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The Secret to Effective Hooks: Write Like a Journalist

by Sandra Bishop
MacGregor Literary

More than any other element of a pitch, a solid hook offers more opportunity for you to grab – and possibly keep — an agent or editor’s attention. Yes, hooks are hard to nail, but not impossible.

Try drawing from a couple simple techniques you learned in high school journalism: Start with the Five W’s and make every word count.

With this in mind, let’s examine this hook I just made up for a romantic suspense novel.

Failure weary Chicago cop Mitch King fakes his own death, ready to use his investigative skills for nothing more than finding the perfect beachside bar from which to watch The Girls from Ipanema go walking by.

But when he stops by on his way out of town to spy on his funeral and recognizes Crystal Concetta – the elusive middle daughter of the mob boss he never managed to keep behind bars – weeping at his graveside, he rethinks his escape plan and wonders if he might have one last chance to grasp what has always eluded him.

WHO (main characters)

Mitch: I could have described the main character more generally as a “burnt-out cop,” but that doesn’t really give us as much insight into his motivation for disappearing as does “failure weary.”

Crystal: We don’t need to know as much about her, but her role in the hook is key as it introduces the initial conflict — and promise of romance.

WHAT (conflict)

Mitch is in a tough spot, but one which could work in his favor – otherwise it wouldn’t be plausible. It’s important to show in the hook what the main character has to lose.

In this case, if he tries one last time to put the mobster away, he’s risking his life and reputation. But if he doesn’t, he’s walking away from a possibility of redeeming both.

Describing Crystal as elusive implies that Mitch has tried to get to her; that she’s weeping tells us she either secretly loved him, or saw him as her way out – or perhaps both.

Her tears are Mitch’s invitation, but one has to wonder if she’d rather escape with him than help him put her dad away – conflicting goals create great romantic tension.

WHEN and WHERE (setting)

Setting can become a character. Chicago makes obvious sense for this story. I could have just said “in 1962″ but I think “The Girl from Ipanema” is more memorable, gives us a sense of the time (when it’s more plausible Mitch could really disappear) AND hints at the distinctive style this story might take on.

WHY (motivation)

We don’t have room to explain deep motivations in a hook, but some basic ones can be introduced. “Failure weary” implies that Mitch is not just burnt-out, but possibly at the end of his professional rope. His decision to drop out tells us he’s tired, defeated, and probably lonely. Sneaking into his funeral shows us he may not be as ready to let go as he thinks – and that he wishes for approval.

Crystal’s public appearance at his funeral shows she’s willing to risk making a statement against her family. If this was an inspirational story, her bravery could represent faith and a conviction to stand up for the truth.

To take this one step further, I challenge you to remove every unnecessary word from the hook to see if you can get it down to a two line pitch.


Sandra Bishop is the Vice President of MacGregor Literary. Visit the agency website at www.macgregorliterary.com. You may also visit Sandra and the other MacGregor Literary agents on Facebook.

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5 Responses to The Secret to Effective Hooks: Write Like a Journalist

  1. Well, I am a journalist and I’m counting on you being right on this one!

  2. Beth K. Vogt says:

    You had me at “Write like a journalist.”
    I am one — and I brought that skill set over to the Dark Side with me when I switched to writing fiction.

    Trying your two-sentence challenge:
    After failure weary Chicago cop Mitch King fakes his own death he spies on his funeral and recognizes Crystal Concetta ? the elusive middle daughter of the mob boss he never managed to keep behind bars ? weeping at his graveside. Mitch rethinks his escape plan and wonders if he might have one last chance to grasp what always eluded him.

  3. Great post. You want us to cut six lines down to two?

    Here’s my try:

    A failure weary Chicago cop, fakes his own death, but rethinks his escape plan when he sees the girl he loves, but thought he had no chance with, weeping at his funeral.

    That takes it from 96 words to 32. That’s cutting it by 2/3. It cuts a lot. But I think this is the most important stuff since the book is a romance.

  4. Sandra Bishop says:

    Nice work, Beth and Sally. I think you both pared it down quite well. And you’re right Sally. Since this is a romance, making sure to include the two main characters — and a bit of the tension between them — is key.

  5. Kimber says:

    I think I would go with something in between Beth and Sally’s. Maybe something like this:

    Failure weary Chicago cop, Mitch King, fakes his own death but rethinks his escape plan when he sees mob daughter, Crystal Concetta, weeping at his graveside. He wonders if he might have one last chance to grasp what has always eluded him.