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Great Book Hooks for Fiction and Nonfiction Books

great book hooks - Carolyn Daughters

Want your book idea to stand out in a massive slush pile of manuscripts? It’s no easy feat. Great books usually have great book hooks, which is your agent’s or publishing house editor’s first impression of your book. It’s what sets you apart from every other author and sets your work apart from the myriad books stacked on bookshelves the world over.

The goal is to create a memorable hook that captures the attention and imagination of an agent or editor. You want them thinking about your book and anticipating it long after they’ve read your query.

Writing a hook is no easy feat. I’ll share the nuts and bolts, along with a few examples.

What Makes Great Book Hooks?

So what makes a great hook? The answer: simplicity + clarity + something new. Authors often confuse their main story conflict with their hook. It’s tempting to tell an agent or an editor that you’ve written the most touching love story, or a rags to riches memoir unlike any other, or a suspenseful thrill ride that will keep readers guessing. That’s not your hook.

Let me repeat: that’s not your hook. These story synopsis “telegrams” sound generic and trite. They’re too vague and ambiguous to set anyone’s brain on fire.

To be clear, your hook doesn’t need to be multiple paragraphs long. If it’s a nonfiction business book, you don’t need to give them a historical treatise of your rise to success. If it’s fiction, you don’t need to share every nuance of the characters’ relationships or the book’s main conflict.

Introspection Is Key

Great book hooks make the reader or listener want to know how the story will play out. What you want to do first is get them interested in you and your book’s premise.

Make your hook short and sweet. Help the agent or editor see if you’re a good match for them and the types of books they like to represent.

To find your book’s hook, ask yourself:

  1. What makes my story unique?
  2. If I could tell an editor or an agent one thing about my book, what would it be?
  3. In your perfect world, what’s the reader’s takeaway – what do you want readers to know, understand, or feel after they’ve finished your book?

Also think about books in the same genre that you’ve read. What about each of them hooked you? (If you’re working with a book editor, you might ask them to help you. How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen also provides tons of great ideas and tips.)

This is also a good opportunity to identify comp titles – books you can cite as similar in some way to your own.

Along those lines, if you haven’t read many books in your chosen genre, you might consider thumbing through a few. If you’re writing a book that you yourself probably wouldn’t read had it been written by anyone else, your book may well be a vanity project. Now, undertaking a vanity project is fine so long as you understand that your audience may be limited to friends, family, and colleagues. Some food for thought.

Great Book Hook Examples

Here are a few examples of book hooks:

  • A suicidal man meets an angel, who turns back the clock and shows him how his town and everyone he loved would turn out if he had never been born.
  • A messed up, recently divorced woman finds peace through a spiritual quest that takes her to Italy, India, and Indonesia.
  • A young rich white woman helps black maids tell their story in 1960s Mississippi.
  • A comprehensive game plan to ditch the nine to five from a cubicle and create a business that supports you living an exciting adventure filled life.
  • What if you could be debt-free in 12 months no matter how much you owe?
  • Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became the first person to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

Get Out of the Rabbit Hole

If your hook attempt is vague, trite, or confusing, it won’t be an actual hook.

Avoid using overly sensational language in an attempt to generate emotion or curiosity. Empty phrases such as “unprecedented” or “best” or “first of its kind” feel overblown and may make the agent or editor distrust you.

In addition, many authors try to use a book hook as a way to educate the agent or editor. Nonfiction authors in particular often like to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in the hopes that their audience is wowed by what they’ve done and how much they know. What an agent or editor really wants to hear is something provocative and new.

Great Book Hooks Are Unforgettable

Agents and editors love strong hooks because it lets them know immediately whether your book will be a good fit for them. Period.

A great hook is easy for people to grasp. They’re intrigued, not confused or bored. They read or hear your hook, and they feel they have to know more.

It can be hard to find the hook in our own work. We get lost in our own stories. We get in our own way.

Finding your hook requires work, thought, and probably some research. However, the process is worth it. Discovering what makes your book unique and then communicating that idea can make the difference between a blasé pitch and an engaging one or, better yet, an engaging pitch and an unforgettable one.

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