One of the scariest questions for a writer is: “What’s your book about?”
After the wide-eyed panic sets in, you may stutter a longwinded, half-coherent attempt at an explanation. But soon, your friend’s eyes glaze over, and he responds with a kind (but frankly, insincere): “Sounds interesting!”
Yeah, that isn’t how you sell a book.
You know this. But it doesn’t make finding your story’s hook any easier. And it only becomes more important when it’s time to pitch your manuscript to agents or sell it to readers. (Yikes!!)
What can a frustrated, hookless writer like yourself do?
Have no fear! Today I am here to help. Here are three steps that have helped me find hooks for my stories.
Step 1: Think “interesting”, not “important.”
The first thing you want to do is forget plot. For that matter, forget synopsizes, summaries, and everything you think is important about your story.
Your job right now isn’t to tell the story. Your job is to entice people to want to know more.
Ask yourself: What is the single most interesting thing about my story? If you’re not sure, keep reading, because I’ll show you how to find it in a minute.
Meanwhile, let that question ruminate in your mind. And remember, the goal is simplicity. You want a single, sticky concept; something people can remember and repeat, after only hearing it once.
Step 2: Try different forms.
One of the best ways to write a hook is to ask, “What if?” In other words, find the most unique aspect of your story and frame it as an irresistible question.
Here are a few examples:
- Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine: “What if the Great Library of Alexandria survived and controlled the world today?”
- The Bourne Identity: “What if a man with amnesia forgot he was a highly-trained assassin?”
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “What if a lawyer in the 1930s defended a black man against a rape charge, despite the prejudice of his Southern neighbors?”
As you tweak your question, choose words that evoke emotion and that hint at the story’s tone (“library,” “assassin,” “prejudice”), in addition to arousing your audience’s curiosity.
Another way to write your hook is to compare your story to other stories. Are there any movies or games that have similar plots or genres? If the answer is “yes,” don’t be afraid that your story isn’t original; every story in existence has a twin somewhere. That’s a good thing! It makes it easier to convey your story’s idea very quickly, because you’ll be working off of feelings and experiences your audience already has.
A few examples:
- Alien: “Jaws on a spaceship.”
- Divergent: “The Matrix meets The Hunger Games.”
- The Rebel of Mosoria: (my own WIP novella :P) “Braveheart meets Unbroken.”
Step 3: Practice fearlessly.
Friends, this is where the real work happens.
This is also where it gets scary.
The only way to really know if your pitch is working is by testing it on real people. This can also be a way to find your hook in the first place (as I’ll explain in the section below).
You have to practice. A lot.
When you do, remember: people are generally nice. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. So, as much you may want to hear compliments, you should completely disregard what people say in response to your pitches.
Instead, watch their reactions. Do their eyes glaze over? Do they perk up? Do they remain neutral? Eyes tell the truth! Pay close attention to how people respond to different words and cues. And keep pitching. Adjust your wording each time until you finally have people intrigued for the duration of your pitch.
Seeing it in action: The story of a pitch.
It took me at least two or three years to find the hook for Emergence. I started the process long before I even wrote the book, back when it was just a vague idea simmering in my mind.
At first, my hooks were horrible. I sought out friends who were both painfully honest and hard to please, and kept trying different approaches on them. “That’s boring,” I’d hear. “That’s cliché. I don’t care.”
It became a challenge. I knew if I could intrigue my picky friends, I’d be good to go.
So I kept trying.
I ended up finding the hook on accident. One day, I was giving someone a longwinded summary of my plot, and I saw the familiar boredom in his eyes as I rambled on and on. At the end, I added as an afterthought, “…and then they begin to wonder if they’re fighting for the wrong side.”
Immediately, his eyes perked up. “That’s interesting!” he said, and meant it. “Tell me when it’s ready. I’d like to read it.”
The next time, I cut away all the plot descriptions and jumped right to that ending. “My book is about a group of teenagers that get caught up in a war, but begin to wonder if they’re fighting for the wrong side.”
This hook establishes the tone and audience (“teenagers,” “war”), it asks a question (which side will they choose?), and it’s short and to the point.
And guess what?
I’ve used this pitch dozens of times, and it hasn’t failed me yet.
Keep experimenting. The more you practice pitching, the closer you come to finding that perfect hook. You can find a hook for your story. Think simplicity. Think similarities. And don’t give up.
Let’s start practicing now! 🙂 I know this defeats the whole point of watching people’s reactions in real life, but the Internet has another advantage: Because we can’t see each other’s faces, we tend to be a little more honest.
So, take a deep breath, and start pitching in the comments below!
Take a minute to read other people’s pitches, too. Let them know what you think. Are you intrigued? Could their hooks be expressed in fewer words? Or maybe they’re just not there yet?
Be honest, be brave, and have fun!
P.S. To anyone who caught the subtle, visual pun in my featured image… *winks* *fist-bumps*