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.

The Defining Scene – Character Intros

I coined the term DEFINING SCENE to describe a method I have used to introduce a main character in my books. This type of method is a technique used in the film industry. Picture Johnny Depp when he comes on the big screen for the first time in Pirates of the Caribbean. He doesn’t merely walk on and deliver lines. He makes a SPLASH. In an instant, the moviegoer knows this character by how he makes his first appearance.

You only get one shot at a reader’s first impression of your main characters. How do you set the stage?

1.) Devise a scene that gives your character a specific stage for them to perform—a showcase for them.

2.) Give them something to do that will show the reader who they are.

3.) Encompass as much of your character in this scene—in one shot—so the reader knows exactly what makes them tick, their values, their likes and dislikes, and lays a foundation for the rest of the book.

4.) Focus on CHARACTER. This is not necessarily about PLOT, unless you can devise a way that showcases your character and jumpstarts your plot, too.

5.) Build on the energy you’ve created with this introduction scene. If you put thought into this Defining Scene, the reader makes an investment in your character from that point forward.

The Defining Scene—Example

I created a character in one of my first manuscripts that was my take on an anti-heroine who is a modern Scarlett O’Hara. At the first part of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is self-centered and not very appealing as a classic heroine. But of course, we all know how her journey ended. To this day, she endeared the name of Scarlett to people around the world.

My character, Justine, starts out with a larceny on her mind while she’s dining with an older man in a fancy restaurant. Working as an acquisitions and mergers specialist for a major corporation, she is first seen blackmailing a man to steal his energy company out from under him. She’s ruthless and uses photos taken by a private investigator, shot while the man was with a young girl. To make matters worse, Justine has researched the man’s prenuptial agreement and knows that if he is proven unfaithful, he’d lose everything. Needless to say, Justine is not a traditional heroine, but I infuse other aspects into the scene to manipulate the reader into liking her—or maybe not hating her as much—by the end of her intro.

Below are key attributes I wrote into the scene to tip the scales in Justine’s favor with the reader.

A.) She is opposite a very shady man who is worse than she is. He cheats on his wife and has affairs with under-aged girls. He’s completely unscrupulous and even propositions Justine in the end. By comparison, she’s an angel.

B.) Within the body of the scene, the reader learns more about Justine. She has a past I hint at. She is sensitive to the plight of the underage girl she accuses him of having an affair with. I save her past for later, but a hint is all the reader needs. Not much back story is required. The hint teases the reader with a little mystery, too.

C.) Acting as a conspirator with Justine is a forthright young man, Graham, who is her assistant. The way I portray him is a really nice guy who cares for his boss, despite her bad behavior. This manipulates the reader into seeing Justine the way Graham does. If Graham comes across as credible and sweet, these qualities pass to Justine by association.

D.) And because Justine kept Graham in the dark on what she had planned, she’s seen as his protector. She may be able to live with her “any means to an end” choices, but she doesn’t force him to go along with her—for his sake.

E.) Justine comes off as vulnerable and sensitive, with an identifiable and self-deprecating humor readers can relate to. By the end of the scene, the things she values become more apparent. (I even considered having her take a doggie bag home for her pooch.)

F.) Justine may come across as a ruthless person at the start, but by the end, she is portrayed as a person who might champion a good cause, without a thought for money if it’s for a valid reason.

I could have simply brought my female character into the story as a ruthless acquisitions employee, getting her assignment from her boss and wanting to dazzle him. Her boss is a man who wants to steal an inheritance out from under a nephew he’s never met, who is living off the grid in Alaska. Her boss lies to Justine about why he wants her to locate this guy. She would have gone off to Alaska in search of the missing heir, an urban goddess out of her element in the wilderness. That would have worked too, but I wanted the reader to wonder about her scruples. I also wanted her vulnerability to show from the start. I needed the reader to keep an open mind about who she is. Plus what happens at the beginning also comes back to bite her in the end as a plot twist. Everything comes full circle for a reason.

It takes thought to plot this type of scene, but remember it’s the first scene for a major character. It’s as tough, or worse, than coming up with that ever important where to start the story detail. If you know your character, you will be able to construct a scene that will showcase their unique point of view.

Do you have special ways to introduce a main character as a writer? If you’re a reader, can you share favorite book characters where the author introduced them in a memorable way and why that stuck with you?