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 cyber-friend on a forum I frequent is writing a novel with this hookline:

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

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).

Actions

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.

Showing Mood

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?

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on March 25, 2011, in On Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. That’s one of the better explanations I’ve read on writing a tagline.

    Not that this is news, but writing queries is awful! I tend to mix genres and go for concepts. By the time I’m done getting that across, my time is up.

    I like your comment about making sure the protagonist is active. That can get lost trying to convey the bigger concept.

    • Hello Oldancestor!

      For some odd reason, loglines have more “how-to’s” on the internet than taglines, even though the two have no differences in craft. If you want more information, I suggest doing a google search on how to write loglines.

      I’m convinced even writing queries is only a matter of learning how. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is the first in a series on the contents of a query package. Keep an eye out – or subscribe to my blog – and I’m sure you’ll learn how you can juggle all those things. In the meantime, Queryshark is an excellent (if a bit snarky) critique resource for query letters.

      I agree. It helps if you remember the job of the novel is to show the bigger concept, and the job of the tagline is to generate interest in the novel.

      Thank for your valuable comment!

  2. Ooh, interesting! I’ll have to know this soon! Thanks!

  3. Haha, thanks for using my logline. 🙂

    A word on the difference between a tagline and a logline:

    A tagline sells your novel to the masses. A logline sells your story to the publisher (or producer/prodco, in the case of film).

    A tagline is the kind of thing you see on a movie poster (“Aslan is on the move” or “The Return” or something catchy like that).

    A logline summarises the entire plot into one little insignificant sentence.

    • You’re welcome. It was a good one. 😉

      Interesting. . . I’m poking around on google, and it does appear I’ve managed to use the more obscure definition of tagline. However, it is very clear a logline is only for cinema. I saw hookline being used as logline for novels, but guessed hookline was a more general term. 😛 I must have been wrong. Thank you for your correction!

      And you’d really, really think I’d at least know the name of my subject. : P

      • Yeah, logline as film-only is probably true; I borrowed the term from film for novels after reading about one-sentence summaries in the Snowflake method of organization.

        hehe, PM me sometime — I should let you know what’s going on in Chasms-world. 😄

        • Before I’d always seen the same thing described as a “one-sentence summary of your novel.” I had seen “hook” a long time ago, just once. It’s odd, almost like it doesn’t have a well-known or highly-used name.

          I will, then! I’ve been a ghost on the HW forums for a bit and will get back into the action soon.

  4. Great post, Katty! I’ve actually been looking for a how-to on hooklines for while; this is definitely the best I’ve seen. 😀

  5. Hi. I saw your article on Words! and came to check out your blog. This is really great, especially for a kid (I don’t care if you’re a teen or what, but anyone one the ywp site of NaNo is still a kid). I have edited all of my fight scenes, cleaned up my infodumping etc. Your blog looks really good, too… mine stinks. One blog post, you know the like. If you want to PM me (on NaNo) I am emmaviola19. Hugs and snickerdoodles!

    • Hello Emma!

      Shh. . . the folks on here who don’t come from forums I frequent don’t know I’m a “kid.” 😀 As you’ve probably noticed, my Words! articles tend to be targeted to a lower age than my blog articles. It’s fantastic to hear someone has been enjoying my articles on Words!

      I did a good deal of researching about blogging before I started. Creating a good personal blog is a bit rough, I think. I preferred to create a niche blog about one of my passions. I’d suggest you do the same, maybe with a bit of personal blogging thrown in. Really, if you create a blog with a subject, you’ll have such a wonderful time learning about the subject and crafting posts and knowing that others are learning. Maybe I’m jumping ahead here, but if you’re interested in blogging more seriously, I’d be glad to point you to some useful sites I’ve found chock-full with information on how to blog.

      I saw you around on NaNo a lot, but I only get on nowadays to check my PMs. Feel free to shoot my one.

  1. Pingback: How Do You Write a Synopsis? – Blog

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