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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- List three critical things about your protagonist.
- List three critical elements of your conflict.
- List three critical things about your theme.
- List three critical things about your setting.
- 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)
Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
Three 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.
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.