When you go looking for writing advice, one thing you hear over and over is that you need a great hook. Hook hook hook, all anyone talks about is hooks. Well, let me add my two cents on the matter: you need a great hook.
A hook is what will attract a literary agent to your project, and, later on, a reader. It’s that magnet that draws people to the story and makes them want to read more. It’s really essential. But what, really, is a hook?
What is a hook?
Let’s think of some great hooks in literature:
- A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)**
- A reclusive chocolateer opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
- A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
- A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)
What do those have in common?
What makes a great hook
In order to describe what makes a great hook, let’s start with what a novel really is, which is a quest. Whether it’s a quest in the mind, through the jungle, through space, or through the mystical land of unpronounceable consonants (the land of unpronounceable consonants is inevitably filled with dragons and orcs), every novel is a quest that starts in one place and ends in another. And every quest needs a first step, where the character makes a decision that will change his/her life.
In STORY, Robert McKee calls this the “inciting incident.” It’s the moment that propels the story forward. Ishmael joins a ship that searches for the white whale. The little engine decides that it thinks it can.
A hook should hint at the central conflict
But there’s more to a quest than a mere decision to embark out into the land of unpronounceable consonants. There are orcs and wraiths and demons, oh my!
One of the more subtle aspects of a great hook is that it also provides the central conflict. Every character on a quest encounters obstacles along the way. The biggest conflict, whether it’s between the protagonist and a villain or the protagonist and a scary world or the protagonist and himself, forms the second component of the hook.
To take the hook of MOBY DICK, for instance, there’s conflict between Ahab and his crew and between Ahab in the whale. And of course there’s conflict between the train and the hill and the train and its self-confidence in THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.
So essentially, a hook is the quest and the central conflict, described as succinctly as possible, designed to make someone want to read more.
Keep in mind that either the quest or the conflict may be implied in a great hook. For example, “snakes on a plane” is a hook that describes the conflict (snakes vs. people), and the implied quest is to get the mother****** snakes off of the mother****** plane.
It can also work the other way. “Southern family moves to France” describes the quest in FRENCH BY HEART (moving to France), and since we know there’s a big difference between the American South and France, there’s an implied conflict there. But whether it’s implied or stated, every hook has quest and conflict.
There you have it! Sure there’s a whole lot more to the story, and a hook shouldn’t be confused with a plot. A hook is a premise, it’s a starting point, and it’s up to you to keep the reader reading once they’ve opened up the book.
**UPDATE: This is a wildly inaccurate description of HEART OF DARKNESS. Whoops! Conflated in my memory with Apocalypse Now.
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Art: Fishing with a harpoon by Adolph Tidemand