Hook Your Book

By Jordan Dane

High concept story lines are based on an intriguing premise or hook. A hook is the same thing as a logline, best described as a 1-2 line TV guide listing. A short pitch line takes a complex book plot and summarizes it down to an enticing teaser. Generally this teaser is the first step to conveying your novel idea to an editor or agent, whether in a query letter, proposal, or during a pitch session at a conference.

Elements of your hook line should include:
Main Characters
Unique Qualities
Setting/Time Period
Main Action
Emotional Element

Important questions to ask in order to define your hook:

Characters – Who is the main character? What does he or she want? What is their goal?

Conflict – What is the obstacle in the way? Who will play the part of the villain? Does the main character have a flaw that adds to the drama of why he can’t get what he/she wants?

Setting/Time Period – What is unique about your setting or time period? Does it contribute to the conflict for the character?

Main Action – What is the most compelling action in the story?

Emotional Element – What is the most gripping emotional element to your story?

Even if your story has been told before, you can add a fresh take or twist on it. An effective hook can make it seem new. High concept hooks can also be based on “what if” questions like:

·         “What if man could clone dinosaurs?” (Jurassic Park)

·         “What if there was a place that stayed dark and vampires never had to interrupt their feeding to sleep?” (30 Days of Night)

·         “What if a defense attorney couldn’t lie?” (Liar, Liar)

Sometimes a high concept idea can be only in the title. So even if a movie or a book doesn’t get top reviews, people still buy it because they “have to” experience it.

·         Snakes on a Plane

·         Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

I’d like to share the hook on two books that I enjoyed reading. These represent daring authors who didn’t take the easy road in determining their plots. Imagine the craft it would take to write these two novels. Better yet, read them and enjoy.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – The story of a 14-year old girl living during the time of the Holocaust, narrated by Death. The hook is the author’s narrator choice. The time period is very compelling and the fact that the girl steals books to teach herself to read during a time when books are being destroyed is a gripping period piece, but to have Death be the narrator puts this book over the top. The New York Times is quoted as saying this book is “life changing.” All I can say is that it changed me.

Thirteen Reason Why by Jay Asher – This is the story of a girl who commits suicide but sends 13 audio tapes to the people who contributed to her making that fatal decision. The audio tapes are an effective hook, but the writer chose to tell the story through one boy who got a recording. He was the one person who had a secret crush on this girl, but did nothing about it. The story is told one night as he listens to the intimacy of her voice in his ear as he follows the map to all the locations she sends him to. Recorded flashbacks mix with the present, but the reader never loses track of what is taking place.

Here is the hook for my latest series with Harlequin Teen – The Hunted series. In this series, kids who can’t speak out, without drawing attention to who and what they are, make the perfect victims on the streets of LA. A covert faction of a church hunts them under the guise of doing God’s work—to stop the abominations from “becoming.” The tag line on the cover will be: They are our future, if they survive.

A fanatical church secretly hunts “Indigo” teens feared to be the next evolution of mankind. These gifted teens are our future…if they survive.

For those of you writing a project now, please share your hook. Take up to 3 lines. Even if you don’t have a current project, make something up that you’d like to write and have fun using the questions above. You never know what might pop up.

26 thoughts on “Hook Your Book

  1. How ’bout these cracks at hookin’

    Current work heading to editor:

    Midnight Sun aka Cold Summer: When the CIA won’t let a deep cover agent retire he decides to press the issue by dragging the US President himself into his personal hell.

    Newest WIP:
    Ice Blood(working title)
    Amid the chaos of war an Alaskan man must choose to search for his family or to fight the Chinese invaders raining death on his homeland.

  2. Nice post, Jordan. My co-writer and I are working on 2 manuscripts simultaneously. One is a supernatural thriller called SHADOWS OF GHOSTS. The tag line is: Le Femme Nikita meets Angels and Demons. The other is a followup to our recently completed thriller THE BLADE. It’s called THE SHIELD. Tagline: Former OSI federal agent Maxine Decker is recruited by a secret government organization to track down the theft of possible alien artifacts originally collected from the 1947 Roswell Incident.

  3. Bonnee– Definitely give it a go. I think it’s easier to see a hook in someone else’s book than your own. If you want to play with a known type of story rather than your own, take a fable or fairy tale and add a twist to it with a “what if” question.

    Like, what if Grimm’s tales were true and the Grimm family is alive today? One Grimm is a cop who has a gift to see & fight demons. This is the premise behind a current TV show.

  4. Basil–Awesome hooks, guy. Your first one might be more relatable if you add a compelling reason he wants to retire. Something personal & emotional.

    Add some tag lines to your covers for extra credit. 🙂

  5. Wow, Joe. You had me at Nikita & alien artifacts on these. A thriller ghost story with an Angels & Demons thread sounds interesting. And reviving & putting a spin on Roswell sounds really intriguing too. Well done.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. My WIP, Shepherd (working title):

    A disgraced seminary student struggles to prove that a small Missouri town’s beloved pastor is a serial killer of the seminarian’s father and other alcoholics.

  7. Hey Dave– I love the unexpected twist of the religious setting & characters. Very intriguing. Just imagining the creep factor of how the pastor kills & hides in plain sight is amazing.

  8. Ahhh… you mean something like:

    When the CIA won’t let a deep cover agent retire after he witnesses the violent death of his wife in a US drone attack, he decides to press the issue by dragging the US President himself into his personal hell.

  9. Jordan – Your tag lines are excellent. Sounds like a heck of a tale.
    My effort seems tame to me.
    Good post. Thanks!

    “Nerve Damage ”
    E.R. physician. Drake Cody, has developed a breakthrough drug for treatment of spinal cord injury. Betrayal, corruption and death threaten him and all he loves as ruthless pharmaceutical industry operatives work to steal the miracle research.

  10. Basil–

    How about starting out with the deep cover agent and making it about him.

    After witnessing the tragic death of his wife in a US drone attack, a deep cover agent must sever ties to the CIA to cope. When his request is denied, he delivers his own brand of Armageddon to the President’s door.

  11. TJC–Questions come to mind:

    Why is his cure being targeted? Is there a bigger conspiracy at play? Follow the money. Who gains and who loses?

    I’d also contemplate giving your main char a special stake in his cure. Why did he work on this and devote his life to this cure?

    If you make this a David vs Goliath story where one ER doc is up against a conspiracy of corruption in hte medical arena–and make his story personal–you could still have a captivating hook.

    Tweak it some more and I think you’re on the right path. TKZ is the perfect spot to brainstorm this kind of thing. Sometimes I think we’re too close to our own work to see what is probably already in our stories, just not in the summary.

  12. Here’s my logline for my latest WIP:

    A twenty-six-year-old, half-Japanese/half-American ninja with a disdain for sexual assault and a death wish must stop a group of the world’s most powerful men from bombing Israel and the occupied territories.

  13. You guys have seriously awesome stuff in the works.

    I’m chewing through a YA modern fantasy story right now. It has bards and giant robots.

    When Cheri the angelus seeks to seize the Heart of Worlds, Illianna, a junior chronomancer, sets out to gather magic users who can stop her. But will Illianna succeed as she realizes that the team she meant to sacrifice in battle with Cheri have become her dearest family?

  14. Hey Fletch. That’s a solid pitch, but I’m sensing a powerful global conspiracy that might need fleshing out. What is the agenda of these wealthy men? What do they gain? Is this the tip of a domino for a global shift in power?

    Also, it cool that your ninja is a half-breed guy who is an outsider to both sides of his heritage. Classic outsider theme, but what drives him to risk his life in THIS fight? I would recommend you bring in why he’s standing alone against a global conspiracy.

    Where does his death wish come from? And most people would disdain sexual assault. What is the real story on that? Both these elements would be critical to explain in my opinion. That could make him more relatable. Give a sense of what he’s driven to risk everything for.

    Sounds like an interesting story. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Hey Kessie. You go, girl. I write YA too. One thing you might consider is boiling you premise down to its essence. I got a little lost in your world-building terms & character names. I had to reread it to figure out who was against whom. Illiana is against Cheri, but I’m not sure who I should root for. I would focus on what Illiana must have & who stands in her way. What’s at stake? Maybe explain why Illiana’s new family has become so important to her, but I want to understand the bigger picture. What is Illiana willing to die for & risk the only family she has ever known.

    Good luck on your project. I love YA fantasy.

  16. Thanks for the suggestions. Challenging to abstract the essence of the tale. This is a good exercise.

    “Nerve Damage”
    ER doctor and convicted felon, Drake Cody, has developed a drug that may make the paralyzed walk…and ease a secret guilt that burns within him. An organization involved in pharmaceutical corporate theft,is drawn to the billions Drake’s breakthrough represents. Their ruthless efforts require Drake to use ER life-saving and ex-con death-dealing skills to protect his dream and those he loves.

  17. Ah. Secret guilt changes everything. Great draw to his character.

    Maybe start with: Convicted felon turned ER doc, Drake Cody…(it stresses his dark side more).

    And on the end of sentence two, about the pharmaceutical companies, add: “and threaten the only woman Drake loves” or “and threaten the lives of his wife and child.” Put a face on these victims so the reader knows what’s at stake.

    In the last line, the word “requires” sounds too stilted & formal. It lacks the emotion you’ll need to pack a punch ending. Move the adjective “ruthless” to the start of sentence two to describe “a ruthless organization.” Then maybe end with a more emotional last sentence like, “Drake is forced into a life he thought he left behind–a death dealing ex-con– to protect his dream and those he loves.” The stakes for him are better defined.

    This sounds like a very gripping story. Good luck with it.

  18. A vengeful arcanist enlists the help of the man he betrayed and a woman he can’t trust in a desperate plan to save the sector from the men he handed it to.

  19. A day late (that pesky job), but I’ll give it a try. Is still too rough for my liking.

    Working title: Ride the Lightning

    When a convicted wife-killer’s death penalty appeal is nickel-and-dimed to death, slacktavist-feminist lawyer Jo Sinclair realizes she has to solve the murder to save her client.

  20. Hey JM–

    >>>A vengeful arcanist enlists the help of the man he betrayed and a woman he can’t trust in a desperate plan to save the sector from the men he handed it to.>>>

    IMO the reader or editor would want to know more.

    Why this man is vengeful?
    How as he betrayed?
    Why is the woman untrustworthy?
    What is “the sector”?

    Is this a futuristic setting?

    The main emotion is missing from this summary. It’s too brief and only raises more questions. Revenge and betrayal can be compelling elements to a story, but in order for this guy to be more relatable, the reader must understand his motives and side with him in his quest for justice.

    Good luck with your project.

  21. Hey Terri–Yeah, that pesky day job thang…

    >>When a convicted wife-killer’s death penalty appeal is nickel-and-dimed to death, slacktavist-feminist lawyer Jo Sinclair realizes she has to solve the murder to save her client.>>

    The nickel and dimed to death reference might need clarification for the average schmoe. He’s convicted and awaiting the death penalty. He has his appeals process. What does that reference mean?

    I’m also not familiar with what a “slacktavist-feminist” lawyer is. Too many “ists.”

    Here are more questions I’d have for you that might help you fine tune this.

    Who is her client?
    How is she being forced into finding a killer, solving a murder, when that’s the cop’s job? Does she become a target?

    The reader needs to understand the desperation that would force her out of her comfort zone of a courtroom and onto the streets to hunt a killer. And I think it’s important for her client to have a face.

    Hope that helps. These things aren’t easy. For an author to boil down the essence of a book they are close to, is damn near impossible.

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