How to Write a Powerful Hookline
The hookline will be the first thing anyone ever hears about your novel. Even before the killer first sentence (and you did craft one of those, yes?), the hookline snags a reader. The reader either is reeled in or slips off back into the sea. Agents and editors are flooded with queries. This is your one chance to make an impression. If you fail, your query letter gets chucked in the trash. Scared yet?
A hookline (or logline, if you’re talking about a movie or play) is a one-sentence summary of your novel. It’s goal is to intrigue. A typical hookline set up is, “In [setting], [protagonist] [action – specific plot element] to [goal], but [protagonist] [counterforce or motive],” but there is no hard and fast setup. Still, most of those elements are included in every hookline.
The Protagonist and the Antagonist
First, forget your characters’ names. Andrew Fillmore or Martha Anderson say nothing about the character, but the “chipper, unemployed trapeze artist” or “retired Navy officer” does. Capture people with who your characters are, and they will want to know names.
Second – and you can keep this in mind for all nouns in your hookline – forget everything you’ve been told about cutting adjectives. At least while you’re writing a hookline. You only have one sentence, and while it must be tiny, it should not be skin and bones. Don’t be superfluous and give each noun an adjective – or two, but do say that the ranch your widow must restore is dilapidated.
You will not need to mention more than two or three characters or groups of characters. The main speaker and their team or close connection, and the antagonist and their team or close connection are all who need to be mentioned. For example, the logline for The Magnificent Seven could read:
A professional gunslinger (protagonist) organizes a unique posse (protagonist’s team or group) that struggles to save a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos (antagonist group).
A genius orphan (protagonist) races to find a cure for his brain-damaged sister (protagonist’s close connection) before her makeshift life support system fails (antagonist – time).
Notice in the above hookline, the antagonist is not a person. While a thinking, calculating being is usually used as the bad guy, the antagonist can easily be a stressful job, time, or illness.
The Goal or End Result
Both the protagonist and the antagonist have these. The protagonist’s goal absolutely must be stated, but the antagonist’s goal may be implied. If the antagonist is not a person, then it can not have a goal, but it most certainly has an end result.
A professional gunslinger organizes a unique posse that struggles to save (protagonist goal) a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos (implied antagonist goal – to keep the town).
A genius orphan races to find a cure (protagonist goal) for his brain-damaged sister before her makeshift life support system fails (antagonist end result).
The setting is both the time period and the place of the novel. If the novel takes place in a contemporary setting, there is no need to give a time. The contemporary setting is assumed. But if your novel is historical fiction or takes place in the future, you need to make that clear.
Do the same you did for names for places. Unless the place is Los Angeles or the Rockies or some other place that does not need an explanation, a “bustling suburb” is better than Georgetown, and “newly colonized planet” is better than “Ithos-3.” For a novel with a complex world (such as a fantasy or science fiction novel), the setting may need an entire clause.
A professional gunslinger (setting keyword – time) organizes a unique posse that struggles to save a Mexican town (setting – place) from a murderous group of banditos.
The setting may be implied by keywords associated with that time or place, as it is with “professional gunslinger.” By the time we get to “posse” we know this is a western and now have a time frame of the events.
In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs (setting – time), a despondent cop struggles on the lam (setting – place) to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed.
This logline for Minority Report illustrates how a science fiction novel carries its setting. It devotes the entire first clause to a) telling us this novel takes place in the future, and b) explaining the part of the world that has the biggest impact on the plot (criminals being arrested before the crime occurs).
No doubt your hookline will include one or more actions by the protagonist, and maybe even by the antagonist. These actions should be aggressive, not passive. No one wants to read about a passive hero (Or villain, for that matter. How exactly can one be a passive villain anyway?). Make the actions very specific, not general, preferably using actual plot points, and as always, use vibrant verbs and few adverbs.
A professional gunslinger organizes a unique posse (protagonist specific action) that struggles (protagonist evocative action) to save a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos.
Notice that while “struggles” is not a specific plot point, it nevertheless evokes a strong sense of both physical and mental action, and is offset by the specific action (organizes a unique posse).
A genius orphan races to find a cure (protagonist actions) for his brain-damaged sister before her makeshift life support system fails.
“Races to find a cure” is actually a fairly general action, but if the novel is about the boy trying one thing after another, this more accurately reflects the plot line than just one of those attempts.
Consider the following two loglines from the same movie.
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to do it again.
After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
Try to echo your novel’s tone. If your novel is comedic, throw a bit of wit in your hookline. If it’s a lighthearted adventure, give it a childish fantastical feel. If it lays bare grim reality, portray the attitude in it. You shouldn’t worry over trying to include your novel’s tone too much, but never, ever, mix moods. (For those of you who are wondering, Wikipedia attributes the first, rather twisted logline of The Wizard of Oz to “Richard Polito of the Marin Independent Journal, who writes humorously sarcastic briefs for the paper’s daily TV listings.”)
I have a weakness for hooklines. It is hard to condense my novel into a single sentence, but it would be extremely useful, not only so I could write a decent query, but so I could have an answer when someone asks me what my novel is about. So far I either mumble, “it’s science fiction,” or I prattle on for three minutes.
Do you have any hooklines for your novel? Any other tips on how to write a hookline?