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How to Write a Hook for a Novel

May 29, 2022
Jack Jordan
May 29, 2022

It’s a truth universally acknowledged in the publishing industry: if there’s one thing any writer needs to ensure success for their novel, it’s a good hook. It’s how you’ll grab a reader’s attention, whether that’s someone in your target audience browsing bookshelves, or a literary agent you’re pitching to. A compelling hook is what will capture readers’ interest and get them invested in your fiction writing. Whether you’re writing a romance novel, sci fi or any other genre, you need a strong hook.

A hook is something different from your first line or first chapter. While a corker like the clock striking thirteen (a classic example of a great opening sentence) can work wonders to make someone keep reading once they’ve started, a hook for our purposes is something different. It’s like an elevator pitch: a perfect hook is the one that makes someone want to pick up your book and start reading in the first place. It should have a strong voice, but is almost always written in the third person (even if your novel is first person).

So how can you create an effective hook that forges an emotional connection with your target readers, while you also create intrigue that will compel them to dive into your story? In this blog post, bestselling author Jack Jordan shares his own great example of a hook, and walks you through the process so that you can create suspense for your own story – whatever it may be.

A great hook is the key ingredient

During my years of writing and publishing books, I have learnt that a good hook is the most indispensable component.

Characters, setting, book cover... These all play their part. But the one key trait the majority of successful novels have – the thing that helps them stand out – comes at the start of the writing process: it’s writing a great hook.

A good hook grabs the reader’s attention

You’re probably familiar with the idea of writing a hook. You might have heard the concept referred to as the hook, the pitch or the elevator pitch.

Whatever you call it, the role remains the same: a sentence that sums up the premise of your book in one or two lines and makes your target audience want to find out more.

It’s the line you recite when someone asks you what your book is about (and saves you going off on a panicked tangent); it’s the pitch you give to reel in an agent and a publisher, and the line that your publisher’s sales team will use to entice the book buyers for retailers. It’s the line booksellers will use to hand-sell your book to potential readers.

Whatever you call it, the role remains the same: a sentence that sums up the premise of your book in one or two lines and makes your target audience want to find out more.

Crucially, it also helps you, the author, to know if you have a strong idea on your hands.

Some people call this the ‘Elevator Pitch’. This imagined scenario is the perfect way to describe the hook: a short yet effective description of your book to pitch to someone during a short elevator ride, to reel them in before they reach their designated floor.

Imagine it: you’ve found yourself in a lift with your dream agent, and you have five floors to pitch your novel to them. It’s just you and her, and she has asked about your book. Having a hook to hand gives you and your book the best chance to shine. It sounds scary, but having your hook tucked away in the back of your mind, one that is short yet powerful in delivery, immediately sets the tone for the conversation – or submission – that follows.

If you say the hook enough times, it’ll become second nature, and you won’t have to think of it much at all. The hook for Do No Harm is ingrained in my mind and can be recited in under ten seconds!

How to write a good hook for your novel

‘But how can I possibly sum up my book in a single line or two?’ I hear you ask.

To show how I write a hook, I’ll share how I came up with my latest novel, Do No Harm.

The first step to writing a hook is finding your idea

The first step is the idea itself.

People get book ideas in different ways. Some think of a plot first, while others discover their characters and then create a plot to place them in.

For me, it was the moral dilemma at the heart of Do No Harm that presented itself first. I was fascinated by the thought of a surgeon – whose job is to save lives – being pressured into taking one away. These sorts of high stakes in fiction grab the reader’s interest and stand out a mile in an elevator pitch.  

So, I had the plot idea. Now I had to make it real, believable; I needed to discover what would motivate the main character to betray her Hippocratic oath. For something as drastic as killing a patient on the operating table, the motivation must match the deed in intensity.

What could motivate someone to consider something so awful? And better yet, how could I attract readers to not only believe the situation, but want the surgeon to get away with it if she chose to go down that path?

I often write about mothers who do anything for their children, and the motivation for my main character in Do No Harm quickly became that her child had been abducted. She would only get her son back if she went through with the horrendous deed.

Now I not only had a plan to grip the reader’s attention with the moral dilemma, but I also had the character’s motivation, the reader’s sympathy, and the very question at the heart of the book: which is stronger, a doctor’s oath? Or a mother’s love?

I then had to plan who the patient and antagonist would be – the final pieces in the puzzle.

With the high-concept moral dilemma, and the high stakes of the character’s motivation, these two aspects had to match the same intensity. Once I had those, I would be so much closer to writing my hook.

free writing course to find the hook for your story

The second step to writing a hook is dissecting your idea

As you can see, writing a hook is astoundingly simple once you’re fleshing out the premise of your novel. You’ve already done the work!

All you need to do is break down the key parts of the novel’s concept and feature them in your killer hook:

  • What the book is about
  • Who the book is about

And finally:

  • What is at stake

Example of how to write a hook

Using this formula, the hook for Do No Harm became:

An organised crime ring abducts the child of a leading heart surgeon and gives her an ultimatum: kill a patient on the operating table or never see her son again.Which is stronger: a doctor’s oath? Or a mother’s vow to protect her child?— Jack Jordan’s hook for Do No Harm

Let’s break this down even further. When writing this hook, I included multiple key bits of information:

  1. The protagonist, her job, and the novel’s setting: leading heart surgeon
  2. The antagonist: organised crime ring  
  3. The life-changing moment: give[n] an ultimatum  
  4. What’s at stake: never see her son again
  5. What must be done to resolve the issue: kill a patient on the operating table
  6. And finally, a question tied to the very premise of the novel – the moral dilemma – to leave the reader thinking: which is stronger: a doctor’s oath? Or a mother’s vow to protect her child?

In one line, this hook explains who the protagonist is, what they’re up against, and what they must do to survive, followed by a question that the listener is left to answer.

Once you think of your hook in this way, you’ll be able to write hooks in your sleep!

Now it’s time for you to write your hook. If you already have one, put it aside for now and see if you can come up with another using this format.

How to write a hook in 5 steps

Just answer these 5 key questions to write a killer hook:  

  1. Who is the novel about? What keywords can you use to describe your protagonist? Is she a surgeon? Is he a father? Are they an addict struggling to get clean? What is their primary role or trait in your story?
  2. What is at stake? What will your protagonist lose if they don’t achieve their goal? How can you describe your plot scenario in a way that has the recipient widening their eyes?
  3. What must the protagonist do to achieve their goal?
  4. Who or what is standing in their way?
  5. And finally, what is the reader reading to find out? What lingering question (whether asked directly in the hook or whispering in the background) are you leaving the agent in the elevator with?

Have a play with this – not just with your novel, but with some of your favourite films or books. Practice really does make perfect. Can you write a great hook for your favourite book or film using this format?

Examples of novel hooks

Below, I’ve laid out examples of great novel hooks describing recently published and upcoming books from our lovely writing coaches (and editors) here at The Novelry:            

  • Summer Fever by Kate Riordan: Married couple Laura and Nick move to Italy to save their marriage, purchasing a villa to host paying guests – but when their first couple arrives from America, it’s clear neither Madison nor Bastian are who they claim to be, and their quickly forged close relationships threaten to unravel the couples at the seams. One villa, two couples, but will either survive the summer?
  • Double Booked by Lily Lindon: Gina is about to marry her boyfriend. George is about to join a cult lesbian pop band. Gina and George are the same person. No wonder Georgina is Double Booked
  • The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri: A magically gifted priestess and a prophesied empress must work together to destroy a tyrant emperor, for joining forces is the only way to save their kingdom from those who would rather see it burn – even if it threatens to cost them everything they hold dear…

The thought of writing your hook might be slightly daunting, but having it tucked in your back pocket ready to whip out at a second’s notice will make your life so much easier in the long run!

No more scrambling to describe your book. A clear, concise description will reel in agents on submission and make a publisher desperate to read on. Follow these five steps, and you’ll have yourself a killer hook and an audience desperate to find out more.

Someone writing in a notebook
Jack Jordan

Jack Jordan is the global number one bestselling author of six thrillers including Do No HarmAnything for Her and Night by Night – an Amazon No.1 bestseller in the UK, Canada, and Australia. His latest and much-anticipated novel Do No Harm was sold as a six-figure deal in a three-way auction to Simon & Schuster, and met with enthusiastic advance reviews from celebrated writers in the genre.

Members of The Novelry team