PubCrawl Alum: Discovering Your Novel’s Hook by Janice Hardy

Hey all! Today we’re extremely happy to welcome back former PubCrawl member Janice Hardy for a guest post! Janice is a great teacher and runs Fiction University, where you can learn about the craft of writing. She has also published a series of writing books, and this post is a sampling of what you might find in them. Also, stay tuned for a giveaway!

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Every novel needs a great hook that grabs reader attention and holds it tight. In a novel’s brainstorming stage, the hook is the gotcha—the twist that will make the novel compelling and fresh. It’s the “ooooh” factor that probably got you excited about the idea in the first place. It might be a plot point, a character goal, or a conflict. It could even be the theme.

The hook is what sets your novel apart from other books, and makes it different. The stronger the hook, the better the chance of selling the novel. (No pressure, right?)

In harsh terms, the hook is why a reader (or agent) should care about your book and not pick up someone else’s book. It’s also how readers choose the novels they read, because one book will stand out and be more appealing than another—one “hooks” more than the other. If you’re just writing for fun, a hook isn’t vital, but if your hope is to one day publish a novel, a good hook is a necessity.

However, it’s important to remember that a hook doesn’t mean an original or unique idea. It’s easy for writers to get caught up in thinking that they have to be unique to be published, so they throw out great ideas because they aren’t “different enough.” Just being different doesn’t mean you’ll have a good hook.

What makes a hook strong is the type of reaction it gets from a potential reader. A novel about sentient snails might be unique, but it probably doesn’t make you want to read it. The Wizard of Oz told from the Wicked Witch’s point of view gives you a new perspective on something you already love—and probably something you’ve always wanted to know yourself.

Strong hooks can be unique, but they can also be fresh takes on a much-loved idea. Look at how many times Romeo and Juliet has been written. Same story, new hook by changing something and approaching it in a fresh way. So while hooks are important to a novel, don’t feel pressured into feeling you must be unique and compelling. That’s a lot to ask from a writer. When in doubt, go for the most compelling concept. 

Hooks are most often found within the protagonist, the core conflict, the theme, the setting, or the concept, but they can be anything that piques interest and shows off the compelling aspect of your novel. They might be phrased as a question, or just a statement about a situation or a character.

For example:

  • What if a killer shark attacked a beach during a major holiday? (Jaws)
  • A world where everyone over thirty is killed (Logan’s Run)
  • A healer who can use other people’s pain as a weapon (The Shifter)

There’s no formula for a good hook, but it typically presents an unexpected combination of things or a surprising question or image. Let’s look at a few places your hook might come from.

The Protagonist Hook

There’s something different about the protagonist. She has a power, she’s someone unexpected, she has a compelling occupation. Often the protagonist has decided to do something unexpected with that ability or skill. The protagonist is what hooks readers to want to read more about this person.

For example:

  • A serial killer becomes a cop to put his homicidal urges to good use by killing only people who beat the legal system and get away with murder. (Dexter)
  • A boy who is a strategic genius helps the military win a battle against an alien foe. (Ender Wiggins)
  • A brilliant, yet abrasive, detective solves crimes no one else can. (Sherlock Holmes)

The Core Conflict Hook

The core conflict of the novel revolves around a special or unexpected event or situation. The problem itself draws readers in, and they want to see how this issue is resolved and what happens.

For example:

  • Children are chosen at random to fight to the death in a televised event. (The Hunger Games)
  • America falls into a civil war between the red and blue states. (Empire)
  • A town cuts itself off from the rest of the world during an epidemic. (The Last Town on Earth)

The Theme Hook

The theme explores an idea in a compelling way. Often these novels are more literary in nature, but a solid theme hook can also drive a more commercial novel. The hook poses a philosophical question the reader finds intriguing and then explores it.

For example:

  • Two guys with the same name have a chance encounter that profoundly changes both their lives. (Will Grayson, Will Grayson)
  • A girl who longs to run away from home discovers there’s no place like home after all. (The Wizard of Oz)
  • In a world where humanity is falling apart, what does it mean to be human? (The Road)

The Setting Hook

A setting hook offers readers a world (in the most general terms) that intrigues them and makes them want to explore it. It’s unusual and a place readers might want to visit regardless of what kind of novel is set there. It usually triggers a sense of adventure or what kinds of adventures might occur there.

For example:

  • A wizard school hidden within the normal world (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • A boarding school for teen spies (I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • The moor surrounding a mysterious estate (Wuthering Heights)

The Concept Hook

The basic idea is unusual and poses a question that begs an answer. The concept is so intriguing readers want to see how the novel unfolds. These are often posed as “what if” questions.

For example:

  • What if Peter Pan grew up? (Hook)
  • What if Napoleon had had dragons? (His Majesty’s Dragon)
  • What if you could clone dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park)

Wherever the hook comes from, it’s the thing that makes people’s eyes light up when you mention it.

Finding Your Novel’s Hook

If you’re not sure you have a strong enough hook (or you’re still developing your novel), try these brainstorming questions:

  1. List three critical things about your protagonist.
  2. List three critical elements of your conflict.
  3. List three critical things about your theme.
  4. List three critical things about your setting.
  5. List three critical things about your novel concept.

Does anything on your lists jump out as a strong hook? What feels compelling or offers a new twist to an old idea? What best shows the strength of your novel?

Take the ideas that most intrigue or excite you and see how they work with your novel. If you can’t stop thinking about it, that’s a good indication you’ve found the right hook for your novel.

What’s your novel’s hook? (if you want to share, that is)

Based on a workshop from my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

PYNW 2x3Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.


49 Responses to PubCrawl Alum: Discovering Your Novel’s Hook by Janice Hardy

  1. Lara Martin Aug 29 2016 at 7:55 am #

    Thanks, Janice, for a really informative article. I’ve finished my manuscript, but I’ve been struggling for a while now to craft a good query letter. Reading your article made me realize what I’ve been missing all along. So now I’m going to be working on that “hook”. Thank you!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 2:55 pm #

      Best of luck! Sending good writing vibes your way.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 29 2016 at 8:54 am #

    Not sure it’s a hook, but here’s my tagline: A 500-year-old man discovers that he’s trapped in a spell that destroyed the world, when the other half of the spell tries to kill him for its freedom.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      Having what seems to be a sentient spell caught my attention 🙂

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 30 2016 at 3:37 pm #

        The other half of the spell is a spirit, normally non-sentient, but after 500 years it got a thought, to kill the blood that was binding it into the spell. When the spell itself brings the two halves close to each other for the first time in that 500 years is when the sparks fly. There are some unusual aspects to the spell that make this all possible, but sentience isn’t one of them.
        I did, however, have the idea to write the query synopsis from the POV of the spell, rather than any of the people caught up in it, since it’s only from that perspective that all the actors’ actions make sense.
        Wish me luck, I got a request for a partial a few days ago.

  3. Christina wise Aug 29 2016 at 9:48 am #

    Great post and I like the writing exercise at the end to help us find our own hook.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      Thanks! I had a lot of fun writing those.

  4. Leah Aug 29 2016 at 10:48 am #

    I’ve been working at a hook, but I can’t decide which type I like best. The exercise has helped me focus on my protag: an android with the memories/personality of a 1950’s detective it hears as a voice in its head meets a woman with no memories and no identity.

    It feels a little wordy to me, and “meets” is a terribly boring verb. But it’s a good starting place.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 2:58 pm #

      Your hook doesn’t have to be a pitch. This is the thing that makes your book special. As long as you can articulate it so you can write about it, it’s good enough. Later, you’ll work it into your pitch line and query letter.

  5. EmilyR Aug 29 2016 at 11:00 am #

    Hi, Janice! I’m revising my first novel, and sharpening the hook has proven a helpful way to figure out what aspects of the plot can stay and what needs to go. It’s also a great tool for brainstorming the next book. Thank you!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:00 pm #

      Most welcome! That’s a great way to use it.

  6. Aly Aug 29 2016 at 11:10 am #

    The hook for what I’m currently working on is something I haven’t yet considered, since it’s still in its early stages. Maybe finding it will actually help me with plotting the project!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:00 pm #

      I’m sure it will! At the very least, it’ll give you a direction to brainstorm in.

  7. LMartin Aug 29 2016 at 11:10 am #

    Best explanation of the elusive “hook” that I’ve read. Thank you!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:01 pm #

      Aw, thanks so much!

  8. Mark Holtzen Aug 29 2016 at 11:36 am #

    Agreed with those above. Nice brainstorm list to help. Here’s my latest:

    In the tunnels, Ida fights to keep her cobbled together family of forsaken kids close before they’re Taken.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:02 pm #

      A tunnel setting is intriguing. I don’t think I’ve seen many stories set there before.

  9. HR Sinclair Aug 29 2016 at 11:40 am #

    Great tips on figuring out the hook. I like brainstorming questions.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:05 pm #

      Me, too. They open up so many fun possibilities 🙂

  10. Karis Aug 29 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    This was super helpful! Does this work as a hook: a girl who never gets the guy has a bunch of romantic mishaps.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:06 pm #

      It’s a fun premise, but it sounds like a classic romance to me. What about your girl and her mishaps is different and sets her apart from other romances?

  11. Rachel Dellaposta Aug 29 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    Good thoughts, and applicable to many parts of the writing process! I just re-wrote my query letter for the billionth time because I knew there was something off about it. I finally figured out I was focusing on the wrong thing. Once I figured out what my strongest hook was, I changed my query letter to match, and it is so much more interesting!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:07 pm #

      Grats! That’s one reason I always write a query letter before I write the book. It won’t be perfect, but it lets me nail down the critical elements and make sure i have enough to write the story in the first place.

  12. Angraecus Daniels Aug 29 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    I thought I had a great hook with my second novel. Now that I read this, I wonder if I didn’t word it concisely enough. But “Hypnotist discovers repressed memories of child abuse and works with FBI to track down the abuser while trying to help the victim deal with the trauma.” doesn’t sound as interesting to me as the longer version with the character’s backgrounds.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      (I replied to this before but it didn’t go through, so forgive me if this posts twice)

      It’s an interesting premise, but it feels like a typical thriller. What about your characters, the crime, or the story is unique? Often, we get too general trying to be concise and rob our pitches of what’s unique in our story.

  13. JC Martell Aug 29 2016 at 6:02 pm #

    I worked through this in my PYN Workbook and found interrelated “qualifying” hooks in the first 3. I refined and squashed them into a sentence and I believe I have my story’s perfectly stated Concept Hook – and a damn good one! Had it all the time, of course, but was all over the place trying to define it. Once I looked at it this way, it was oh so clear. Will keep me focused on what’s important as I skinny down my thousands of first-draft pages.

    A perfect example of the fresh takes on a much-loved idea is the “secret baby”. Who would have thought it would have it’s own category on Amazon!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:13 pm #

      I’m so glad the workbooks worked so well for you!

      I know! I had no idea either until I attended an RWA conference. They had a whole workshop dedicated to secret babies. It’s HUGE.

  14. Sarah P Aug 29 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    Thanks, Janice. This is incredibly helpful, and I’ll be doing this for both my novels soon. I can’t wait to see what I find.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:13 pm #

      Send good writing vibes your way.

  15. Bonnie J Aug 29 2016 at 7:38 pm #

    The list of brainstorming questions at the end is gold. Now maybe I can find my hook. I’ve always tried to combine all these elements instead of focusing on one.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:14 pm #

      Thanks! Hope they help you find your hook 🙂

  16. Cynthia Aug 30 2016 at 12:50 am #

    Mine is squarely in the theme category, but I worry a little that it’s harder to make that kind of hook compelling. I’d like to hear more about that, and I’d definitely love to hear about the the different marketing situation for “literary” vs. “commercial.”

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:19 pm #

      The details usually make or break a theme hook. The situation you’re exploring the theme, or the world, or the characters can all affect it. Readers might like stories about “X theme,” but if one book is science fiction and one is romance, and they dislike science fiction, they won’t pick it up even if it covers a theme they love.

      Marketing is about the same actually. Its all about finding places your potential readers will hang out, and finding ways to let them know you have a book they might enjoy. The marketing copy will vary, as literary isn’t as “marketing-y” and sales focused, but it still has to sound compelling.

      I’d suggest finding a popular book similar to yours and seeing what they did. You can Google the title and scan trough the hits to see where they guest posted, who reviewed them, what they did for promotion, etc. If they blog or have an active website, a lot of their marketing will appear there as well.

  17. Carla Ketner Aug 30 2016 at 8:10 am #

    There are so many things to think about when writing a novel! Thanks for this straightforward explanation of one of them.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:19 pm #

      Most welcome! (and there certainly is. It can be overwhelming)

  18. Mateeka Quinn Aug 30 2016 at 9:31 am #

    Thank you! I worked on this exercise last night and have a couple of new perspectives for my WIP. I’m so glad I did this BEFORE I started writing!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:20 pm #

      Oh cool! Glad it found you at the right time and saved you some work.

  19. Swati Aug 30 2016 at 10:47 am #

    Great article! Super helpful.

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:21 pm #


  20. Heather Jackson Aug 30 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    This is one of the most helpful breakdowns of what is a hook and how to find it that I’ve ever read! Thanks so much!

    • Janice Hardy Aug 30 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Aw, thanks! And you are most welcome.

  21. Vahlaeity Aug 30 2016 at 10:56 pm #

    After reading this I suspect my WIP is a thematic hook: Duty v. Desire. How the main protagonist and those closest to her navigate this is central to the story. Your article helped me be quite clear and concise about this. 🙂

  22. Christy Aug 30 2016 at 11:20 pm #

    I guess my hook is that my tech-dependent hero slips back in time with nothing but the sweat on his skin. Would you call that a hook?

  23. Janice Hampton Aug 31 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    I love this. I have your book and have read what you wrote before, but it never gets old!

  24. Eddie Sep 1 2016 at 11:21 am #

    This really made me think about my own YA book and how to pitch it. I felt I was offering something different mainly because of the setting and the ethnicity of the characters, but maybe that isn’t what I should be emphasizing. The best way to describe my book is to imagine that Percy Jackson is from Mexico and is there fighting the ancient Olmecs instead of the Greek gods (except that it’s obviously not PJ–that’s just to help people get what the premise is). Is that different enough for the YA myth genre? Everyone who writes YA myth typically sticks to either the Greeks or the Norse (or occasionally the Egyptian gods). I feel that there are far too few Hispanic protagonists in YA lit, especially considering that they are our country’s most populous minority. And nobody seems to write about the Aztecs, Olmecs, Incas, etc. At least not for YA.

  25. Sabina Dec 29 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    Thank you, this was one of the most helpful posts on the hook thst I’ve read yet. Already working on my list!

  26. Nina Feb 10 2017 at 11:44 pm #

    I’m conflicted about my hook. “Teenage monster hunter seeks answers about her parents murder from the man who killed them,” feels to simple while, “Teenage monster hunters seeks answers about her strange abilities and her parents murder from the man who murdered them,” feels way too complicated.

  27. MissDaisy Jun 16 2017 at 5:21 pm #


    I’m glad I found this post before I began submitting queries. I thought I was ready but reading this post showed me that I still had work to do. Within hours I had a much better hook: spicier, more telling, and true to my novel. In fact I was able to see a different twist that doesn’t change the story. The hook is what people are going to be talking about when they tell friends “You’ve got to read this book. It’s…”

    Also, your post helped me find a new way of looking for comps, which I hadn’t been able to find any I felt really worked. I found the hook in my novel and searched for related tags. (It’s a secret!)


  28. MissDaisy Jun 16 2017 at 5:24 pm #

    I should add, I’m not sure which hook I’ll use, still playing with it, but right now thinking of

    Scrap Mettle: FDR’s nuclear secret and how 300 black lives mattered during WWII.

    What do you think?

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