Books, Hooks, and Good Looks

I love hooks.

As a writer, I work hard on my hooks. When I was a magazine editor, the hook was often the best way for a writer to make a good first impression on me. And now, for me as a literary agent, the hook is the first and one of the most important criteria I use in evaluating a book pitch, proposal, or manuscript. A good book hook will often prompt me to give a project a more careful, hopeful look.

But some people really struggle with hooks. Some don’t even fully understand what a hook is. And that’s often not their fault, as hook is a fairly flexible term in the writing and publishing world. Editors, agents, and writers often use it to refer to several similar but different things.

Briefly, hook can mean:

  • The overall unique appeal of an article or book
  • The short, punchy summary of a book idea in a query or book proposal
  • The first page, paragraph, or sentence of an article, story, or book

So, to illustrate the first definition: You meet a big, fancy, famous editor at a baseball game; and when she finds out you’re working on a book manuscript, she asks, “What’s your hook?” You say, “It’s an Amish romance in which the male protagonist is a zombie.” That’s a hook. It may not be a good one, but it’s a hook.

In the second case, it’s usually only a few sentences (or even a few words) that compellingly crystallize your book. I like it when the hook is at the very beginning of the proposal, and I also like it when it sounds like a movie trailer: “One woman. One man. Unforgiving wilderness.” Okay, so that may be a bit cliché; but you get the idea.

Finally, you read the third kind of hook all the time. For example, the first line of 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” That’s a hook. Or the first paragraph of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

See? A hook is called a “hook” because it hooks the reader like a fish and reels him or her in. It captures interest and compels him or her to keep reading.

And, for writers who can deliver on the promise of the hook, it often leads to fame and fortune.

12 Responses to Books, Hooks, and Good Looks

  1. Kim Vogel Sawyer September 30, 2021 at 5:29 am #

    Even if it doesn’t lead to fame and fortune, it leads to great joy for the writer and might just impact a reader’s heart. I call that a win-win. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts! “Hooks” are a challenge for me. My most recent book was boiled down to this: The Music Man meets Mr. Holland’s Opus. Did that grab ya? 😉

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 30, 2021 at 5:35 am #

    It was a dark and stormy night
    when young Susana heard the call
    from the flashing neon light
    to attend the Zombie Ball
    where there danced no Amish men
    (but she saw an undead Mennonite)
    and would later not remember when
    (for she’s gotten slightly tight)
    she realized that here at last
    she found her oddly bright true love
    who needed, well, a body cast
    or at least a rubber glove;
    his offered hand stirred her to pity
    when he gave it literally.

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield September 30, 2021 at 5:45 am #

      Oh, mercy, Andrew! What a mental image that conjured!😆

    • Kristen Joy Wilks September 30, 2021 at 5:56 am #

      Ha ha ha ha! I might actually get my 3 teenage sons to watch this type of romance, ha!

  3. Kristen Joy Wilks September 30, 2021 at 5:53 am #

    Thanks for the tips, Bob! Since much of my time revolves around doing therapy work with our Newfoundland dog (Princess Leia Freyja), I have been enjoying writing a few pet ownership adventures. One of the delightful things about bringing home a Newfoundland puppy is how large they are and yet, how they very much are giant babies. Tripping, rolling, wagging, unsteady, and adorable. I thought it would be so fun if the parents in my story gave their son the responsibility of bringing home the new puppy while they were away. Only, Mom and Dad were a bit confused and didn’t realize they’d purchased such a large dog. Therefore, my hook ended up being:

    “The puppy was five times bigger than expected!”

    Yep, a Newfoundland pup is indeed five times larger than a Scottish terrier pup, although both are black, friendly, and adorable. Whether or not this ends up hooking readers, I know it was a very good exercise for me as I boiled down my plot to just a few words. It took a fair bit of time, but was such a learning experience.

  4. Jeannie Delahunt September 30, 2021 at 7:05 am #

    I love the picture, Bob!

    As I’m always rewriting lines, this information added yet another dimension to my conjuring.

    Thank you.

  5. Jay Payleitner September 30, 2021 at 7:39 am #

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that your “hook” often ends up as your subtitle or the headline on your back cover copy.

  6. Roberta Sarver September 30, 2021 at 8:51 am #

    I love conjuring up hooks. As someone who used to write weekly newspaper columns, I had to use this necessary tool to draw readers. And now I use hooks to draw people to my blog.

  7. Wendy September 30, 2021 at 9:24 am #

    In screenwriting, your second definition may equate to a movie “tagline.” Some examples of taglines for movies you might know:

    “Jaws”
    “You’ll never go in the water again.”

    “Jaws 2”
    “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

    “Superman”
    “You’ll believe a man can fly.”

    “Alien”
    “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

    “Psycho”
    “Check in. Relax. Take a shower.”

    “Robocop”
    “Part man. Part machine. All cop.”

    “Apollo 13”
    “Houston, we have a problem.”

    “Rocky”
    “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.”

    “Dumb And Dumber”
    “For Harry and Lloyd, every day is a no-brainer.”

    “Groundhog Day”
    “He’s having the worst day of his life … over and over …”

    “The Truman Show”
    “On the air. Unaware.”

    “The Princess Bride”
    “She gets kidnapped. He gets killed. But it all ends up okay.”

  8. JOHN SMITH September 30, 2021 at 2:00 pm #

    THE NINE SYMPHONIES OF WRITINGS
    http://www.electricscotland.org/forum/main/general-posts/5608-
    GENERAL POSTS = 6,359 VIEWS

    The Name Of That World Famous Book Is The Hook

    Just Ask Beethoven………….

    AYE………….

  9. Nancy Bailey October 1, 2021 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi, this was a very good article . . . a ‘hook’ in itself. Thank you.

    Author of THE VALLY (A drone spread viral attack that greatly mimics what is happening today.)

  10. Deb October 2, 2021 at 9:02 am #

    I happened to be out fishing, night before last, and was thinking about the hook I was using. It was an odd creation, definitely not resembling anything native to our northern lakes. I imagined what the fish thought every time I cast it out and reeled it back in. Did they think :whoa, there goes another one! There must be a million of these coming through here. Let’s taste and see…”? Nope – same hook, flashing past any fish who happened to be patrolling the area it haphazardly landed in. Kind of like the enemy’s temptations. We think he and his legion have such a huge repertoire of so many irresistible tricks and deceptions but, in reality, it’s often just the same old hook being thrown out, yet again.
    I caught 3 northern pike and lost 3.

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