8 Tips for Writing a Powerful Hook for Your Book Proposal

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Last week I gave you a list of tips for writing a perfect synopsis here. Today I’ll list some tips on how to write a powerful hook for your book proposal.

With the growing number of electronic and social media diversions competing for people’s attention, the hook on the first page of your book is proportionately more important to grab readers’ attention, make them hungry for more—and eventually to recommend your book to friends. A compelling hook in your book proposal is equally vital because you have one chance to convince an agent or editor to continue reading.

The hook is not a shorter brief description. This is a frequent mistake I see in proposals, and it reveals more than a lack of understanding of a hook’s purpose. It implies a lesser writing skill or possibly even the author’s lack of clarity about his or her book.

The hook is the first impression the agent or editor will have of your book. It is more than marketing copy. It should capture what your book is about in very few words.

  1. The hook in your proposal should be one or two sentences. In your manuscript the hook can be up to several paragraphs. I think this difference is where confusion has occurred. Remember that you have only 30 seconds to attract an agent or editor to continue reading your proposal. If you can’t distill the hook to an attention-grabbing sentence or two, their perception may be that your story or topic isn’t strong enough to warrant further reading. Before you think agents and editors are cruel and insensitive, understand that we have stacks of proposals to read and precious little time available to do so. It’s an unfortunate reality in the industry. But it underscores the necessity of having a powerful hook in your proposal, doesn’t it.
  2. Use strong active—never passive—verbs that convey the emotion or pressing need in your book. Use present tense.
  3. Allude to the main plot or the issue at stake—the main conflict or crisis. If you can encapsulate the essence in a word or two, great! Use them in an illusive, edgy, bold, or passionate sentence—whichever type corresponds with your book. But don’t explain the conflict or crisis. That’s the job of the synopsis.
  4. It isn’t necessary to refer specifically to the protagonist but if you do, use his or her name. It can create a personal connection with the character in an instant.
  5. Sometimes it’s more intriguing to make a passionate but general statement that conveys the central theme.
  6. Use colorful nouns; eliminate adjectives.
  7. Questions are for back cover copy, not the hook.
  8. Unlike the synopsis, do not reveal the ending of your novel in the hook.

One way to start writing your hook is to jot down some sentences about the main plot or topic of your book and the main characters (fiction) or people and ideas (nonfiction). Search for a few strong words that capture the theme and conflict in your story or message and build from there.

In their book Write the Perfect Book Proposal, Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman define the hook this way: “ . . . the hook for your book proposal is the power point from which your ideas take flight.” I like this description because it shows the passion a hook should have to make an agent sit up and say, “Ooh . . . sounds interesting!”

What do you find to be the hardest part about writing a hook for your proposal? What approach works best for you in narrowing down your words and phrases?

69 Responses

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  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    Writing the hook is challenging, but I really enjoy it. My years as a newspaper reporter benefit me here since every story was supposed to lead with a strong hook.

    I once read this formula (wish I could remember where and give credit!) that helped immensely: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have to OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.

  2. Great tips. Thanks, Mary!

    Is there a difference between a logline and a hook? There are so many terms I get confused between them all. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good question, Lindsay. They are similar. A logline is a one-sentence summary of a script/screenplay. The term hook is used in fiction and nonfiction. And a lead is a short opening sentence pointing to the facts in a magazine or news story.

      • Ah, okay. Like Michelle says below, I have also read that the hook can be a question. Like I said, so many things to remember! 🙂 Thanks for your help in understanding them.

      • hardhik says:

        Hi Mary,
        I have a difficulty in finding a hook statement of a content. Can you please write a post or suggest me some ways to find hook statement?

  3. I think, no wait, I know giving birth was easier than writing a hook! Okay, *perhaps* not, but I daresay, it might be close!

    The hardest part is developing the emotional impact, in so very few words, that is needed to draw in an agent, to the point where they yell “Give me her email!! No wait, give me her cell phone number so I can call her in the middle of the night and make her world flip upside down!!!”

  4. Michelle Lim says:

    I always find the question versus statement hook to be a bit confusing. Some say write a question, some say writing a statement and experts in both camps. LOL! Thanks for clearing this up for me, Mary.

    (I think the source of the strategy that Sarah mentioned is Susan May Warren. She uses those words in her training, but it could be someone else as well.)

  5. Mary Keeley says:

    Michelle, I shouldn’t have stated it as an absolute. If you can capture what the book is about, the emotion, and conflict in a short question, go for it. But most often, that isn’t easy to accomplish.

    • Michelle Lim says:

      No worries, Mary. All of your insight is very helpful. Is anything in publishing absolute? Probably not. Lots of great information here! Thanks.

    • Faye Lynn says:

      Does the paragraph below evoke emotion and raise questions enough to be a good hook? What would you recommend to improve it.

      If someone had told her she would live without sex for a decade, she would have never believed them. She liked sex. Loved it really. But sometimes, life gets in the way of things you enjoy.

  6. Jeanne T says:

    Mary, I appreciate all you shared here today. I’m still figuring out how to write a hook that will draw people in. I’m glad to know questions or statements work. I’m pondering all you’ve shared, and all people are saying in the comments today. Thanks!!

  7. Hi Mary,

    First off, I just found out about Janet’s loss. I am so sorry to hear it. I offer my condolences and prayers for her and her family at this time.

    Now to the post though, thanks for continually giving us hungry-for-more-advice writers some more good tips to store in our minds and hearts. I have written a two-sentence hook line that surprisingly (it was!) came quite easy for me. I am a trained journalist so I deal in “leads” too, so perhaps that helped. I can’t wait to finish the book proposal I am working on now and sending it hook line and all to an agent!

    Also, if you don’t mind, Mary, I have a question. I know there has been obviously a lot going on at the office lately and I asked Wendy a question on her post the other day that she was not able to respond to. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask it now.

    It is about a part of publishing contracts that limits signed authors to not publishing any other writing outside of their book contract. Does this apply to journalists too? I am a full-time newspaper reporter, so I must be able to publish to keep my job. It just concerned me when I read about that in her blog post. Thanks so much!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Morgan, you are referring to Janet’s blog this past Monday. Wendy was responding to comments for her. The degree of stringency in non-compete clauses varies from publisher to publisher. Most of the clauses restrict an author from publishing other full-length books or books on the same tipic, not articles and news stories. In fact, articles, columns, and news stories are viewed as a means of promoting you and your books as long as the content doesn’t “give up the ship.”

      Janet explains the reason non-compete clauses came into existence here http://www.booksandsuch.com/blog/publishers-contracts-and-how-they-got-that-way/

      We B&S agents approach negotiation of these clauses from the very perspective you are concerned about: that an author has to be able to make a living. But there also is sound financial reason why publishers need to protect themselves. We work very hard to negotiate reasonable win-win agreements in these clauses.

      • Thanks so much, Mary! I feel much better. I was a bit scared there for a moment. I am just entering the stages of querying, so the whole contract issue seems like a big looming dragon over my head. That’s why we need great agents though. That is the truth. 😀 Thanks and have a great weekend!

  8. Very helpful post, Mary. I’m so grateful for your guidance, especially in my denser moments. 🙂 I’m wondering if some examples might help solidify these concepts? Like others, I get confused between how the hook is different from back-cover copy, etc.

    • I would really like to see the example like Sarah Forgrave has asked, for fiction most specifically.

      This was a great post and while I think I understand it, it has clarified it more.

      Thanks, Mary!

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      Here’s what I have at the moment: “A self-righteous man, an unwed mother and
      a desperate drought–it will take a miracle
      to save the town and find forgiveness.”

    • Mary Keeley says:

      How about this one I saw recently for a romantic suspense novel:

      Two snipers arrested. One sniper remains.

      You know what the story is about, the central plot, the conflict and tension in six words.

      The purpose of the hook in a proposal is to grab the editor’s attention an make him or her want to read more. Back cover copy on the back of your published book is written to market the book to potential readers. It is longer, explains a little more about the characters and story, and often ends with an enticing question about how the story might end. Its intent is to drive browsers to become purchasers.

      • Great post.

        But I will never get my hook this tight. Six words? I thought I was doing good to get it to 30 words. Ouch.

        🙂

        Thanks for laying it out clearly.

      • Faye Lynn says:

        I like: Two snipers arrested. One sniper remains. Why?
        1. The sentences are short, balanced (both three words), and catchy.
        2. Both sentences start with a number.
        3. The statements beg a question.
        4. And as you said, they you quickly grasp what the book is about and they create tension.

      • Hi Mary!

        I’m the newest of newbies, and your hook example was like deliverance. Lol Thank you…I finally got it! I requested time with you next week, and I really hope I get it. Amazingly helpful!

  9. Larry says:

    One of the many, many drawbacks of the glacial pace of the industry, is that even after I feel a proposal is “complete” and send it off, I find myself able to refine it: and many moons later, upon finding a courteous decline for representation in my e-box, realize that I would in all likelihood turn down the propsal if I had gotten it the form of the one first offered! 🙂

    Not that there have been times with an agent I would have liked where I’ve been tempted to politely reply and thank them for their consideration, with the refined proposal attached…. 😉

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Larry, if it provides any comfort, you are in good company with many other writers. One way to minimize the potential for this scenario is to step away from your proposal for a week or two before you send it out. When you go back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll more readily notice wording, formatting that can be improved as well as spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors you missed.

      It’s worth going through this process more than once until you don’t see more room for improvement.

      Having said that, don’t go to extremes and end up in paralysis by analysis.

  10. Thank you, Mary. You always give helpful and clear information.

    Like Michelle, I have read contradictory statements about what a hook should be. It seems, though, that the goal is to write one or two sentences that not only get at the heart of the story (I’m speaking from a fiction writer’s point of view) and make an agent or editor jump out of the chair and say, “WOW!” That, for me, is the most intimidating part of writing a hook. Thank you for your suggestion to write down sentences and identify strong words connected with the book and its theme. Thank you also for # 3, 4 and 5. I thought that I had to get these in the hook. To intrigue by giving a little less detail seems like an effective approach.

    Have a blessed weekend.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, I think some of the confusion or apparent contradiction occurs when it isn’t clear whether the advice you read is about the hook on the first page of your book or the hook in your book proposal.

      The hook on the first page of your book can be several paragraphs long or a full page. It’s the opening scene that grabs the reader with a surprising statement or question and introduces a main character, making him or her appealing or sympathetic so readers begin to care about what happens and are compelled to turn the page.

      Today I am talking about the hook in a book proposal, which is directed to catch an editor’s attention in your 30-second window of opportunity.

      • Faye Lynn says:

        The middle paragraph is the best description of what a hook should be that I’ve read — and I’ve been reading, reading, and reading the “how to” and first scenes in book after book.
        For writers looking for examples, here’s my favorite opening paragraph. It’s by Janet Evanovich in One for the Money:
        There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me–not forever, but periodically.

  11. Thank you for such specific pointers, Mary! I’m in my final edit and working on a query now, so I’ll be putting this information to (hopefully) good use. Your point about not making the hook a question was new to me. I had heard that the hook should be a question to get the reader thinking. I can appreciate your response above, though, that a question would be more difficult to write. Thanks for sharing all your wisdom!

  12. Dale Rogers says:

    Thank you for explaining the summary variations.
    That should help with the querying process.

  13. Lisa says:

    I think I have constructed nothing short of fifty possible hooks for my WIP. The tweaking of words is endless:) Now to decide on the very best one…

  14. Leah Good says:

    Thanks for the tips. They make sense and I’m sure they will be helpful.

    Are there any hooks or hook “formulas” that are overused and therefore boring to an agent?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Leah, the mistake I see in proposals too often is a hook that is more like a shortened version of the brief description or overview. They don’t have the “Wow, this is unique and interesting” factor.

  15. Great tips! Thank you!

  16. I kind of enjoy developing a hook and usually brainstorm with my critique buddies until I feel it’s perfect. What I dread is being asked, in person, what my hook is. Not because I can’t remember it or feel wishy-washy about my book, but because I’m conflicted on how to respond. Do I assume my dramatic, movie trailer voice and deliver my punchy but cryptic hook? Do I just tell the person what my book is about in a casual tone? Will I sound like a door-to-door sales person if I recite a memorized spiel?
    I tend to do whatever comes most naturally in the moment. I know that may not be the advice given at conferences, but as I talk about my writing in more varied settings, from conversations with strangers to presentations at schools, I find the more authenticity from me the better. Still, I always have that fear that when asked, I’ll either come off as Crazy Drama Girl or Flaky Rambler.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Evangeline, as you suggested it depends on who your are talking to. Reserve your movie-trailer voice for presentations and speaking engagements. I agree that in casual conversations, authenticity is best. Use your hook paragraphs on the first page of your book as a guide for what to say. And don’t give them the ending. They’ll have to buy the book for that 🙂

  17. I hate hooks – I always end up pricking my fingers and bleeding all over my WIP.

    That’s the hook from a story about a writer. Not really. But it should be.

    Thanks for the encouragement,
    Becky

  18. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the proposal hook. It helps keep me on track with the theme and purpose of the book.

    So far I’m having good success with the manuscript I’ve been pitching and querying, resulting in requests for fulls. Just haven’t found the right agent yet.

  19. I think hooks may be the most difficult thing for an author to write, because it’s asking us to convey in fifteen words what it took us 100,000 words to do in the book!

    Randy Ingermanson had a great course on ACFW this summer and he talked about the importance of the hook. He challenged us to use 15 power-packed words, or less, to create one. I wrote my hook and then I started to trim it down, replacing less powerful words for better ones. The result was a hook that he chose as one of the top twenty-one out of hundreds submitted. I’ll share it, and his comments, as an example:

    16) Gabrielle Meyer: Historical Fiction: A headstrong bride-to-be arrives in town and finds the groom is missing, but a hundred eager bachelors wait in line to change her mind.

    Randy sez: And wouldn’t every girl on the planet want to be this girl? For sure. This has a lot of humor potential. Good job! There’s a strong, strong word right in the middle of this sentence that I really love. Do you see it? Take a look and try to find it before I tell you. It’s that adjective just after “hundred” and just before “bachelors”. See how that massively amps up the story?

  20. Ed Hird says:

    Your comments, Mary, about good hooks remind me that there is never a second opportunity to make a good first impression. The moment is now. Condensing our thoughts into laser focus is more critical than ever.

    Ed Hird+

  21. Wondering, is this the same for nonfiction?

  22. Tianna Clore says:

    Very helpful, thank you!

  23. It’s almost midnight after a 14 hour road trip. I’m not sure if you’ll see this but I’ll give it a go.

    Truth is terrifying, trust is dangerous and escape is impossible.
    With one last chance at love, will Sarah Monroe survive what it takes to live?

  24. Ann Bracken says:

    Thanks for the information. One question, should the hook be part of the query as well, or just in the proposal?

  25. I recently shared my first chapter with a writers’ group and their responses helped to crystallize the hook for me. It’s hard, as the writer, to look at the story objectively. Even when you’ve spent months working on something else!

    But the writers’ group folk all asked me the same question afterwards 🙂

    Here’s my hook now:
    Scott Black lets it slip – he’s famous – but he won’t tell Sun Geary any more than that.

    • Faye Lynn says:

      Nice hook. It begs the question, what is “it”?
      I’m also left wondering if the names Black and Sun are intention.
      And of course the obvious questions, what is he famous for and why won’t he tell her.

  26. Shilpa says:

    Your article was really helpful. Thank you so much. But there’s one doubt that has been bugging me for months. Can we use quotes in a hook?

  27. Tracie says:

    Can I post my hook here and ask anyone to comment? I’m struggling so bad, I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel friends are being objective. Nor are the fans of my other career. I just need a little feedback on my hook.

  28. Michelle says:

    I am working on my One-Sheet right now. I have completed a very rough draft of it but I don’t feel it’s strong enough. This article was very helpful and I believe you may have just saved a publisher from certain boredom.

    Thank you

  29. Sergio Mcgee says:

    im almost done writing my autobiography and I’m in the prosence of putting together my press kit and I was hoping that you could send me a example of a one sheet with a very good hook

    Thank you

  30. Jessica says:

    When should I start searching in google to learn to write a hook? Now before the book is finished or after when the last chapter is done and every chapters been revised and edited? Do you have any websites that can help with this? Thanks!

  31. I’m just beginning to blog portions of my book “Out of a Secret Darkness” on my blog. I’m learning how to write along the way. It’s challenging, but the finished book will be worth the effort.

    I have revised my book hook using this information. “One child suffers in the world of darkness. God’s saving grace rescues and his love transforms.” I need to shorten it a little more.

    Thank You. Linda

  32. daniel says:

    thanks that worked a lot

  33. Anonymous says:

    my story has no major plot , no antagonist or protagonist ! what do i do !

    • jessica says:

      First figure out what character has the most at stake in the book, then think about their goals; what is it that they really want? What matters the most to them? then go though each chapter while thinking about this and fix it.

  34. Solveig eggerz says:

    The precision of this advice is very helpful. The hardest part is reducing the hook down until it is so tight it hurts.