Monday, May 23, 2011

The Hook Brings You Back…

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.

My Conclusions:

- 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?


  1. I loved 'Daddy Long-legs,' and was *so* grateful to you for having introduced me to it. I think that is a good example of a book which did not have a dramatic, over-the-top hook but rather a very simple, engaging question at its center which paid off nicely in the end.

    I think I may pick up 'Little Darlings.' :)

  2. Sister Lorena
    I have an ambivalent posture towards hooks and questions, but it´s entirely personal. As you know, I hate suspense and I always read the end, even in mysteries because I rather know how they solve the problem than learn the secret. But I tend to pick my reading material from the info on the jacket or Amazon blurbs, so I do get myself “hooked.” Great post!

    Sister Suze, Daddy Long Legs, being a May-Dec. romance, is now listed among the novels accused of promoting pedophilia (He He)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (I fixed a spelling error so I'm reposting my comment.)

    Thinking of a story from this perspective first is probably such a helpful thing. I should try it. :) But seriously, if you can boil your own story down to a big question like this, to be answered by the end, then that's got to help with the writing as well as with the selling.

    The recent read that came immediately to mind was Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games." Twenty-four teenagers are put into an arena, and they must fight to the death on live TV. Only way out is to be the last one alive. That's quite a hook! Another recent read that has a great hook is "True Grit" by Charles Portis: A fourteen-year-old girl treks out into the wild west to avenge her father's murder.

    We've been catching up on some old(ish) TV shows on Netflix, and one of them was Battlestar Galactica. It's TV, I realize, but still storytelling so bear with me. What we noticed with this show, more than several others, was how really difficult it was for us to turn off the TV after one show. Since we had the whole thing available on Netflix, we *could* keep going; like with a novel. You can stay up all night with a really good one, and wouldn't we all love to write *that* novel? Some weekends we'd gorge ourselves on four or five episodes in a row. The whole show overall is one big hook: Cylons have killed all the humans except a few thousand and are hunting those last ones down. Will the humans escape? Of course each show has to have a mini-hook to keep you going. The main trick here was to create extremely sympathetic characters and give them immediate problems to solve. Do you think it's fair to say that often, the hook is what gets you to pick up the book (or show), and the characters are what keeps you reading (or watching)?

    Some of the more literary reads I've picked up have had, notably, no hook. Not even the jacket-blurb writer could come up with one. :) Sometimes this is because there's no way to summarize the tightly-plotted story with one question, sometimes it's because the story is a big meandering mess. And in the latter case, I wish the writer had at least *tried* to come up with a hook!

  5. Dear Susie, I have a copy of "Little Darlings" I can lend you. (I think you'll enjoy it much more than COTCB.) It's a fast read and only 180 or so pages.

    Sister Violante, we should do a survey among our readers to see how many like suspense and how many don't. I didn't think it was possible that someone didn't like suspense until I met you :).

    Sister Steph, I do agree that, in general, something other than the hook is what keeps us reading. It's funny but the author of "A Reliable Wife" has a literary style of writing (even though he has a "commercial" hook.) He focuses a lot on description and the weather is extremely important (certain events happen because of it) it also sets up the mood/tone of the book. (Sort of like Al Pacino's movie Insomnia. Remember how being in Alaska during those sunny nights affected his life?) I kept thinking about Fargo as I read Goodrick's book. So I think that besides the hook, there were other elements that made me read. (The character of Catherine, for example, was very complex and interesting to me. It was hard to predict what she was going to do.)

    In the case of Daddy Long Legs, what attracted me were two things (besides the hook.) First, it's an epistolary book (which have always appealed to me) and second, the protagonist is extremely endearing and has a great voice.

    You could say that the authors of "The Year of Fog" and "Summer Affair" also have a literary/commercial style, whereas the other books I mentioned were really enjoyable (for the plots and characters.) I'll try to think of literary novels with hooks for you :-)

  6. I am an odd duck, I know. I might plan a post on the subject.

  7. Sorry to say, but I don't think I've read any of the books you listed, although, I must say they have some great hooks. I don't know why, but the story that popped into my head is Elmore Leonard's short story "Three-ten to Yuma." In the movie the whole hook is will Ben Wade (Crowe's character) make it to the train without being killed. Pretty simple, but pretty darn good in the end!

    In all, hooks are very important this day and age of literature. There are so many things competing for people's attention and a novel has to have something going for it as well if it wants to be bought and read.I'd love to read A Reliable Wife! (hint, hint)

    BTW Lorena, I responded to your comment on my blog.

    ♥ Mary Mary

  8. I agree completely with your conclusions, and in answer to your questions, I think a good hook would inspire me to buy a book, but I can't remember offhand if I've ever done so and been disappointed!

  9. I just jumped over to Amazon and found Daddy Long Legs on Kindle. Thanks for the recommendation! I'll read it today (on vacation).


  10. This is really neither here nor there, but we saw 3:10 to Yuma recently (haven't read the story) and it didn't work for me, though all my friends loved it. It seemed such a ripoff of the much better High Noon, with Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper. OK, maybe it is relevant, actually, because the latter story has fascinating characters. It has a woman, for one thing, which I don't think 3:10 does. And Gary Cooper's character has internal conflicts beyond the train and bad-guy situation. He's got his relationship with Grace Kelly's character to sort out. HER big problem is that she's a pacifist in the wild west, marrying a sheriff; this becomes critical to the story. High Noon seemed like it was about men shooting at things while they waited for the train. :) I couldn't make myself care about any character; I couldn't even differentiate between them. Maybe Leonard's story was better ...

  11. I read 3:10 when I was a little girl and it bored me. Westerns works better on the screen for me, besides, like Sister Stephanie I missed the girl-element. I saw the Crowe version and though I love him, it didn´t work fo me. However, Sister Stephanie I reccomend the 50s Van Heflin-Glenn Ford version. It´s much better.

  12. Okay, so there are a few "Three-ten to Yuma" dissenters out there ☺, but my point was that it's good to have a story where there's an either/or situation and the hook hangs on what will happen. High Noon is a good movie, as well, but like you said Steph, they just stand around shooting each other till the train comes rolling into town. It's the whole idea of will the main character die before he's able to make it out of town. Many plots follow this idea and I think it's a good one.

  13. Hey Adina! It's good to "see" you again. I'm glad you're back! I must say that from the books I mentioned, the most disappointing were Summer Affair (I feel like the author took "the easy way out." If you read it, you'll know what I mean) and The Year of Fog (ending was bittersweet.)

    Debbie, if you end up liking Daddy Long Legs, I found the Japanese cartoon movie on YouTube! If you have little ones, they may enjoy it (my 7-year-old girl loved it.)

    (It's in six parts.)

    Sisters, I've never seen or read 3:10 to Yuma, but the story reminded me a little bit of Nick of Time with Johnny Depp. The hook is this: A man and his six-year-old daughter are kidnapped by police impostors who threaten to kill the little girl if Depp doesn't murder the governor within 90 minutes. It's intense to say the least!

  14. Forgot to mention that Nick of Time starts at a train station. (That's why I thought of it when you mentioned 3:10.)

  15. I saw Nick of Time and although it has a fast pace, I put it at the bottom of my must-see Johnny Depp movies (right down there with Dead Man and Don Juan deMarco). I guess train stations can mean a quicker pace for a thriller-type/western film/storyline?


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.