What is a story hook?

Which elements of your story will attract potential readers?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

If you are wanting to publish your book, a strong ‘hook’ may be necessary to get the attention of an agent, publisher, and end reader.

The hook is a distillation of your book, but it is also a formula to attract the interest of potential readers. It may include elements of the story, character and conflict and also the book’s themes, topicality or context – something that will pique interest in the kind of person you know will love your book. Sometimes a hook is just one or two of these elements, because they are so unique or strong, for example the character and their conflict (such as the president’s son falling for the prince of Wales, in Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue), or the topicality or timeliness of the book (such as infectious diseases in Mark Honigsbaum’s 2020 book The Pandemic Century). One of the hardest things about writing any material to promote your manuscript or book is knowing what the hook is, and how to invoke it in an effective way.

It’s a good idea to look at popular books or books you love in a genre similar to yours and analyse what it is that really made them stand out.

In terms of commercial publishing, the hooks agents and publishers go for often contain both something familiar and something that is either new or a twist or slant on the familiar. A hook will be intriguing. It’ll make the reader go, Ooh, that’s interesting. A strong hook may feature a high-stakes scenario that the reader can imagine themselves into – something where they’d ask, ‘What would I do if that were me?’ Some hooks might also make the reader feel they’d be smarter for having opened the book. Most hooks will work on a few levels – of curiosity, intrigue, and basic emotions like love, fear and desire.

Photo by Rahul Shah from Pexels

An interesting example of book with a strong hook is Adrian McKinty’s thriller The Chain.

Here is the first part of the blurb:

The morning starts like any other. Rachel Klein drops her daughter, Kylie, at the bus stop and heads into her day. But then a phone call changes everything. A woman has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will ever see her again is if she pays a ransom - and kidnaps another child. The caller is a mother herself, whose son has also been abducted, and if Rachel doesn't do exactly as she's told, both children will die. Rachel is now part of a terrifying scheme – The Chain.

The hook is related to the fact that the main character, Rachel, is not only experiencing the terrifying kidnapping of her own child, but that she must also kidnap a child to save her own and another child’s life.

It’s familiar enough (child kidnapping thriller) but it has a twist or slant on the familiar. The slant makes it a higher stakes scenario. It works on basic emotions – fear, here, and also empathy as we immediately can feel for this ordinary-sounding mother and her strange and awful predicament.

Besides revealing the hook in the blurb, the publisher has a short ‘tagline’ which is a distilled version of what will hook you in the story (and it literally invokes the reader by being written in second person):

VICTIM. KIDNAPPER. CRIMINAL. You will become each one. You are now part of the chain. Don't break the chain.

This hook was so effective it earned McKinty a six-figure deal and turned his life around.

In writing this I’ve also been thinking about the evergreen bestselling nonfiction title, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. The hook for this book is in the title. Here is the first paragraph of the blurb:

An astonishing new scientific discovery called neuroplasticity is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the adult human brain is fixed and unchanging. It is, instead, able to change its own structure and function, even into old age.

So, in a different way – something familiar (neuroscience = our fascination with our own workings), with a new twist. It works on basic emotions and desires, which are also the ‘high stakes’ in this scenario: health, survival.

There are, of course, also books out there for which the hook is: It’s so incredibly poignant! Read it! I can’t sum up Middlemarch, truly, but you should read it. Here’s the first line of Penguin’s blurb: ‘George Eliot's most ambitious novel is a masterly evocation of diverse lives and changing fortunes in a provincial community.’ It’s not really a hook… but just trust me. Also, the name of an established author with a huge fan base is a hook in itself. But their first or breakthrough books would have had a strong hook to get them to that realm in the first place. (The sad part for them is that they often have to repeat variations of the same hook forever in order to keep their core reader base! See: Lee Child.)

Most of us are not George Eliot and if you’re famous already you wouldn’t be reading this so, in short, the easier it is for people to talk about your book, to share what’s compelling about it in the first place, the greater chance you may have of breaking through. Of finding readers.

(Please note that it’s still worth writing for the sake of it, for art, for yourself, for your community, etc.! But as this newsletter offers both writing and publishing advice, this month’s newsletter is related to the latter.)

So, what is the hook of the story you’re working on? Feel free to reply or comment!

Would you like to hear me read from my award-winning novella, Joan Smokes? This weekend I’m participating in Singapore Unbound’s Second Saturday Reading Series, alongside the poet Yeow Kai Chai. I’m so looking forward to it! There’s also an open mic section if you’re feeling brave… It’s free to attend. Check out the details and RSVP here. Don’t forget about time differences (as it’s a US-based event) – it’ll be on Sunday in Australia.

Opportunity of the month

Grist’s solutions lab, Fix, is launching their climate-fiction short story contest – Imagine 2200: Climate fiction for future ancestors. It’s free to enter and they’re calling for 3000- to 5000-word stories that envision the next 180 years of climate progress – roughly seven generations. The winning writer will be awarded $3000, with the second- and third-place finalists receiving $2000 and $1000, respectively. 

And for Australian writers under 35, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Prize, a prestigious and long-running unpublished manuscript prize, is open for 2022!


Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,

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