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




In my last blog entry I talked about finding your novel ‘hook’ — the one or two sentence description that strikes at the heart of your story and sells it to the right reader.

It’s useful to work this out early because it forces you to hone your sense of the story that you want to tell, in a way that helps you tell it.

It’s hard to find the center of a completed manuscript if there’s no center there to begin with.

You want to make sure you put the ‘there’ there.


Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her excellent book The Creative Habit, talks about ‘scratching’ and ‘spine’.

Scratching is what you do to find ideas.

You scratch at the world around you, searching for whatever will spark your imagination.

‘Scratching’ generates your raw materials. These are the ideas that you want to explore, but in and of themselves lack forward movement. You could say you want to write about love, or the hidden lives of families, or the return of the repressed. These ideas are important to your storytelling, but useless on their own. They sit there. They look at you. Okay, genius. Now what?

My scratching for my novel THE DECADENTS produced these materials: love, forbidden desire, friendship, reincarnation (the return of the past), the secret emotional legacies handed down within families that play out in other relationships.

Then — to find the ‘spine’ (and the beginning of my ‘hook’) — I ask: who are my characters and what do they want?

One of my favorite sayings is “desire rules the world”. People who go after the things that they want — and how they succeed or fail — create the society that we live in.

Desire creates politics; creates history; creates stories.

Your narrative begins with desire, and ends with how it does — or does not — get fulfilled.


After my last entry, readers suggested to me the following:

THE DECADENTS is about a reincarnated Hollywood ‘It’ girl who gets involved in a love triangle with two older men that ignites traumatic memories and starts repeating an erotic obsession that, twenty years ago, ended in tragedy. (Steve Prosapio)

Sounds to me like it’s about the reincarnation of a murdered actress who finds three of the men involved in her disappearance, and how they fall into the original behavior patterns that led to her murder, even though she’s not fully aware of her past life.

This, I think, might be my spine…but not my hook.

The spine is when different ideas hook together and the basic narrative reveals itself.

But the hook is the center. The center is where all the different elements meet, and crystallize, so that one or two sentences suggest the entire novel.

Which means my ‘hook’ needs to include the group of wealthy hedonistic thirtysomething friends that the dancer gets involved with, because the group dynamic is a major part of the narrative.

When I put this to a reader — the writer Stacia Kane — she came back with this:

Perhaps something about how the relationships of a group of wealthy, hedonistic friends are forever altered when a new woman enters their circle and it turns out she is the reincarnation of a murder victim, and her former self seeks to use her as a tool for revenge?

I played with this and came up with:

A group of wealthy friends in Los Angeles is forever altered when a young dancer with memories of a past life gets involved with two of the men, igniting a drama of erotic obsession that echoes events from twenty years ago, when one of their own disappeared.

I think I’m getting closer, because what these last two examples suggest that the previous ones did not is this: transformation.

Because stories are not just about desire and conflict, but change.

Somebody wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it, but in order to overcome those obstacles he or she has to transform.

So I have some more thinking to do, about my ‘hook’ but also the novel itself.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Twyla Tharp: On Failing Well

Twyla Tharp’s Spine

Nov 16, 2009

8 comments · Add Yours

Hi Justine :)
Thank you for sharing today.
I learned more about ‘the hook’.
Thanks again for sharing,
All the best,


Putting aside the absurdity of my suggesting what your book is about without having read a word of it, I have a few comments.

One reason you might be having trouble boiling this down to a simple one-sentence summary is that what you’ve described is, on the face of it, not at all simple. You’ve got several complex ideas going at the same time. Let’s count them:

1) Dead girl reincarnated.
2) Reincarnated girl a victim of incest.
3) Dead girl may or may not have been murdered.
4) Reincarnated girl experiences repetition compulsion — either with incest events or hedonistic events.
5) Reincarnated girl involved in a love triangle
6) And her lovers aren’t strangers, either — they’re lifelong friends.

Any one of these, all by itself, is a novel.

Sometimes complex ideas require complex narratives, but sometimes they require the opposite: very simple narrative structures that provide a canvas for the complexity of the ideas to play out. In Hollywood, there is a tendency to take very, very simple ideas and embed them in a complex narrative with the idea that the basic theme must be easy to follow because of the “interesting” way the story is told. “Crash” is a complicated narrative about complicated ideas. “Sixth Sense” is a complicated movie about simple ideas. Both are great.

There are two ideas here that resonate with each other, in my opinion. One is the idea of a repetition compulsion; the other is the idea of reincarnation. Reincarnation is a kind of supernatural repetition compulsion. I don’t think it’s a mystery that so many believers in ideas like past life regression are victims of trauma: because their lives feel so dominated and controlled by the events of their trauma, it feels as though their life is not their own to live — it’s “someone else’s.” That’s what trauma can feel like: something so devastating that you emerge from it feeling like a different person, as though you died and were reborn into a new, unhappy life, unable to forget the memories of your old, happy life.

You make reference here to abuse victims forming “families of friends to make up for what they never had.” That’s one thing that can happen. But it’s also very common for abuse victims to feel compelled to repeat the patterns of their abuse. One of the most exciting stories you can tell is the story of an abuse victim who breaks the pattern of abuse in their life. (Every episode of “Intervention” tells this story, and it’s gripping to watch.) The language of the repetition compulsion you describe here is very romantic — “hedonism,” a love triangle, an artist and a CEO, limerence. Coupling that sensibility with the reality of incest will be tricky, if it’s even possible.

You’re a smart businesswoman to be thinking of the hook with which you will sell this book. My sense here, though, is that you have not yet found the hook with which you can sell this book to yourself. You’re going to need to figure out why these ideas appeal to you — what it is, at their core, that draws you to them. If you choose to hang on to these seven elements of the story, you’re going to need to find the idea at their core that holds them together and requires that they be the essential building blocks of your story. Is it really necessary to this story that she be an incest victim? Why? Is it really necessary that it be a love triangle? Why is she a dancer and not a psychotherapist? Why is he a CEO and not an Associate VP of Sales? What’s driving this story? Is the structure of this story so complicated because it needs to be or because the central idea is still too undefined for the necessary structure to clarify itself? It may, as I think you suggest here, still be too early to be making these kinds of decisions.


the book is about the emotional legacy of a family and how it repeats, replays itself in other relationships and, yes, what it takes to break the pattern. abuse, though, isn’t always so straightforward.

thank you for your comments…

and yes, I am familiar with trauma, although your description of it doesn’t resonate with me — ‘reborn’ is not the word I would use. trauma is a force that punches through the walls of your reality. it is overpowering and you literally can’t deal with it — so the mind finds ways to detach or deny.

I love the show Intervention — it’s gripping.

as for why a CEO?….it’s what I know, for one thing (I am surrounded by entrepreneurs and have been for 10 years) and it’s the needed personality type, for the other. technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment, art and money all tend to intersect (witness the TED conference for example). entrepreneurs and artists have certain things in common — both rebel against a certain way of living, they don’t work for salaries, they take on a life of risk, etc.

and finally…just because ‘hedonism’ ‘triangles’ ‘limerence’ etc., have pretty sounds to them, doesn’t mean they’re ‘romantic’. you’re talking about concepts that in reality can have a pretty dark underside of addiction, obsession, and fear & avoidance of intimacy (and the loneliness and self-loathing that result). these are not the kind of things that indicate happy childhoods.

just because I write about the wealthy does not mean I am writing an episode of Melrose Place. :)


you’re welcome! thank you for commenting!


(An aside–have you read Dorothy Tennov’s “Love and Limerence”? She coined the term.)


I hardly expect you to write an episode of Melrose Place. Your novel Bloodlines, after all, opens with one character eating another character’s heart. Raw.

I’m glad to hear you talk about the dark side of these themes, though. For me, all of these concepts – limerence, love triangles, hedonism – are profoundly dysfunctional. Compulsive behavior is always born of pain. Our culture tends to romanticize these ideas. I’ve never met a hedonist (and here, by the way, I’m thinking of that special combination of drug use and promiscuity – I’m probably too limited in my conception of this) who wasn’t profoundly lonely and full of self-loathing, as you say. It’s very hard to write about this kind of pain – technically hard, I mean, apart from being emotionally hard – because it tends to be a narrative dead end. Neurotic coping mechanisms are about resisting change, resisting the transformational narrative that you rightly point out is at the heart of most stories we like to read. You’ve set a difficult challenge for yourself in tackling this material. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

I don’t think we disagree about the nature of these things, although I think it’s fruitless to generalize about the nature of trauma. There are a million flavors. But I wouldn’t be too quick to give up on the idea that trauma causes an unhappy rebirth. Abuse and trauma victims tell this story over and over: how their lives feel divided into two parts, one before their trauma, one after; how they felt like one person before their trauma and a completely different person after; how they learned to cope with triggering events by detaching from themselves, sometimes even assuming a different persona. To the extent that fantasy makes concrete these feelings we tend to internalize (UFOs mirror the alienation of modern society, Godzilla manifests the anxiety caused by the atom bomb, Dracula embodies repressed sexuality, and so forth), reincarnation can be a powerful narrative tool to explore these ideas – ideas that are specific to the theme of resolving the pain of trauma.

“The book is about the emotional legacy of a family and how it repeats, replays itself in other relationships.” This is a little different from the way you’ve described the hook up until now. I’ve had the impression that the story is about a group of strangers – hedonists – one of whom happens to be an incest victim, and two of whom are in love with both her and with the girl she may have been in a previous life. In your blog post about your Undermind, you bring up the issue of the complexity of your story, along with the question of who exactly is at the center of the story. I notice that you’re not coming up with a hook that incorporates the idea of transformation, even though your discussion of the book always comes back to the theme of transformation, both from a technical standpoint and a thematic standpoint. For example: “The book is about an incest victim who learns to stop re-enacting the experience of her trauma through abusive relationships by killing the relative who raped her.” Now THAT would make a great Melrose Place episode ….


By the way, I don’t care whether he’s a CEO or not. The only thing that matters is that this choice — which is your choice — is one that serves the story (and it sounds like it does). Or, to look at it another way, that if you change this detail it will change the story significantly. These kinds of decisions require that you have a thorough grasp on the material — an understanding of what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. That understanding, of course, may not come until you’ve finished writing the book. I assume that this decision you’ve made about the personality of these characters connects to the other elements of the story in a way that is intentional on your part, is significant and creates some kind of resonance or tension that operates in an intentional way in the book.


This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.


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