ecstatic editor if every writer could feel confident articulating what it is that makes her book distinct. No decrying, no burrowing into summaries, no losing opportunities for instantly piquing your audience’s interest. I hope that by sharing these four steps with you, you’ll be able to walk your story through them and then pare down and tighten the result for a truly tantalizing hook.
1. Introduce your main character(s). Tell us your protagonist’s personality and age or affiliation, as I did in Sample #1 when I identified my female protagonist as a shy Georgetown student. You name names and ages explicitly if you like how that personalizes the characters. Work in traits or character circumstances that’ll factor into the main conflict of the book.
2. Convey your theme. Reveal the internal battle your protagonist will wage. You can overtly state your theme(s), or you can imply them within the character set-up. In both of my samples, evil torpedoes innocence, naïve characters dig for courage, and romance is in the air. Sample #1 also suggests social awakening as a theme, and Sample #2 suggests the power of music as a theme. Remember, themes are generally universal; you customize for your story when you assign your unique character journeys and plotlines to them.
3. Reveal your core plot conflict or goal. Show readers that you’re offering a fresh take on your chosen universal theme(s). Identify your main conflict, let us know what your character wants most of all or fears more than anything, and shed some light on the Big Obstacle your character will encounter. Sample hook #1 shows us a heroine falling for a fella who lives comfortably in a social scene that’s way over her head. Sample #2 promises a conspiracy that must be thwarted and a girl and a president who must be saved.
4. Add context. It’s time to slip in the distinguishing details. What vital contextual information do you need to call out? Location? Era? Age? Race? You can be literal with the details, as I was with the secret train under the Waldorf-Astoria. Or you can suggest them I did by naming the specific President as FDR—we instinctively fear for the important things we know FDR did during his presidency. If he’d been assassinated, the repercussions throughout the country and world history would be profound. Also, not only are this apprentice’s passion and job clearly mismatched, there’s probably some class issues in play for this lowly worker who craves the world of classical music that Mozart represents. Step 4 is also the time to massage the hook’s language in order to inject personality, such as using the word flub instead of risk to hint at the playful nature of the story.
There you have it—four steps. Work through those and you’ve got your hook. Informative, tantalizing, and concise—even Tweetable in its entirety if you can really pare it down. Put it on your back cover, use it to lead your e-retailer descriptions, throw it into social media play, use it at conferences or when networking one-on-one. Hook in hand, now it’s time to tell the world about your story.
About the Book
Foreword by Sylvia Day
"For the writer who wants to become a new adult author, or the new adult author who seeks to enrich her craftsmanship and stand out from the herd.” –Tammara Webber, New York Times best-selling author of Easy and Breakable
From Sylvia Day’s Bared to You to Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, new adult fiction has arrived—and it’s hotter than ever. But there’s more to this category than its 18- to 26-year-old characters: The success of your story depends on authentically depicting the transition of your young protagonists from teenhood into adulthood. With Writing New Adult Fiction, you’ll learn how to capture the spirit of freedom, self-discovery, and romance that defines the new adult experience.
- Create memorable characters that act and sound like new adults.
- Sculpt a distinct personality for your fiction with POV, voice, tone, and word choices.
- Build a unique, captivating plot that satisfied your audience from beginning to end.
- Learn tools for revising effectively and efficiently in a speed-driven market.
- Weight the options for your path to publication: traditional, indie, and hybrid.
About Deborah Halverson
Deborah Halverson spent a decade editing books for Harcourt Children's Books before becoming the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, Writing New Adult Fiction, the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, a picture book and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers. She is now a freelance editor, author, writing instructor, and the founder of the popular writers’ advice site DearEditor.com. Deborah also serves on the advisory board for UC San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program. She speaks extensively at workshops and conferences for writers and edits adult fiction and nonfiction while specializing in teen fiction, New Adult fiction, and picture books. For more about Deborah, visit www.DeborahHalverson.com.
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