3 Steps to Finding Your Story’s Hook

3 Steps to Finding Your Story’s Hook

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.

Ink and Bone book covera) “What if…?”

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.

Divergent book coverb) “X” meets “X.”

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 EmergenceI 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.

Group of people talking at a restaurant

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.”

Hmm.

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.

Conclusion

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.

For discussion…

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*

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34 Responses

  1. Bethany A. Jennings
    | Reply

    Great tips! Over time I realized that when someone who’s not a speculative-fiction lover asks about the book, the human element is what’s most interesting and most universal. So I’ll usually say,

    “It’s about a young man hiding his double life as a soldier in another world, because if his sister finds out she’ll have her memory erased and it will destroy her brain.”

    If I was pitching to a speculative fiction lover, I might spin it more like:

    “It’s about a group of humans who live secret double lives as soldiers in another world, protecting Earth from invasion.”

    I’ve found “double life” tends to pique interest, as does saying it’s a “blend of portal fantasy and space opera.” 🙂

    • K.T. Ivanrest
      | Reply

      I wonder if you could combine the two pitches? I really like the brother-sister element from the first, but “hiding his double life as a soldier in another world”, while really awesome, also sounds kind of passive–like, what else is happening in the story other than him hiding his secret from his sister? On the other hand, the second one loses the focus on the protag and his struggle because of its wider focus on invasion.

    • Shannon Noel Brady
      | Reply

      Hi Bethany! I’m a fan of speculative fic, but I actually liked the first pitch more. It’s a unique concept with a sense of danger that hits home, while the invasion of earth is a more common element among stories. I second KT’s suggestion about combining the two. Sounds like you’ve got an awesome story!

      • Bethany A. Jennings
        | Reply

        Thanks K.T. and Shannon! 🙂 Oops…maybe I should have elaborated more. I guess I was thinking a one-sentence pitch, but usually if I’m talking to someone in person I’ll lead with one sentence or the other, and then go on to elaborate more in a way that tells about both. So I was showing two different ways I might lead into a longer pitch. Hmm. I don’t want it to sound rehearsed, but if I combined ALL my “pitchy” info into one sentence in person it might come out kind of like this:

        “It’s a science-fantasy book about a teenage guy who joins a secret war in another world to protect Earth from invasion, but he has to hide his double life from his sister, because her memory of that world has already been erased once, and a second time would destroy her brain.”

        Better? 😀

        • Brianna da Silva
          | Reply

          Bethany, thanks for sharing your pitch! ^_^ I think I agree the others here; the first one grabs me more. “Double life as a soldier in another world” totally gets my attention, and I think it establishes the genre well enough. “If his sister finds out… it will destroy her brain” reaches me on an emotional level. Now there are family relationships involved, and that tells me it’s not just a fun ride, but also a gripping story! (#winning)

          The second pitch is less personal, and I’m not sure you even need to say “protecting Earth from invasion,” because that’s in so many stories… so why should it interest me? You might say that in a longer synopsis, but probably not in an elevator pitch.

          The combination you wrote there is a bit too wordy for a hook… good material for a back cover, though! 😉 “Double life.” “Soldier in another world.” “Protecting sister.” These ideas are all very personal and emotive, and the combination is unique and memorable. In my opinion, I’d say stick with the first one! 😉

          • Bethany A. Jennings
            |

            Thanks, Brianna! Do you think the first pitch is too passive, though? Does it need the “stakes” of Earth being in danger to feel urgent enough? 🙂

          • Brianna da Silva
            |

            Not at all! On the contrary, I would say the stakes feel higher when they are personal. 🙂 I’m more intrigued about a soldier defending his sister than about him defending the world. (That seems backwards, but that’s human nature for you! ;D) But I would encourage you to keep testing the pitch and see if that continues to ring true!

  2. K.T. Ivanrest
    | Reply

    I like Bethany’s distinction between describing your book to someone who doesn’t read your genre versus someone who does. My pitch, such as it is, usually stars with “It’s a fantasy novel” so they know the genre right away.

    I’m at least half pantser, so my story’s very much developing, but my current pitch is:

    “It’s about two friends who bond their souls together, then accidentally start a revolution while trying to reverse the unintended consequences.”

    …or something.

    • Bethany A. Jennings
      | Reply

      Ha! That premise sounds awesome and I would totally check that book out. 😀

      • Brianna da Silva
        | Reply

        Kate, I’m going to agree with Bethany here and say that hook is awesome. :O “Friends bonding their souls together” = relationships + emotions (check). “Accidentally start a revolution… trying to reverse the unintended consequences” = O.O funny + original (because usually characters start revolutions on purpose!!).

        In other words, I am intrigued, too!

  3. Shannon Noel Brady
    | Reply

    Excellent article, Brianna! These are really good tips. How would you suggest describing the hook for character-driven general fiction? Stories where the interpersonal and emotional elements are the main focus?

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks, Shannon! And that’s a great question. I think you should narrow it down to the emotion. What is the main interpersonal conflict that takes place between your characters? Relationships (of all kinds) are very intriguing on a core human level, especially when conflict and love (and not just romantic love) is involved. So, what are the emotional stakes? And what is unique about this specific interpersonal conflict? Tug at your listener’s heartstrings a little, and you’ll have them. 🙂

  4. […] Steps to Finding Your Story’s Hook (Brianna de Silva) – Good tips on that nerve wracking thing – talking to people about your story! […]

  5. Sara L.
    | Reply

    Great post, Brianna! I agree that the thought of pitching – or figuring out how to distill your story down to a single sentence – is intimidating. But once you find one and start practicing it on other people, it really helps to know if

    Here’s a one-sentence pitch I have for my WIP:

    “The Keeper’s Curse is a YA epic fantasy about a 17-year-old Fey diplomat who is assigned on a mission to help the race who killed her parents.”

    It might need more honing, but that’s definitely what the story is about, without getting into specifics.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks, Sara! You’re so right; it really helps once you start practicing on other people.

      As for your pitch: Wow, excellent job at concisely nailing the genre, audience, tone, and plot all in one breath! 🙂 It works, but I do think it could shine even more with a slightly stronger emotional punch. The fact that she has to help the race who killed her parents is interesting and has a lot of emotional potential, but what if you brought that out more? Is she secretly planning vengeance even as she has to help her enemies? Or maybe tell us a little more about the mission itself, because I admit I’m curious to know more about it. Is it a dangerous mission? What kind of stakes are involved? Just a few more words to add another layer to the conflict will really sell it, I think. 🙂

  6. Gabrielle Emmons
    | Reply

    Hi Brianna! Great tips. I’m a panster when it comes to writing usually but I’m trying to do more outlining and planning. I write World War II historical fiction as well as other genres. I’m not very good at writing hooks and it probably needs a lot of work. So here goes.
    My book is about a daughter of a British aristocrat who wants to aid the war effort but gets more than she bargains for when she stumbles upon a German plot to take down the British government.

    Here is version two.
    My book is about a daughter of a British aristocrat in the pursuit of aiding the war effort gets more than she bargained for.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey, Gabrielle! Thanks for sharing your pitch! (And for the pingback! ^_^) Ooh, I love historical fiction. And WWII stories are always bound to hit me in the feels.

      The first version definitely intrigues me more. The phrase “… she stumbles upon a German plot to take down the British government” is interesting. But I also like how concise the second one is. Maybe some tweaking of the first pitch could help give it that shorter punch.

      Even though I’m recommending you make it a little shorter, I also feel like I’d like to know more about the character herself. Maybe just a choice adjective would do it! But I’d be curious to know maybe her age, or something unique about her personality that would stand out. That would grab my attention even more!

      Honestly, though, what you have may be just fine… this is me nitpicking! 😉

  7. […] Writing hooks can be tricky. Though I recently found a fellow author’s website where she did a blog post on writing hooks and it is really helpful. You can find it here. […]

  8. Diane Lynn
    | Reply

    I get asked the question a lot and I always scramble for the best answer to make the story sound enticing. I loved your “What if?” idea. I applied this technique and came up with a response that answers the question beautifully. Thank you!

    Diane Lynn
    http://www.thegratitudeletters.com/

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m so glad this helped you, Diane! That makes me happy to hear! ^_^

  9. A.A. Rosny
    | Reply

    I haven’t really talked to many people about my book yet since I just started preparing for it, but I have mentioned it to some close friends and now that I’ve changed to the English major at my university I should start to practice pitching my first story.
    What if:
    What if someone discovered how to combine alchemy and medical science during Victorian England?

    My book is about a young man in Victorian England whose estranged father goes missing and discovers he has been experimenting with alchemy and combined it with medical science.

    • L. Katz
      | Reply

      Hmm… The first one intrigues me, and makes me wonder the same question and also makes me want to read the book.
      The second one seems a bit longer, and makes me less curious. However, I like how you established the main character and the plot more.
      I would either choose to use the first one or combine the two? Maybe say the first one first, and then, when the other person is interested, use a mashup of the two?

      • Brianna da Silva
        | Reply

        This is good feedback! Thanks for chiming in, L. Katz. 🙂

        A: Take what we are both saying with a grain of salt… and keep pitching! She what feedback you continue to get overall! 🙂

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey, Amanda! Thanks for being brave enough to share your pitch! You have a great what-if question here, and I like the emotional aspect of the missing father. To make the hook more grabbing, though, you should give us a peek at the plot. After the main character discovers his father was experimenting with alchemy and medical science, what does he do next? Does he go hunting for his father? Does he try to finish the work he started? And why? What are the stakes? What does he have to lose? Find a way to summarize this all in a few words, of course, but I think that will make your hook a lot stronger. 🙂

      Best of luck with writing your story! It sounds like it has a great atmospheric. Or maybe I’m just biased because I like Victorian stories. 😉

  10. Kathryn
    | Reply

    What if teenagers from today found themselves in another world? Thanks for the post, I have been trying to figure out a method for the hook for five years. I really appreciate it!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey, Kathryn! I’m glad this was helpful. ^_^ Thanks for sharing your hook! I like how concise it is. To intrigue me further, though, I think I need to learn a little bit more. Who are these teenagers? What are the stakes? What is this world? Is it dangerous to them? You don’t need to answer all those questions, of course, but including some more information will help it to stand out and to get my mind spinning with questions.

      (P.S. Sorry I’m just now seeing your comment! I’ve taken a break from blogging for the last couple months. ;))

  11. Maria Hossain
    | Reply

    Hi, Brianna! Thanks so much for the tips. Very helpful. Here’s mine, I used the “what if” method.

    Hooks:

    01) What if a childhood sexually abused teen confronts his abuser to protect his little brother from meeting the same traumatic fate?

    02) What if a teen has to remind all the pain the Alzheimer suffering mother of her late favorite teacher went through, the teacher whom she accidentally killed, to forgive herself and find closure?

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hi, Maria! Sorry I’m just now responding; my blog has been on hiatus for the last two months. 😉

      I’m glad the tips were helpful! Ooh, your first hook sounds scary! :O And the second one really intrigues me. It seems high in character relationships and interesting dynamics. And they both sound very emotional. I like them! ^_^ Thanks for sharing!!

  12. azanthony
    | Reply

    This hit the nail on the head! I’ve had so much trouble with this. Great post, thanks for the insight! I’m going to give it a shot as well. Perhaps this is a bit too long, but I think it’s the most coherent summary I’ve written so far.

    “Three brothers, the Khan’s finest manhunters, are imbued with the magic of their ancestors. Many see it as a weapon, including the Khan, who desires war with the south once more. But as the brothers revel in their newfound power, they soon learn it is slowly twisting them, changing them into corrupted, primal mockeries of the men they once were.”

    Yeah…it isn’t the happiest of stories.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m so glad this was helpful! ^_^ And hey, thanks for taking a stroll through my blog and contributing your hook. 😀

      It does run a bit on the long side, which means it works better as a short summary or book blurb than a hook. But you have captured a lot in this: The genre, the characters, the inciting incident, the setting, the conflict, and the question, namely – what exactly will happen to these men as the magic corrupts them?? :O That is very intriguing! I think you should introduce that concept sooner if you’re trying to get someone intrigued very quickly.

      If you were to express this in one or two short sentences, maybe emphasize the following concepts: (1) three brothers acquire magic, (2) the Khan want to use them as weapons in war, (3) the magic begins corrupting them. See if you can string that together concisely for moments when you only have a few seconds to express your concept. 🙂

      That being said, you still did write a very good summary for the reasons I listed above. It captures a lot for only three sentences. Save it – I’m sure you’ll be able to use it in a lot of other contexts!

  13. Katerina Brown
    | Reply

    My book is about a disabled woman who is the victim of domestic abuse. She struggles to make it on her own when she leaves him.

  14. A.S. Akkalon
    | Reply

    Hi Brianna!

    I know I’m really late to the party, but this is such a great post, and I want to share my attempts. Two alternatives, both for the same book.

    A girl who is a renowned gladiator is possessed by a daimon that makes her heal people at the touch, or kill them.

    A girl who’s an exiled gladiator only wants to go home, but to do so she has to uncover why the kingdom’s dragon allies have turned against it, and win back their loyalty.

    Alecia

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey Alecia! My first impressions are more favorable towards the first version. It’s short, it catches my attention, and it gets my mind spinning. What would it be like to have that blessing/curse? What kind of disasters will this person experience while trying to do good? Also, she’s a girl, and a gladiator, so that’s cool! But the daimon part is what really gets my attention. Hope that helps! 🙂

      • A.S. Akkalon
        | Reply

        That does help, thanks! I like the snappiness of the first version too. My main issue with it is that it makes no mention of dragons. 🙂

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