how to figure out your novel ‘hook’, part one



I’m writing a novel called ‘The Decadents’ and need to figure out the answer to the question people ask when they discover you’re writing a novel (usually after, ‘Are you published?’ and ‘Have I heard of you?’ and sometimes ‘Who is your publisher?’, which is another way of asking, ‘Is it a real publisher?’)

They ask, “What is it about?”

It’s a powerful question.

And if you can’t answer it – without going into some rambling description that makes your listener’s eyes glaze over — you have a problem. You have a manuscript that might have all the elements in play (strong writing, great characters, good pacing, etc.) but which an agent or editor will reject because it’s muddled at the center.

Often you don’t know the real, deep answer to what the book is ‘about’ until you’ve completed at least a draft of the thing. And that’s as it should be: the first draft (and the second, and the third) is all about exploration.

Exploration of the story, exploration of the characters.

Exploration of yourself.

But when people ask, “What is it about?”, they aren’t looking for the deep answer. They want the ‘hook’. They want the thirty-second elevator pitch, so they can nod and smile and sip their cocktails and change the subject.

It’s what agents want when you approach them with your manuscript.

It’s what editors want when the agent approaches them with the manuscript.

Because a manuscript doesn’t get sold once. It gets sold over and over again. The agent sells to editors; the editors sell in-house, to other editors, then to sales and marketing; the jacket copy sells to readers; you yourself are selling the book, unwittingly or not, whenever you talk about it.

The point of the hook is to intrigue, through suggestion and implication.

You aren’t laying out a detailed synopsis of the story. There’s no time. You are, in just one or two sentences, suggesting the shape and reach and style of the story.

You are promising that the story has a center, and it is sharp and clear.

So answering the question, “What is your novel about?” is good practice. You have the chance to refine your answer according to your developing sense of the story and how people respond. At the same time, you can fake it a bit, because all you’re doing is suggesting and implying.

My rambling answer goes something like this:

I’m interested in the idea of repetition compulsion — how we unconsciously repeat relationships from the past in order to master or resolve them — and also about how survivors of incest and emotional incest tend to find each other, and also how people with dysfunctional family backgrounds will form their own little families of friends to make up for what they never had. So ‘The Decadents’ is about this group of wealthy hedonistic thirtysomethings who live in LA and are close friends and this young dancer wanders into their midst and sets off this drama of erotic obsession that echoes events from twenty years ago when a Hollywood ‘It’ girl went missing, because the dancer might be the reincarnation of this girl, and she’s traumatized by these memories of her past life and gets involved in a love triangle that might culminate in the same tragic end if they can’t figure out what really happened to the missing girl…

How do I find the ‘hook’ in this?

I can ask myself: who are the characters and what do they want?

Well, the dancer wants to feel whole. She wants to overcome not just her past, but her past life. She also wants love, acceptance, and safety.

And there are two men who want her. Who happen to be best friends. And one of them is married and not quite what he seems. And both these men were deeply involved in the life of the disappeared girl, which is why the dancer compels them, and vice versa. All three are driven by an attraction that they don’t understand but sets them against each other in various ways.

So my hook is somewhere in there.


My book is about a young dancer who gets involved in a love triangle with two older men, an artist and a CEO, who have been best friends since high school.

This suggests some of the shape of the story, and the conflict, but it’s not enough. ‘The Decadents’ is a supernatural psychological thriller, and the ‘hook’ should convey that.

So maybe:

The book is about a young dancer who gets involved in a love triangle with two older men that ignites traumatic memories of her past life and starts repeating an erotic obsession that ended in tragedy twenty years ago.

Hmmm. Kind of long. Kind of awkward.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Literary Agent Nathan Bransford: How to Craft a Great Hook

Editor Unleashed: The Query Letter In Three Parts

Nov 13, 2009

7 comments · Add Yours

I stumble consistently when people ask that question. We think we know what our story is about, but when our feet are held to the fire, we burn. My inquisitors’ eyes glaze over. They look for more cogent people with whom they can speak. They’re embarrassed for me. Part of me thinks that, as the author, we are hyper aware of the nuances and the themes and the backstory, and, therefore, have difficulty boiling it down.
I just re-wrote my novel summary for the third time today- on my blog, I call it the second version because my second effort never saw the light of day. I’m pretty sure it will change again as after this round of revisions and again after the next round. I guess that’s okay, because I can use the practice.


I enjoyed this post a lot, Justine. We all know we need a hook but I think it comes down to the fact that it’s just plain hard for a writer to condense everything that goes into the story down into an ‘elevator pitch.’ But we do this with the novels we read all the time. “You have to read this book I’m reading. It’s about…” So maybe we need to work on taking a step back from everything that we know about our book and think how we’d describe it to someone if we were reading it.

I love your idea of starting with the rambling answer. That way you can get everything out and onto the page and then form it from there. And the recognition that your ‘hook’ will change throughout the writing, revision and selling process is helpful. You’re not stuck with the book that got you started at the beginning but may not work once you start querying.


“Hyper aware of the nuances and theme and backstory and have difficulty boiling it down” — yeah, exactly. which is as it should be: we need to be in love with the work in order to carry it in our heads and live with it for the length of time required. so as a result we find all those little aspects of it fascinating. and, like someone in love, we might lack an objective viewpoint that can take in the bigger picture (and thus find the ‘hook’). :)


that’s a really good point (about stepping back and describing the book like we describe the books we read). and also shows you that published novels *can* be condensed — you can wrap our hand around the heart of the book.

and absolutely, the hook should evolve as the book evolves — nothing is set in stone. a manuscript is a living thing. it needs to be allowed to change.


this process is exactly the one I use in a field about as far from fiction writing as you can get – biotech commercialisation (actually, now that i think about it, there might be some similarities…timeframes are long, the odds are tough and the market ultimately determines success) To be able to condense an extremely complicated technical concept, combined with the business opportunity it represents, into a cogent explanation, with a hook, that can be delivered in 30 seconds to someone with absolutely no context. It’s extremely challenging but I have always found that the process forces me to truly understand the concept.

sorry for the unrelated ramble, but it struck a chord.


that wasn’t unrelated at all, thanks for sharing…having to explain anything to anybody forces you to understand it…like the saying goes, “the best way to learn anything is to teach it” including aspects of your work…being forced to strip anything down to its essentials doesn’t leave you anyplace to hide.


Great post. I really struggle with this when people ask me what my books are about. Sometimes I just describe the genre (“They big epic fantasy novels,” or “my next one is a YA novel about angels”). I’m *terrible* at boiling it down to a single-sentence pitch. It’s something I really need to work on.



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