Ask an Editor: Your Book’s Hook
In my open edit letter to the site, I said:
• You have a great concept or hook, but you aren’t thoroughly exploring it. Let’s say you have a fabulous title, your short description was eye-catching, and your first chapter sets up this incredibly interesting hook. But then it all goes away after Chapter 5, leaving you with nothing to talk about for the rest of the book, or leaving you with no choice but to write a different book altogether. As a reader, I feel incredibly cheated, and I move on. Make sure that if you are making a promise to the reader about a certain theme in your book, that the story itself delivers on that.
And I’ve been asked to elaborate on this a little bit. To me, part of this goes back to the Reader Contract and the promises that you are making to your reader. But a good hook is a bit different. It’s a very specific promise, something that immediately catches a reader’s attention and makes them say: “Ooooh! I want to read about that!” Or even just “Huh. That sounds kinda cool, let’s see what she’s talking about.” Basically, it’s the idea that draws someone to read your book, instead of any one of the several thousand other options available to them.
A great example of this is Kiss Cam. The title alone tells you so much about the book, and when you add in the description, you know that this book is about teen vloggers and best friends who give in to fan requests for a kiss cam, which leads to something more than just being friends. This is a fabulous hook. It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s right in the title. It definitely caught our attention, anyway! ☺
And, most importantly, not only did Kiara come up with a great hook, she followed through with it. When you read Kiss Cam, you get to watch Jasper and June making out on camera and see how it affects their friendship. And it’s not just a side plot, or something that’s over within the first twenty pages… this is the central concept in the book, and the plot revolves around it. As a reader, you definitely get the experience you were promised.
Or, if you need a non-Swoon Reads example, look at Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Again, the title is simple, catchy, and tells you a lot about the book. And Cath, with her Simon Snow obsession and extensive fanfiction prowess, definitely lives up to the promise of the title.
Despite what many people think, it’s not enough to come up with a hooky idea that people are interested in. As Neil Gaiman says in his wonderful essay about ideas, “The ideas aren’t that important. Really they aren’t. Everyone’s got an idea for a book, a movie, a story, a TV series. … The ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder.”
And not only are ideas not the hard bit, but the important thing to keep in mind about ideas is that there is never only one way to tell them. You can take the same idea and tell the story in a hundred different ways. In fact there is a famous saying (I’d tell you who by, but my quick Google search couldn’t seem to come to an agreement on the issue) that states that there are only two stories: Someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes into town. And famous literary critic Charles Booker wrote a whole book on how all of literature can be boiled down to 7 different stories. Having a basic idea is nice, and if it’s a crunchy, hooky idea that makes people go “Yes! That one!” it’s even better, but what really matters is HOW YOU TELL THE STORY!
Are you really exploring your idea? Have you thought through how you are going to implement it? Is it something that your characters care about, have an effect on, and can really explore? You can have the coolest idea in the world, but if none of your characters are really invested in it or affected by it in some way, then it probably doesn’t belong in your book.
Here, I’ll give you another example (a fake one this time so we can really play with it):
Let’s say we are writing a book called Summer Fling. There are a lot of things that we can do with that title and idea.
Maybe our heroine, let’s call her Jackie, has just broken up with her jerkwad boyfriend Devon, and since he was her first and only boyfriend thus far, she’s absolutely devastated. Her best friend, Shannon, decides that Jackie’s mission for the summer is to get over Devon, because he is a jerkwad who is definitely not worth all those tears, and the way to do this is to have a summer fling. They will head to the nearest beach, find a tourist, set her up with a hot guy who can be her rebound boy, and then, when she’s over Devon the Jerk, she can dump Rebound Guy and the two of them can have the Best Senior Year Ever.
Jackie, of course, is not so sure about this plan. Not only has she never had a summer fling or even thought about having one, but she’s also still pining over her ex. But best friend Shannon won’t be denied, and eventually she meets our Hero. He can be a super hot bad boy, or a super cute nerd, or basically any type of guy we like – the important thing is that he’s NOT Jackie’s type (i.e. he’s the complete opposite of Devon). Shannon declares that this is perfect and that our new Hero is destined to be Jackie’s perfect summer fling. Shannon spends the next little bit pushing them together, and eventually Jackie gives in and starts dating the boy. At this point, we can either have the best summer romance ever, filled with perfect moments, that ends too soon… or the most hilariously tragic summer romance where nothing ever goes right, but somehow our hero and heroine still fall in love. Then, all too soon, the summer is over and Jackie is faced with a choice. She’s fallen in love with our hero (as have we all) but he’s just her “summer fling” and the plan requires that she break up with him! Misery ensues, but in the end, somehow, they get back together and everything is fabulous.
Or maybe it’s the other way around, and when the book opens the summer is ending, and Jackie is reluctantly breaking up with her summer fling in preparation to head back home to start her senior year. (Long distance relationships never last.) Once she’s home, she quickly reunites with her best friend Shannon, who tells her all about how Devon, the boy Jackie’s been hopelessly crushing on forever, has broken up with his girlfriend and is now up for grabs. Jackie makes big plans to finally, finally try to actually date Devon and things seem to be going well, when she learns that her summer fling has just moved to her town, and he wants to pick up where they left off. The summer had been great, but it was only meant to be a temporary fling, and she’s been in love with Devon forever… What is Jackie going to do?
Like I said, there’s a LOT of things to do with that idea, (and if either of those scenarios sparked something for you, feel free to take it and run…I promise that your version will be very different than anything I could come up with (and I’m certainly not going to write it!), but… and this is important… what I can’t do, is let Jackie hook up with Devon over the summer, have them break up in chapter three and then never interact again for the rest of the book, as Jackie goes on to meet someone else entirely and forgets that Devon even exists. If you are going to call your book Summer Fling and that’s the concept that you are going for, then that fling has to be an important part of your story… something that really impacts your character’s life and changes it (and them!) forever.
So, killer hooks and crunchy concepts are great, and can be wonderful selling points for a story… but if you have them, then they need to be a main focus of the story and be sustained all the way through. Otherwise, your idea will never live up to its full potential and you run the risk of disappointing your readers.