In my last post, I talked about ways you can write a book so that it has the best chance of being published. About what makes a book sellable to an agent. Today, we talk about the hook. The hook, or narrative hook, is a is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. It can be the first chapter, the first paragraph, or even the first sentence.
If you are querying agents, most of the agents you query are only going to see the first chapter of your work. That may be all they ever see of it. If you don’t have a strong opening chapter with a good hook, then you are simply not going to have requests for partial manuscripts or fulls. “But if they read the whole book, they would love it!” you seem to say. Doesn’t matter. That first chapter is right there in the query letter. If it doesn’t grab an agents attention, they aren’t going to want to read more. Keep in mind that any agent gets approximately one bzillion queries a day. Your query simply has to stand out in a crowd. Merely good writing isn’t enough. You have to leave them wondering what happens next. Nope. “Wondering” isn’t strong enough. You have to leave the reader with an intense need to know what comes next.
We spoke last time of subjects many agents aren’t interested in because there has been too many such stories written lately, such as vampire tales. Today, I want to talk about hooks so clichéd that they may make an agent hit the delete button because they simply can’t stand to read another one.
-The Dream Sequence. Also, included in this category, waking from a blackout, a hallucinatory vision, a magical vision. It has been done a million times. So much so that this is the king of over-used hooks. Use this and watch your query magically teleport to the trash bin. Speaking of magically teleporting…
-The Magical Portal to another world. Also done to death. If you go this route, you better have one amazing first chapter. If not, expect your query to make its own journey down the rabbit hole.
-The “Farm Boy” discovers that he’s King. Or the clueless school girl finds out she’s the princess of another country. The commoner is discovered to be _______________ (insert amazing thing here) has been used again and again throughout literary history. Since before Arthur pulled that sword from the stone.
-“Holy Grail” or the search for a magical object. Especially common in fantasy novels. If writer needs to slow the main characters down on their quest, then the object will often be broken up and hidden in several locations remote from one another. Use this and your quest may be to find your query in an agents trash bin. Related to Farm Boy and Holy Grail is…
-A Prophesy. So many queries in the slush pile. So many prophesy hooks. I bet you can prophesize where your query might end up.
-A Flashback, or Flash-forward. Often used to attempt to dress up a mediocre story and make it more interesting. If the story is sound, it doesn’t need a cheap time bending device.
That all said, let me continue by saying this, any hook, no matter how clichéd, can be made to work by a good writer. Princess Diaries was very popular. Harry Potter built an empire on the Farm Boy cliché. That magical wardrobe to Narnia is a cherished memory for many children and adults. Watt-Evans’ Law of Literary Creation: There is no idea so stupid or hackneyed that a sufficiently-talented writer can’t get a good story out of it.
My point is only this: If you use such a common device, you had better have a unique twist on it, one apparent in the very first chapter, as this is all most agents will see. Established writers can get away with clichéd hooks, unpublished writers will have a harder time with it. Your main character sees dead people, fine. What makes your story different from all the other Sixth Sense-esque stories out there? That first chapter, it better shine like the sun. Otherwise the agents you query are going to think, “Another dream sequence? Oh, hell no!”