Query Letters–Shannon Style (Part Two: Hooks)

January 11th, 2011 | Blog Uncategorized

Last week we talked about the basic structure and organization of a query letter–or at least how I personally like to structure and organize them. (incidentally, if you missed last week's post, you can find it HERE)
And I'd promised I would talk more in depth about writing some of those parts in further posts, so I'm going to TRY to tackle one of them today (emphasis on try–this one's tough). Today we're talking about the hook. (dun dun dunnnnnnnn)
(and remember, just like last time, I'm NOT an agent, or an expert, and I am also quite silly and blonde so, yanno, take all of this with a grain of salt)

Okay, so…to me a hook is one (or two, if you really need it) KILLER sentences that grab the agent's attention right from the start.

Whether you follow my suggestion and have the hook be the first sentence of the query, or whether you start with the stats sentence and follow with the hook, YOU NEED TO HAVE A HOOK. It will probably be one of the hardest sentences you ever write, but push yourself to do it because it makes such a difference to the quality of your query.

Basic tips for hook writing:

-Start with your main character
-Give details/specifics that establish a major aspect of the plot of your book
-Feature something that sets your book apart from everything else
-Don't be vague or coy
-Keep it short and powerful
-Use words that let you showcase your voice

And I know what you're probably thinking right now: wow–that's a LOT of stuff for one (or two) sentences–and you're right. You can't do EVERYTHING with a single hook. But this is where you start–your list of goals–and then you whittle things away to make the sentence more powerful as you go.

I base this partially on personal taste, and partially on something my agent–the lovely Laura Rennert–always recommends. She says that for pitching a project, the ideal is: Who, What, Where, and Why should I care? And since a query is basically a written pitch, and your hook is the very first part of that pitch, you want to cover as much of that in your hook as you can.

Now to me, the most important part of that is the: Why should I care? Which so often seems to be forgotten in the hooks people write.

I can't tell you how often–when I critique queries–I see a hook that goes something like this:

Harry Potter always wanted to find somewhere he belonged.


Eleven-year-old Harry Potter hates living with his cruel Aunt and Uncle, the Dursleys.

Are those bad sentences? Not necessarily. But they're TERRIBLE hooks!
They don't tell you ANYTHING about the book, and they completely leave out the why should I care?  The first example could pretty much be applied to every. single. middle-grade or YA book. And the second example, while being a little more specific, focuses on a relatively unimportant part of the story. Neither of them do any justice to the amazingness that is Harry Potter. And neither of them make me want to know more. Neither of them make me care.
So why do I usually see hooks like that in people's queries?  
Hooks like the second example tend to appear because the writer got stuck in “the chronological zone.” The: my plot starts with my character at point X so my query needs to start at point X.Which is not the best reason for choosing where to start your query, believe me.
Mind you, your novel should be starting in the most interesting place possible (if it's not, you need to revise). But that still doesn't mean that you should start your query in the exact same place your novel starts–but we'll get to that in a minute. 
I see hooks like the first example above, because really what the writer is doing is setting up for their next sentence. In which case the query might read something like: 
Harry Potter always wanted to find somewhere he belonged. So when a half man, half giant named Hagrid appears one stormy night with an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry feels like his dreams have finally come true.

Which…isn't HORRIBLE. But it's not GREAT either. Plus its LONG.
And even if you polish up that rather awkward second sentence, I still personally feel like the first sentence is a total throw-away–and why would you want one of the first things an agent reads to be a total throw away? Personally I'd rather find a way to combine those two into one, much more powerful sentence. 
But there's another reason those two sentences aren't a great hook (in my opinion), and it ties into the reason the other example was also a bad hook. You're skipping the: why should I care? You're leaving out the stuff that makes the agent think: Ooooooooooo, that's interesting. I want to know more. 

Think about Harry Potter. What REALLY made it an interesting story? Was it that he lived with his cruel aunt and uncle? Nah–lots of kids do that. Was it that he went to a wizarding school? That's better. But still, there are other books about wizards and magic schools.
To me, what made Harry Potter interesting was who he was–the tiny baby who survived an attack from the most powerful dark wizard ever. So if I had to query Harry Potter (and oh mans do I wish THAT had been the book I'd written–even if I would've been like 12 when she wrote it) I would've written a hook somewhere along the lines of:
(and bear with me here, I didn't have THAT much time to come up with these so I'm sure they could be better. If anything, this will show you that you can't just crank these bad boys out–they take a lot more time than slamming together a quick blog post)
Harry Potter is the boy who lived.


Harry Potter had always wondered how he'd gotten the strange, lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead. 

Personally I'd go with the first one, because to me, MAN does that peak my curiosity. What do you mean “the boy who lived”? Did he almost die? And how did he live? Why? 
You've got my attention. Not to mention, the term “the boy who lived” is unique to Harry Potter's story, and so dang cool sounding. 
But if you're the kind of person who likes a few more details in your hook, the second one also works, because it also makes you think: Cool–a scar shaped like a lightning bolt? What would cause that? And why doesn't he remember?

Basically, you want to get the agent asking questions. The first two examples I gave didn't do that. There's no need to ask why Harry doesn't belong. ALL kids feel that way, for the most part. And there's no need to ask why he hates living with his cruel Aunt and Uncle because you told the reader: they're cruel. You're just stating obvious facts, not grabbing their attention. 
Do you see the point?
If not, here's a few more bad vs better hooks I've invented, just to try to make this clearer (and I'm trying to pick books I'm fairly certain most of you will have read, if not all):
Bad: Isabella Swan hates living in the soggy town of Forks, Washington.
Why: Who cares? A “soggy town” sounds like a horrible place to me too! Especially one named Forks.

Bad: Isabella Swan has never met anyone like Edward Cullen
Why: Too vague. You could swap out the character names and apply this to pretty much any book.

Better: Isabella Swan always joked that she was a “danger magnet,” but when she catches the eye of Edward Cullen, she has no idea how true that is.
Why: Okay, the wording needs work, but at least this hints at the plot and makes you wonder wait, why is he dangerous?

Better: Bella Swan knows three things: that Edward Cullen is a Vampire, that there's a part of him that wants to kill her, and that she's hopelessly and irrevocably in love with him.
Why: Um, how could you not be at least *a little* curious about that? (also, I can't take credit for writing that one. I stole it from the cover copy and simply tweaked it a little)

Bad: Katniss Everdeen will do anything to protect her little sister Prim.
Why: Kind of a throw-away. Clearly just a set-up for the next sentence, and would be better off being reworked into something more powerful.

Bad: Katniss Everdeen has always been a fighter.
Why: Again, this is one of those “set-up” sentences. And is just too darn vague.

(incidentally, it's REALLY hard to write bad hooks for THE HUNGER GAMES. That book is just too darn fascinating)

Better: Katniss Everdeen knows there's only one rule in The Hunger Games: kill or be killed.

Why: Who doesn't want to know more about that?

Better: Katniss Everdeen does not plan to survive The Hunger Games.

Why: Immediately makes me wonder, why? What are The Hunger Games? What will happen to her?

Now, I know, none of my examples are perfect–it takes a LONG time and a lot of tweaking to write a good hook and I just didn't have that kind of time today. So yeah, they still need some serious polishing. But I hope you can at least see the basic idea. 
You want your hook to have specifics. Details that arouse questions. Hooks that apply to your story and your story alone. That spotlight your character and hint at your plot in the most interesting way possible
And above all else: make the agent CARE. Make them want to keep reading instead of sending a form rejection and moving on to the next query flooding their inbox. This is your one chance to really impress them, right from the first word. Put the time in and do it right.
I'll talk more next week about how to write the stuff that follows the hook, and in the week after I'll cover some other querying bits and pieces, like researching agents and why it's so important to get help and critiques on your query. But I think that's enough for today.
And remember—you are WELCOME to disagree with me on any of this. Don't forget this series on Queries is part of the “Shannon Style” series. This is all part of my own personal approach to query letter writing, and I'm hardly an expert. So if you have a method you like better, by all means: Ignore me! 🙂
What about you guys? Any questions? Suggestions? Concerns? Lay them on me in the comments. 

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