Writers come in all shapes and forms. Some like to outline. Some let the story flow and take them where it wants to go. Some love plot-driven, fast-paced thrillers, while others enjoy a more leisurely and introspective setup to tell their stories. Writers can spend hours in heated discussions about the authors they like and dislike or the state of the publishing industry. But there is one thing all of us can agree on: we all want people to read our novels. (And if it’s not too much to ask, we’d like them to love them, too.)
Since not every human life form on the planet will love our work, the only thing we can realistically hope for is that a large group of people would be interested enough to read it all the way to the end. (And this is the tricky part.)
An element that sparks my curiosity and forces me to read the entire novel is a good hook or the “big question” (not to say that ALL the books I’ve enjoyed have had an irresistible hook.) In other words, this is not the only way to ignite and keep the reader’s interest, but it’s one way.
I recently finished reading Robert Goodrick’s A Reliable Wife. Although I’d never heard of the author and nobody had recommended the novel to me, I purchased it. I just couldn’t resist the hook. See for yourselves:
He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for "a reliable wife." She responded, saying that she was "a simple, honest woman." She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow.
What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.
Even if you’re not a fan of Gothic fiction or Film Noir, you can’t deny that the premise is intriguing (you may not want to read it, but the premise may still raise questions in your mind, right?) As I was paying for the book, I realized two things:
1. A good blurb on the back cover of the book is fundamental.
2. A novel should have a hook or a “big question.”
And so my adventure with A Reliable Wife began. If anything, I had to know if:
a. Catherine would succeed in killing Ralph and why she wanted to do it.
b. What was Ralph’s mysterious plan.
The question of whether she would kill him compelled me to keep reading until the bitter end (literally.) The surprising thing is that neither one of these characters (or the third important character in the book) were particularly likable to me. Yet, I kept reading. This book also made me realize the importance of backstory. This often underestimated and ostracized writing tool can add a new layer to a novel (when placed at the right time.) In the case of A Reliable Wife, there was a point where I was impatient to know more about Catherine (to understand her motivations) I have to say, though, that not understanding her behavior right away didn’t turn me off—it only propelled me to read more. When I finally reached a portion of backstory and understood who she was, I felt like my patience had paid off. I even empathized with her a little bit.
But novels with intriguing hooks don’t necessarily have to be dark. A classic book (now considered children’s literature) that also grabbed my attention because of its great hook is Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster.
I read this book in Spanish, so the following blurb is my best effort at translating it:
Jerusha Abbot, a ward at an orphanage, demonstrates a great gift for literature. One day, a mysterious trustee of the institution decides to pay her university studies, but, in exchange, he wants to remain anonymous. The only condition is that the girl writes him periodically, telling him about her progress in her studies.
Jerusha, who only knows the elongated shadow of her benefactor, gives him the nickname Daddy Long Legs, and starts sending him fun and innocent letters. But as time passes, the tone of her letters reveals the intelligence and great sensitivity of a girl who’s turned into a woman. Daddy Long Legs continues in his role of anonymous confident, but saves a great surprise for his protégée.
Naturally, I had to know who the mysterious protector was and what surprise he had for Jerusha. I can only say, for those who haven’t read it, that I wasn’t disappointed with the resolution.
Books with “big hooks” are also common in Women’s Fiction. Here are a few examples:
Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand
A woman with four children and a nice, but boring husband, engages in an affair with a sensitive millionaire.
Question in my mind: Will the husband find out?
The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond
A photographer takes her boyfriend’s six-year-old daughter for a walk in the beach. When she stops to take a picture, the girl vanishes.
Questions in my mind: What happened to the little girl? Will the protagonist find her?
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
A consummate good girl gets drunk on her thirtieth birthday and ends up in bed with her best friend’s fiancé.
Question in my mind: What will happen when the friend finds out?
The Pact by Jodi Picoult
Two teenagers in love agree to commit a double-suicide, but only one dies.
Questions in my mind: What happened? Why did they want to die?
YA books in the late 70’s (that my older sister bought and I devoured a decade later):
Little Darlings by Sonia Pilcer
Two teenagers of different upbringings and personalities bet which one will lose her virginity first during a summer camp. One is a tomboy and the other a flirtatious and rich girl.
Question in my mind: Who will win the bet?
Ode to Billy Joe by Herman Raucher
Based on the famous song with the same title, this novel tells Billy Joe’s story (told by his girlfriend) and explains why he jumped off the Tallahatchie River.
Question in my mind: Well, why did he kill himself?
Side comment: I hated this book’s ending.
- Not all novels need captivating hooks, and a great hook doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the novel will be good. But they do help sell books.
- A good hook may help you get the interest of an agent and/or editor.
- There is at least one genre that must have a “big question” at all times: mystery.
- Ideally, the hook should come before the novel. In other words, the hook must “hook” and inspire you, the author, too.
Have you ever bought a novel based on the hook? Were you disappointed after? Can you think of other examples of novels that carry a “big question” until the end?