Your book is your product, and like any great product, you’ve got to show it off, describe it, and relate it to your customer quickly if you have any hope of getting it off the shelves and into your customer’s shopping cart.
No, we’re not talking about book-signings, posters, and other external marketing. You need to capture your readers’ attention quickly with an unique, well-crafted hook. By using these techniques, you can learn to sell your book in just a few simple sentences.
What is a Hook?
In short, a hook is a sentence or collection of sentences designed to grab your reader’s attention right away. Hooks are quick, catchy, and give up a lot of information or create a lot of intrigue all while maintaining a comparably low word count. Simple, yet deep. Short in word count, but lengthy in ideas.
Unlike a book jacket, the hook does not have to reveal the entire depth of the plot right away. Rather, the hook should give your reader a sample of the conflict to come. Introduce your main protagonist, reveal a small amount of the conflict, and give away a few of the emotions and thoughts your character has towards the event at hand.
Your hook doesn’t need to be a single sentence, but you should keep it shorter than a paragraph. Detail is not your friend when writing the hook. Stick to introducing the protagonist, giving a snapshot of the conflict, and hint at the current action without getting bogged down with specifics.
Begin with an Impressive First Line
First impressions matter.
The first line of your book must be a combination of things. Interesting, informative, but still mysterious. This can be a make-or-break-it moment for your readers. A good first line will capture their attention and persuade them to bring the book home. A bad first line, and your book will get re-shelved.
So how do you write a good one?
Start with something that will jar the readers. Write a sentence that will make them ask themselves questions or create something that is pleasantly vague so the readers must read on for clarification.
An example of this jarring statement combined with a good lack of detail is the first line from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”:
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Now, if you’ve read this book, seen the movie, or just heard the story somewhere, you know what this is referring to. Going in blind however, you likely have tons of questions already. What is burning? Why is this a joyous occasion? How does this relate to the title? Who is burning everything? All of those questions from a single line. In six words, Bradbury has already attracted your attention and ignited your curiosity.
As you craft this first line, consider your word choices. Ask yourself what the most interesting word in the sentence is. How does that word encapsulate the theme or mood of your book? If your book is about an ordinary person experiencing an ordinary change, a delightfully simple first line may be your best bet. If you’re trying to capture a specific mood or action, you may have to scour the dictionary for a verb more interesting than “said”.
When you write your own first line, consider the amount of intrigue or emotion it generates. If the opening line of your book is boring, chances are you’ve lost the reader before your plot is even described.
Play Around With Time
Who said you have to stick events in strict chronological order?
Hop in your time machine and discover some interesting points in your protagonist’s life. Are there any major events that would affect their personality permanently? Did they experience a great loss that hangs over their head to this day, or did they have a moment of great success that quickly changed their life? This isn’t the climax of your story, but maybe a moment in your character’s past that molded them into who they are to this day.
If you have a moment in time like this, put it at the very beginning of your book. Delve into what happened in incredible detail and the permanent effect it had on your protagonist. This could be something as tragic as a death in the family, or something trivial that the character has always held on to and used as a guide through their life. This flashback should expose parts of a character’s personality, and provide insight into their mindset as the reader approaches the plot of the book.
When you return to present day, tie the flashback into current day events. Perhaps the main character is retelling this moment in time to a friend, recalling the event in a dream, or remembering the past as it relates to the present. When the character returns to present day, ensure that the reader sees the clear connection between past and present.
Introduce Conflict and Raise the Stakes Quickly
Nobody wants to meander aimlessly through multiple pages waiting for conflict to start. A boring intro will land your book back on the shelf.
Within the first few pages, introduce conflict. This doesn’t have to be the main conflict of the book, but can be a smaller obstacle that ties into the main plot. Think about a smaller battle in the context of a larger war. This gives your reader a taste of the action to prepare them for the larger plot ahead.
In addition to introducing conflict, indicate what is at stake if the main character does not defeat the antagonist of the story. Whether you shout the risks from the rooftop or hint at what may be lost, make sure the reader knows what may happen if the end goal is not achieved.
One way to hint at the risks and potential losses is to highlight a character’s values early on. If another character’s life will be at risk later one, show the protagonist spending time with them or speaking of their affection for the other. If a precious object may be lost, bring it into the story early on and repeat its importance to the character and the story.
High stakes and tension will fill your reader with excitement before they even reach the second chapter. The more action and intrigue you can introduce in the first pages, the more likely your book will be taken home for further reading.
Create an Instant Connection
The best main characters are ones the reader can relate to.
In the first few pages, the protagonist should be introduced as someone your audience will relate to. Characterize them quickly through their opening actions, dialogue, and appearance. When the protagonist opens his or her mouth, are the first words something we could imagine ourselves saying, are those first words rude, condescending, or just incomprehensible?
Introduce not only the main character, but their emotions as well. What is the protagonist feeling in the early pages of the book? Is he or she depicted as carefree, unaware of what is yet to come, or are they already in a state of despair, seeking change or hoping for a better tomorrow? An emotional connection will cause your audience to have sympathy for your protagonist, and will provoke them to find out how the story ends.
Beyond emotions and characterization, search your novel outline for one of the unique tidbits about your protagonist. What sets them apart from the average Jane or John Doe? If they have a specific skill or interesting backstory, slip it into the hook as soon as possible. Their “interesting fact” can even be your hook.
With a combination of emotion, good characterization, and unique qualities, your reader will be excited to get to know your character from the moment they appear.
Study the Masters
If you’ve tested tons of hooks and still aren’t sure how yours measures up, take to the library and read the opening pages of recent best-sellers and other famous literature. Revisit some of your personal favorites and rediscover what made you keep reading. Sure, some books may have a slow start, but plenty of books have impressive hooks that secured them the popularity they enjoy today.
If you need a little extra guidance, try categorizing your favorite hooks and discover what you like about them. Are you a flashback type of person that loves a quick time change, or do you love a killer open line that you can quote to your friends? If you find a style you love, test it out with your own writing.
Don’t stick with books either! Explore some well-known movies and study the beauty in their opening scenes. Do the first few minutes keep your eyes glued to the screen? How can you recreate that in your writing?
We can’t all be the next Franz Kafka, but with a little luck you should be able to write just as good a hook!
When you cut it down to basics, a good hook is all about relatability, powerful words, and emotion. You need to grab your reader’s attention with a few flashy words then reel them into your plot using unique character traits and a punch of emotion. Try multiple introductions, read up on some of the best opening sentences out there, and don’t be afraid to write and re-write until you have something that will snag a reader for good.