Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Cheer: How to Craft a Great Hook

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past.

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. Oh well.



Phil said...

Perhaps this should be linked on the sidebar near your previous posts on query-crafting. That way, when you say "include the hook in your query," people know what you mean.

Just a thought.

Parker Haynes said...

"The Little Engine That Could" Wow! That was one of the books from pre-school years, one of my tools for learning how to read--and that was sixty years ago. I was really surprised to see you mention it. I would have imagined it had long since joined the legion of the gone and barely remembered. Thanks for providing a quick flash into fond memories of childhood.

Happy Holidays! May you be blessed with everflowing eggnog and nary a hangover!

Adaora A. said...

Haha! Next year we're all going to be shocked in regards to who the single father bachelor will select when next Christmas rolls around. No that I've delighted myself with my daily read of all my favourite blogs, it's back to cooking Xmas for my parents, my twin, and whoever else might stroll in.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Marti said...

Just wanted to thank you for all you do! Your advice is always helpful and your generosity of spirit is deeply appreciated!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

clindsay said...

Still think this is one of the best blog posts you have ever done. :-)

Arovell said...

I love your examples, as people have said before. I'm reading The Heart of Darkness for my English class right now.

I love your explanations, too. I will definitely be thinking in terms of quest and conflict when I rewrite my query letter, and I think that will help me shift its emphasis. Thanks for the advice! & Happy Holidays!

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

i remember reading this blog. Great advice...

i think i have a great hook in my novel. So far, people have told me it's great, so I feel good about my novel.

BarbS. said...

Ooooo... Nathan, you wrote, "there's conflict between Ahab and his crew and between Ahab in the whale."

IN the whale? What a Freudian slip!

A great post, too. Thanks!

Oh, for cryingallnight...I got "oving"for wordver--for the second time on this blog!

Anonymous said...

Nathan Bransford wrote:
"A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)"

Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' was about the search for Kurtz, an ivory hunter and journalist who works for an unnamed company in Africa.

A man going into the jungle to search for a missing general might be 'APOCALYPSE NOW' except in the screenplay Kurtz was a colonel not a general.

I thought agents were supposed to know more about literature than this.

Usman said...

As I start my new novel, this post is going to help me organise my thoughts. Thanks.

Merry Christmas.

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha. Good catch. Of course, agents also read books as juniors in high schools and are allowed to forget things when they get older.

Also, Santa told me he's not bringing you any presents.

Anonymous said...

Poor Nathan! But that's okay. After a while, adaptations and originals tend to meld in the brain. I think the big thing to remember about H of D is that Kurtz's last words were "The horror, the horror," and the narrator tells Kurtz's fiancee that he died saying her name.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blog.
I don't know what the cost of maintaining a forum is, but I think it would suit your strengths the would allow participants to revisit old posts (like this one) 'at will', 'bumping' them to the top.
In any case, you are much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Nathan Bransford wrote:
“Ha. Good catch. Of course, agents also read books as juniors in high schools and are allowed to forget things when they get older.”

Point taken, Nathan. Another anon mentioned adaptations and originals tending to run together and I think that’s part of the problem. We forget where things came from.

It would be nice if all of us - - writers and agents alike - - were a little more aware of the origins of favorite stories, plots and styles even as they (inevitably and probably quite properly) evolve. The story of Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz told in ‘Apocalypse Now’ deriving from Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a really good example. But when was the last time you as an agent or any of us as writers really took novellas seriously? They don’t seem to be as common as in Conrad's day and that’s sad. I think the novella as a storytelling technique takes a particular discipline and just might be worth some effort as an exercise in writing if nothing else.

You also wrote:
“Also, Santa told me he's not bringing you any presents.”


Anon. 12/24/2008 8:12PM

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