Have you ever asked someone to tell you what their book is about? And then spend the next 10 minutes listening to hems and haws, mumbling and a lot of “and then THIS happens!”? Damon Suede is here to tell us how to boil your book down to a short sentence. Can you do it? Take the challenge!
Every year at the Romance Writers of America convention, I volunteer with the editor/agent pitch sessions. This July, at the bar afterwards, I fell into conversation with some of the kind folks taking pitches who shared one complaint: great hooks had been in short supply. Later, a couple marketers and a buyer from a big box chain joined our convo and the consensus was swift: what sells any book is its hook.
Until a reader opens the cover, great prose or a mind-blowing story is theoretical. When fans pimp their favorite author, how do they convince bystanders to take a chance? In a market spoiled for choice, browsers in a library, a mall, or even a tradeshow must pluck one title out of thousands. What snags attention is that hook.
Whether you refer to it as a “killer premise” or “high concept,” finding the right hook has become job one for anyone writing genre fiction. Although hooks have existed in popular entertainment since the Greeks built a big horse as a lethal going-away prezzy, the modern idea of hooks is about 40 years old and the rebirth of Hollywood as a hit factory.
In the mid 1970s, film evolved from a relatively stable ecosystem into something carnivorous and nimble because of the breakup of the Studio system and the rise of TV. A little summer flick film called JAWS radically altered the way the American public consumed entertainment and launched Stephen Spielberg’s career. Two years later a scrappy little B-lister called STAR WARS sealed the deal and decimated the old model of doing business. Writer/director George Lucas proved merchandising and licensing could extend the life of a movie far beyond the confines of a theater. The two men partnered on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and upended all of the truisms that had lingered in Hollywood as it crawled out of its Ancien Régime wreckage and towards cable studios and entertainment-on-demand.
These pivotal popcorn films proved you could make a fortune with crowd-pleasing tentpole movies offering broad appeal and a simple, punchy story. Each was built around a simple, dynamic premise that put a high concept spin on old tropes using emotional heft and visual impact. Forty years later, we remember that fin cresting in the water, the sound and slash of lightsabers, and that big ball rolling through a tunnel. All of these films became franchises, and all made fortunes for their creators by building a phenomenal hook and baiting the hell out of it.
In the business we call show, money talks. Studios noticed that high concept hooks generated the biggest audiences and the healthiest franchises. After the doldrums of the 60s and early 70s, Hollywood resurrected itself around high-concept popcorn movies and vast entertainment empires arose. (Justin Wyatt’s High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood is a terrific overview)
Terry Rossio calls high concept “mental real-estate” because it traffics in subjects, characters, and objects audiences already recognize. If audiences are already invested, storytellers can tap into those feelings and cut to the chase. Every high concept story accesses strong emotions and requires no explanation because it accesses a preexisting region of the popular imagination. This is why Hollywood pays so much for major bestsellers and big-name talent. Hunger Games and Chris Evans had already colonized millions of imaginations before Jennifer Lawrence and Avengers turned up. Yay, branding!
Blockbusters embrace an existing genre in a way that attracts existing fans and make the emotional stakes visible while adding enough fresh sizzle to snag a new audience. To justify those budgets and beat the odds, blockbuster hooks need to convey:
- Genre expectations with broad appeal
- Emotional experience in strong visuals
- Unique point which all viewers remember
Note that simple, visual appeal invariably plays a large part in a successful hook. In my screenwriting life, when my producers ask, “What’s the poster?” or “Tell me the trailer” they’re asking for the hook. The hook was how everyone secured the financing, booked the talent, got the greenlight, and put butts in seats. If I could boil the story’s unique, emotional appeal into a single stunning image anyone could understand, then we had a deal.
As a genre author, you’re in the entertainment business. Your book’s hook signals the emotional experience inside the project that’s going to exceed expectations. That’s what‘s they’re buying and that’s what they’re talking about when they finish reading it.
The toughest challenge? Keeping your hook powerful and simple enough to catch anyone who might have interest. Abstraction or complexity confuses the punters and scares the bejesus out of studios. Complexity can exist, but sexy streamlining gives you the best chance of success. The hook catches their eyes and closes the sale.
Please note, hooks aren’t a license to cut corners or churn out dreck. Glibness and gimmicks will bite you in the behonkus.
You can bait that hook with slamming cover art, celebrity endorsements, and a promise of wit, wealth, and weight loss…but without a hook that’ll hold them that bait is worthless. Your hook is how your editor, marketing rep, publisher, vendor, and fans will help expand your audience. Give them the right tool for the job.
A literal hook has three parts: the straight metal, the smooth curve, and the sharp point. Your project’s hook isn’t much different.
- a solid base which honors reader assumptions and genre tropes which places the project in context for the right audience.
- What is familiar? How will this book honor tradition and meet expectations?
- a SMOOTH bend which “curves” generic assumptions with a surprise, a twist, a piercing irony.
- What is unique? How will you twist tropes and exceed expectations?
- A SHARP POINT which punctures boredom and sticks in the mind.
- How do the unique and familiar elements intersect and refine each other?
What is unique about your book, and how can you share its fresh, remarkable emotional experience with the world? What are you doing to elevate your book? What are you doing to elevate your genre? Viral books are rare, but when they happen, they do so because they offer a unique emotional experience that rewards sharing.
Back in 1997, readers smuggled stacks of British editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into the United States to distribute to friends and family until the stateside edition came out in 1998. The books were like nothing anyone had seen before and word spread quickly and inevitably. Game of Thrones and True Blood became hit HBO shows because their books (and hooks) generated enough of a fan base to convince Hollywood, “You will make zillions adapting these projects,” but the adaptations took off because the shared emotional experience offered a product market fit which galvanized pop culture.
A successful hook is an invitation to a unique emotional experience. It’s. It’s the best party you know how to throw that invites enthusiastic crashers. Give your audience that unforgettable time and they’ll spread the word faster than you can write the next project.
The goal is maximum bang-for-buck: using customer satisfaction to generate enthusiastic word of mouth while improving upon the tried and true. Your project may never be a movie, show, or even hit the New York Times list—but you can stack the deck in your favor with the right hook.
EXERCISE: CAST YOUR HOOK
- What is the base? How does your book earn its spot on the genre shelf? List 3 details that situate it squarely with the best of your genre. What’s the context?
- What is the bend? What fresh or fascinating reversal of expectation does it offer? List 3 cool unexpected twists that make your book stand out? Why should they bother?
- What is the point? How does your book push the margins of the genre? List 3 ways your book represents a step in the genre’s evolution. Who gives a damn?
Looking at these details. Write one short sentence, allowing yourself no more than one comma and one conjunction to summarize what makes your book essential reading for a wide audience.
Join us on Wednesday for Ryan Lanz!
Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
- PRESS HARD: every book deserves a dedicated release kit by Damon Suede
- CARE PACKAGE: watching Romancing the Stone with a mindful eye with Damon Suede
- OPEN WATER (competing with your colleagues is for sharks and jellyfish) Damon Suede!
- LEAP HERE: on the Power of Improv for all Creative Professionals by Damon Suede
- Readers’ Choice: On the Power of Set Pieces and Whammos by Damon Suede