Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How to Craft a Great Hook

First of all, allow me to express my shock that Bachelor Andy Baldwin chose Tessa over Bevin, who was so into our favorite officer/gentlemen I think she was a few one on one dates away from starting an Andy-based religion. Don't get me wrong, I like Tessa just fine, she seems like she'd be a fine person to go bowling with, but towards the end she kind of looked like a caged animal searching for an escape route. She tried just about everything to get herself eliminated short of assaulting Andy and demanding that he pick someone else, although honestly, I'm not sure even that would have worked because it seemed like she was pretty much the coolest person that Andy had ever dated and he was stunned by the mere experience of being in her presence.

So.... wow.

Anyway, one thing you always hear agents talk about and is repeated over and over on writing message boards is the necessity of a great hook. People always say you need a great hook for a novel. Hook hook hook, all anyone talks about is hooks. Well, let me add my two cents on the matter: you need a great hook.

A hook is what will attract an agent to your project, and, later on, a reader to your book. It's that magnet that draws people to the story and makes them want to read more. It's really essential. But what, really, is a hook?

Let's think of some great hooks in literature:

A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)**
A reclusive chocolateer opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

What do those have in common?

In order to describe what makes a great hook, let's start with what a novel really is, which is a quest. Whether it's a quest in the mind, through the jungle, through space, or through the mystical land of unpronounceable consonants (the land of unpronounceable consonants is inevitably filled with dragons and orcs), every novel is a quest that starts in one place and ends in another. And every quest needs a first step, where the character makes a decision that will change his/her life. In STORY, Robert McKee calls this the "inciting incident" -- it's the moment that propels the story forward. Ishmael joins a ship that searches for the white whale. The little engine decides that it thinks it can.

But there's more to a quest than a mere decision to embark out into the land of unpronounceable consonants. There are orcs and wraiths and demons, oh my! One of the more subtle aspects of a great hook is that it also provides the central conflict. Every character on a quest encounters obstacles along the way. The biggest conflict, whether it's between the protagonist and a villain or the protagonist and a scary world or the protagonist and himself, forms the second component of the hook. To take the hook of MOBY DICK, for instance, there's conflict between Ahab and his crew and between Ahab in the whale. And of course there's conflict between the train and the hill and the train and its self-confidence in THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.

So essentially, a hook is the quest and the central conflict, described as succinctly as possible, designed to make someone want to read more.

Keep in mind that either the quest or the conflict may be implied in a great hook. For example, "snakes on a plane" is a hook that describes the conflict (snakes vs. people), and the implied quest is to get the mother****** snakes off of the mother****** plane. It can also work the other way. "Southern family moves to France" describes the quest in FRENCH BY HEART (moving to France), and since we know there's a big difference between the American South and France, there's an implied conflict there. But whether it's implied or stated, every hook has quest and conflict.

There you have it! Sure there's a whole lot more to the story, and a hook shouldn't be confused with a plot. A hook is a premise, it's a starting point, and it's up to you to keep the reader reading once they've opened up the book.

**UPDATE: This is a wildly inaccurate description of HEART OF DARKNESS. Whoops! Conflated in my memory with Apocalypse Now.






22 comments:

Jillian said...

I've just "hooked" my way to another request for a full. Do I get a gold star? :)

Nathan Bransford said...

That's great!! Congratulations!

Christopher M. Park said...

Nathan,

All of the hook examples that you posted were pretty darn short--50 words or less, am I right? In a lot of the hook contests, hooks have been noted as being 250 words or less or 300 words or less. I know that these are upper bounds, and I try to keep my attempts at a hook more succinct than that (200-ish words), but is that still too long for your taste?

What is the range of your ideal hook, and what content do you expect to see there other than the description of the quest? A lot of online sources have noted that giving a sense of characters and hinting at their development is important, and that setting might also be noteworthy if it's unusual enough.

Are you differentiating between a one-liner "hook" and the actual pitch paragraphs of the query letter? Perhaps we're just speaking in terms of apples and oranges here.

Thanks!

Chris

David said...

That's very helpful, Nathan, and thank you for it.

Nonetheless, the idea of trying to write a hook still makes me hyperventilate.

Nathan Bransford said...

Chris-

That's interesting, I've always thought of a "hook" as being a sentence or two. So yeah, 50 words or less.

And yes, I definitely want to distinguish between a query letter and a hook. A novel should have a strong hook, but that doesn't necessarily need to be stated explicitly in the query letter. All of the things you mention (setting, characters, etc.) should be in the query letter, but they don't have to be in a hook.

Christopher M. Park said...

Nathan,
Thanks for the clarification. I think the hook contests at places like Miss Snark and Lit Agent X and Fangs, Fur, and Fey have really been more about query letters, then. All of those were a lot longer than 50 words, hence my confusion.

Chris

Nathan Bransford said...

Chris-

Yup, another problem with the publishing industry, when you say something like "hook" or "synopsis" every person will have a different idea about what that means!

Anonymous said...

We are over "The Hills" and out of that car.
The Survivor had outlasted.
Tara's model had topped.
Now, "The Bachelor".

The only thing left for Nathan and I is to go to Mo's Charm School.

I see conflict.

sylvia said...

One thing I've found quite useful on agent blogs is posts of real-live hooks and query letters that got the agent's attention.

It would be great to see what it was about French by Heart (for example) that initially caught your eye.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, great explanation, but what is the difference between the hook and the synopsis and where do both come in in the query process?
Also, is there a difference in length?

pixy said...

Anon,

I've always followed this pyramid:

Hook: Single sentence to get idea of your novel out in one punch.

Back cover: this is the sort of thing you would put in your query, a paragraph or two (200-300wds) telling the agent/editor in a quick fashion the basic plot/character arc of the novel. May or may not have a spoiler. I always prefer the hanger for the last line.

Synopsis: There can be two forms; short or long. I write one of each to have on hand. The short is usually two pages and the long about five. At least, for me. Every editor/agent is different, so you kind of have to play it by ear some times.

Proposals can have a varied combination of these, depending on guidelines.

Hope that helps. :)

Super congrats Jillian!!!! Good luck with the full.

Nathan Bransford said...

Pixy-

Great breakdown, thanks!! I'd also like to add that a query letter is its own beast and is not the same thing as a hook or synopsis. Check out the post "Anatomy of a Good Query Letter" to see how a good query letter is structured.

Dave said...

Thanks for putting the thoughts that were rattling around in head into words.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

For example, "snakes on a plane" is a hook that describes the conflict (snakes vs. people), and the implied quest is to get the mother****** snakes off of the mother****** plane.

lol
*
*
*
still lol-ing. you crack me up, Nathan.

Ditto, Pixy. That's my formula. I do include my hook in my query as the first line, but not in my synopsis.

Jillian said...

Thank you kindly, Pixy!

I ditto your breakdown. I've got 2 versions of my synopsis, too -- a 2-pager and a 5-pager. (Whew, that 2-pager was a CHALLENGE to write!!)

Actually, I like when agents don't want the synopsis. And it seems fairly evenly split between who requests it and who doesn't.

Toni Anderson said...

How sad am I that I seem to think Tessa was by far the better pick for Andy LOL.

Remember being at school when there was a guy/girl that you really liked and you were just waiting for them to notice you? And there there was this girl/guy who always wanted to go out with you? And you liked them both, but one day they BOTH said they loved YOU and couldn't live without you? Who would you have gone for?

How sad am I that I watched the entire series of The Bachelor? :)

And thank you for the hook description. A hook and a quest. Working on it.

Marva said...

Just to keep to the first subject: Tessa is a far better choice than Bevin. Tessa doesn't just give in to "love." When she says it, she means it. Besides, I'm sick of blondes.

Hooks: 50 words can describe any of a thousand bad novels. As the late, lamented Miss Snark says: the writing is everything. A hook for crappy writing is worthless.

Sarah Jackson said...

Even though this was written a season of "The Bachelor" or two ago, this is still way helpful. Jessica at the BookEnds Agency blog was kind enough to give some notes on my pitch for a round of holiday pitch critiques. Between her notes and this entry I'm feeling a lot clearer on the work I need to do.

Many thanks and Happy New Year!
-Sarah

Phil Tolhurst said...

Being a new reader of this blog that whole first paragraph flew over my head like the proverbial Imperial Galactic Fleet. However, it was a very interesting read.

Phil

Patrick said...

A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)
A reclusive chocolateer opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

Why are these great hooks? They sound like losers to me. The only reason they sound great is that we have already read the books. So I know no more about a great hook than I did before.

The hero overcomes obstacles to reach a goal. What a bore! No wonder I don't read fiction anymore. It is predictable and constrained. Nonfiction is much more free wheeling. The hero MIGHT NOT REACH HIS/HER GOAL!!! Shocking.

Confessor said...

Does a hook have to be blatantly obvious from the start of the story?

Let me elaborate. I joined a critique group, and although my writing gets regular praise, the most common thing people criticize be about is lack of a hook.

We aren't allowed to give any kind of synopsis other than the type of genre. However, I'm fairly confident that not only does my story have a hook, but it would be completely obvious with a one or two sentence synopsis.

Also, no one in my group is even close to being in my target audience, so I'm worried that in general they just "don't get it."

Nathan Bransford said...

confessor-

I would tend to side with you. It's helpful for a book to have a hook, but a common mistake I see from crit group recommendations is advocating that the author get the hook through in the first couple of paragraphs. That's not necessary. It's usually better to ease the reader into the story.

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