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Friday, March 16, 2007

Hook'em, Dano

I mentioned the other day that hooks come easily to me. It's probably due to the fact that I've worked in advertising for a long time. When I used to freelance, clients would dump reams of information on me and I was expected to digest and encapsulate their dissertations into a couple of sentences. Yeah…and that's why I make the BIG money. LOL.

Let me define hook, at least to my understanding. A hook is the abbreviated thrust of your story that compels the reader to know more. For our purposes, let's confine ourselves to the hook I would use in a query---which is different than what I would use on a back cover blurb or a synopsis. All three carry the kernel of the story idea, but each is unique in its own way because each does something a teensy bit different.

I've always given myself a limit of fifty words for a hook. This fits nicely inside a query letter without getting too unwieldy. I've read excellent hooks that are much longer than this, but it takes a really good writer not to over-explain. Less is more, especially if you know how to focus. Remember this is only the hook. There's other stuff to include in your query, which I'll cover in a later post.

The true purpose for a hook inside a query is to instill interest. If it's a cool enough premise, the agent will read a few pages to see if she likes your writing. And then she'll read the synopsis to see how the story as a whole pans out. But right now, all we want to do is achieve interest.

I focus on several criteria for writing hooks that I learned from my copywriting days.
• the conflict • the characters • the stakes

Go ahead and get wordy at this point because we'll chop it down in a minute. Sometimes it helps to write down everything you think you need first, just to get it out of your system. Call it a catharsis.

Now, look at your "thesis" and highlight only the most critical parts. Here's an example.

Jarvis, the German shepherd thinks he's going crazy because he's sure someone is spying on him. Little does he know, his ex-girlfriend, Buffy the poodle, has sent Mugs, a Doberman with a temper to tail him. Buffy thinks Jarvis dumped her for her sister. But the truth is Buffy is a bitch with a bad attitude. All Jarvis wants is a warm home and a family who'll love him. When Mugs chases him into an alley he finds himself surrounded by killer cats from outer space who think Jarvis would make the perfect sacrifice to Isis, their queen cat. Jarvis finds himself caught between a Doberman and disaster if he can't escape these feline claws of death. That's when he meets Lucy, a half-blind Samoyed with a heart of gold who hears his frantic barking and comes in for the rescue.

Agh! 141 words of meandering! But here is how you break it down.

The characters: Jarvis is your central character. / Buffy, Mugs and the killer cats are the antagonists. / Lucy is a possible love interest or ally.

The conflict: A relentless thug chases Jarvis right into the claws of an alien feline cult.

The stakes: Lucy interrupts the kitty parade giving Jarvis a chance to get away. But will he run and let Lucy take the fall?

The real hook:
Jarvis, a homeless German shepherd, is trapped by murderous alien cats intent on barbequing him at the altar of Isis. But Lucy, a half-blind Samoyed, barrels through the rabble and upsets the balance. Now they’re both in trouble and only one of them will make it out alive.

A cool 48 words.
Notice the active verbs: trapped, barbequing, barrels, upsets
Notice the specific nouns: homeless, murderous, altar, rabble
Notice I kept the focus on the emotional stakes. They're in trouble and it looks like only one of them will make it out.

Which one? Why? Those are the questions you hope to stir in the reader.

That's how I create hooks. Hope this helps someone.

Hmm…alien cat society and a dog named Jarvis.