Tuesday, August 2, 2011

8 Questions to Help You Develop Your Hook

by Ellen Meister

"What's your book about?"

It seems like such a simple question, but writers find it one of the most difficult ones to answer. After all, if we could tell the story in one or two sentences, it wouldn't have taken us 400 pages.

But alas, we have to find a way to boil down all those chapters to a simple essence. And it has to sizzle.

In other words, we need a hook.

That's what's going to entice agents, editors and readers. Yet writing those few words is often harder than writing the whole damned book. How do you know what to put in or leave out? How do you capture so much with so little? How do you do justice to the book you spent a year or more writing?

I put together 8 questions you can ask yourself to start the process. But before you start to work on it, you might want to check out the book deals section of Publishers Marketplace, where summaries are never more than a few precious sentences. It's a great way to gain an understanding of what constitutes a hook. In fact, you can sign up for a free newsletter that includes a partial listing of every week's deals. I highly recommend it.

For example, here are the listings from my most recent book deals, as they appeared in PM:

Ellen Meister's THE OTHER LIFE, pitched as Jodi Picoult meets THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, about a suburban mom who discovers, at the moment of her life's greatest crisis, that she might be able to slip through a wrinkle in time and discover what her life might have been had she made different choices.

Ellen Meister's FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER, a humorous and heartfelt novel in which a mousy movie critic accidentally unleashes the ghost of writer Dorothy Parker, whose caustic wit and wisdom helps change her life in all kinds of unexpected ways.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not write either of these. The credit goes to my Putnam editor, Rachel Kahan, who's brilliant at these things. I don't know if I could have come up with such laser-focused descriptions on my own, but I like to think the following questions would have helped ...

1. What makes your book unique?
This is the toughest question, but also the most critical. If you had to pick ONE THING that makes your book different from others in the field, what would it be? A strange plot twist? A unique voice? Something completely fresh about your protagonist? A setting that's never been used before in your genre? Try brainstorming on this one and make a list if you can.

2. Why would a reader want to read your book?
Because it's funny? Romantic? Sexy? Exciting? Edifying? Scary? Beautiful? Moving? Evocative? Suspenseful? Try to choose two reasons and keep them in the back of your mind as you write your hook.

3. What is the inciting incident?
In fiction, there should always be an inciting incident that sets the plot in motion. That probably belongs in your hook.

4. What does your main character want?
This is what drives the reader through your book and makes them care about your main character. If you can get this across in your hook you're in good shape.

5. If a reader was recommending the book to someone, what two bestsellers would he or she compare it to?
Of course, it isn't necessary to include this in your hook, but it's good information to have in your back pocket. Also, if you use a comparison, be sure you choose books that sold well. You don't want to compare your book to anything that wasn't wildly successful.

6. What genre is your book?
While this doesn't always need to be specified in your two-sentence summary, it helps to know when you're crafting your hook. Think beyond the sections in the bookstore and consider how your agent might pitch it to an editor. Is it a paranormal romance? Upmarket women's fiction? A thriller? A cozy mystery? Literary fiction?

7. Who is your target reader?
If you're writing for a very specific market, like YA, it's important to include that in your hook. Of course, it's a good idea to know your target reader in any case.

8. Does your title work?
I'm a firm believer that a title should relate more to a book's story than its theme, as these are far more memorable. Theme-based titles can often apply to just about any book, and are therefore kind of anemic. Go for power.

That's about it. But I don't want to sign off too abruptly, as they say it's a always a good idea to end a blog entry with a question. So brace yourself ...

What's your book about?

Ellen Meister is the author of three novels. Her latest, THE OTHER LIFE (Putnam 2/2011), has been nominated by BookPage for the Top 20 Books of 2011 and by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association for Book of the Year. It was also selected by the Austin Public Library for their Best Fiction of 2011 list, and appeared on the ABA's prestigious Indie Next List. It is currently under option with HBO for a TV series. She lives on Long Island and is at work on her fourth novel FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER (Putnam 2013). For more information visit ellenmeister.com. You can find her online at Twitter and Facebook.


  1. Ellen, this is so helpful to me as I begin the first edit on my finished manuscript. Answering the questions was quick and easy and really helps 'get to the bones' of the book. Thank you so much!

  2. Great advice, Ellen!

    Another place to look for quick summary ideas is the TiVo descriptions of movies and the tag lines of movies themselves. These may be a litle too simple and boiled down for a hook, but they are a place to start brainstorming.

  3. Jill, so glad it helped!

    Sara, that's another great source of inspiration. Thanks!

  4. Amazing advice. I'll be passing it on.

  5. what fabulous advice, Ellen. I have such a hard time with this question myself and this is nicely detailed post. Going to try it out today.


  6. This is a great list. I'm getting close to the query stage, and I'm terrible at this sort of thing. This will definitely come in handy. Thank you!

  7. Nothin' harder than writing the hook. It always looks easy when you read someone else's but when it's your turn, it's open a bag of Tootsie Rolls time and pray for inspiration... I totally agree with you Ellen. Great ideas and strategies to help wrestle this bear of a challenge. I'm going to share with my class!

  8. Great stuff. I've often heard editors say they won't buy a book without a good hook, period, because it's so important to pitching it to booksellers and then down the line to readers.

  9. I'm relieved to find out I'm not the only one who struggles with the 'hook'. Thank you for this great set of questions which I'm sure will be a very useful tool

  10. Karin, thank for passing it on!

    Thea, hope it works out well for you. :)

    Stacy, you're welcome! Good luck with your query.

    Saralee, next time I'll put Tootie Rolls on my list of suggestions!

    Malena, yep--that hook can be critical. :)

    Lyn, thanks for responding. Hope it helps!

  11. I think it's hilarious that not one commenter has said what their book is about. A daunting task indeed.Here's my first stab at it.To the outside world Glenda has it all, the perfect home, husband and two beautiful little girls, so why is she in the midst of an afair with her highschool sweetheart and husband's best friend?Told through journal entries, we discover how decieving appearances can be and how lifes twists and turns can throw you off course. "Searching For My Wand" is surprisingly moving and funny as Glenda recounts how she has gotten herslf to the place where everything comes to a head.

  12. I love the "what does your character WANT?" question. So crucial. We had a very long dinner conversation about this at the RADAR Lab last summer.
    Keeping the character(s) "wanting" directly feeds the momentum of the prose. Do they ever get it? Do they settle? All of these questions drive the plot. Thanks for a great post.

  13. blargh, having so much trouble with this since my character deals a lot more with emotional conflict as opposed to external. But here's my try based on your very helpful post. (Thoughts?)

    Seventeen-year-old Shayla struggles with intimacy after battling Crohn's disease and spending the last few years on a first name basis with hospital staff. All she wants is to be a normal teenager and fit in at school, but when the boy she cares about pushes her too far and her absent father suddenly wants a relationship, she faces her biggest struggle yet: opening herself up to the love of others. An emotionally driven story, perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson, SICKGIRL is a young adult novel complete at 51,000 words.

  14. This is an excellent post - extremely helpful! Can't wait to share this.
    Wagging Tales

  15. I'm not sure why but this blog is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I'll checκ bacκ later
    and see if the problem stіll exists.

    My site tens pain relief

  16. Thanks for οnе's marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you are a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back later in life. I want to encourage you to continue your great job, have a nice holiday weekend!

    Also see my site :: roof repair OKC

  17. Hey great wеbsіte! Does running а blog ѕimіlar to thiѕ tаκe
    a massive аmount work? Ӏ have аbsοlutely no exρertise іn сoԁing but I ωaѕ
    hoping tо stаrt my oωn blog sοon.
    Anywаyѕ, іf you haѵe any
    ѕuggestiοns οr teсhniques for new blog owners plеasе sharе.
    I know this is off topic howeѵer I juѕt haԁ
    tο аѕk. Many thankѕ!

    My homepage : used bucket trucks for sale

  18. What's up, this weekend is pleasant designed for me, since this occasion i am reading this impressive informative article here at my home.

    Here is my web site Line trucks

  19. Really good question you give me now i asked this question in interview when any one meet with me thanks for share it bio writer service .