July 20th, 2015

Fishing Out Your Manuscript Hook

Kate Moretti

Congratulations, you did it! You typed “The End”. Finite. Have a glass of wine, heck have a bottle. Now, polish it up, send it out to agents, maybe editors. Maybe you get a few rejections, no problem. Maybe a few more. Maybe they sort of hinge around one thing: It didn’t grab me like I’d hoped. You scratch your head, what does that even mean?

You’re missing your hook.

Sometimes a hook can come out of the blue and you build a book around that. I’ve done that. Twice, actually. I happen to love first lines, it’s my favorite part of writing a novel. Other times you just start a novel at the beginning and tell the story. How do you grab your reader? And what does that even mean, anyway?

One of the best hooks I’ve read in contemporary fiction is Joshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story. The first line is: “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.” I love this line. I love that she fell in love. I love that we don’t know if William Ashe was holding the gun or not. I love that it was in a Circle K, but that might be because I’m from the North and love a lot of things Southern. There’s this great opening line, then, “It was on a Friday at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot, the air felt like it had all been boiled red.We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.”

Great voice, great imagery, appropriate use of snark. But who in God’s name is William Ashe? I need to know. Jackson then does an interesting thing where she winds the clock backwards. Three paragraphs down, we’re at her mother’s house analyzing a portrait of Jesus.

I love this hook because I think it hits on the hook trifecta:

Voice. Character. Mystery.

If you can deliver all three in the first few lines, you have a successful hook. Easy peasy, right?

So you have this big great manuscript, and now, if you use Jackson’s example, you can start anywhere you want. Seems overwhelming. Maybe.

Here are four tricks for fishing out a great hook:

The Random Thought: Does your character have a tic? A strange thought? A weird fascination with dung beetles? Open with it. Get us right into their head. Make us love them in spite of, no because of, their weirdness.

Gone Girl comes to mind: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”

Look at the first ten pages, hell the first thirty! What is the weirdest thing going on in your character’s head. Plunk us into it and wind back.

The Climax opener: This is a popular thriller technique. Open with the book’s climax. We’re crouching behind a garbage can, holding a bloody gun listening to footsteps thunder past, our blood in our ears. Yes. This works. Sometimes.

A great example is thriller writer Harlan Coben’s opening line in No Second Chance: “When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.”

Mystery? Check. Sympathetic character? You bet. Look at your climax, is there a line you can pull from there?

Voice. Voice. Voice: Is Voice your strength? Do you write with a stylistic southern twang or an angsty, sarcastic teenager? Is your hero a cowboy with an affinity for four-letter-words? Put their voices first.

I think of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

If you continue to read the first two pages of TFIOS, you fall in love with Hazel. Her irreverence, her practicality in the face of adversity, did I mention her irreverence?

The PAGE 40: This works, I promise. It’s also kind of my favorite opener. If you’ve ever done a beat sheet on your novel (From Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat), somewhere around ten thousand words is the point of no return. This falls roughly at around page forty (really anywhere from page thirty to page fifty). This is where the novel turns on its heel and becomes truly interesting. [Minor spoiler alert] If you go back to my first example, Someone Else’s Love Story, William Ashe comes back into play and saves Shandi’s son’s life on page thirty-four.

In my own novel, Binds That Tie, the opening line is “She hadn’t meant to kill him.” And on page forty, you find out why and how the main character killed a man.

In The Husband’s Secret, it opens with Cecilia holding the envelope — “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.” Skip to page forty-four and she’s on the phone with John-Paul. He says, “Have you opened it?”

It’s not exact. But it actually works.

The point is, if you’re careful about your pacing (or counting beats) somewhere between 10-12K words, there’s probably a great attention grabber. The moment when the main character makes a life-changing decision.

Bring it to the front, let us meet them in their agonizing moment, then rewind the clock.

No matter the path you choose, whether you go with plot or voice or character or the PAGE 40, somewhere in your written and polished novel exists a fantastic hook.

You just need to fish for it.

How do you fish out your hook?

About Kate

author photoKate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.


31 comments to Fishing Out Your Manuscript Hook

  • Christine Dorman

    Thank you, Ms. Moretti. This blog is just what I needed. I’ve rewritten my first few pages several times and am quite frustrated, but these tips give me hope and the energy to try again. I love the PAGE 40 idea and am going on a treasure hunt to pages 30-50 of my novel right now. Thanks again!

  • I love that start too – it makes me want to read the book now.

  • I’m wrapping up my WIP, and this gives me things to look for when I start edits. I dread opening lines (writing them, not reading good ones!), and now I’ll have to peek at pages 30-40

    • I think as long as you remember the trifecta: voice, character, mystery, you’ll do just fine! I don’t always hit on all three either. It’s harder than you’d think!

  • Great advice and words of wisdom! Thanks for sharing such strong examples. Everyone should test your PAGE 40 Theory…including me amid my next WIP 🙂

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Hold that thought … *flipping to page 40 in my WIP* 🙂
    Great post, Kate! I’m going to play with all of these and see what I come up with.

  • I’m with you, Kate, LOVE the beginning of a book, before all my great ideas die, 30% in.

    And I spend WAY too much time on first lines, but I love them! Here’s mine from The Sweet Spot:

    The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.

    And this is from my current WIP:

    Addiction Sucks.
    I should know. Papaw has his White Lightning. Nana has her Bingo-jones. My addiction has sad green eyes, and my name, tattooed across his left pec.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Fae Rowen

    Kate, this post is pure genius! And at the perfect time, too. Except now, instead of packing today for conference, I’m going to be re-working the opening of the book I’m pitching. At least the protein powder is already packed!

  • Wow, Kate. I mean WOW. This is an incredibly brilliant way to go about revising a novel–and I am ever so grateful, because right now I’m 100 pages into my newest manuscript and thinking NOBODY WILL WANT TO READ THIS. Now, at least, I have something to aim for today. I’m going to check out page 40 and see if the book really starts there! Oh, and p.s.: I have an old house with a secret passageway. Yeah, it’s a great place to hide from kids when you’re trying to think!

    • I’m so insanely jealous of your secret passageway!! Thank you so much Holly. I always think NO ONE WILL EVER READ THIS, no matter what stage I’m in. I always thought that was normal! xoxox

  • Carolyn Toms-Neary

    Thank you, Kate. Soooo great! And away I go to pages 30-40. I absolutely loved this post. I’ve changed my first 10 pages no less than…well often. My current beginning line is:
    After much reflection, I decided that oddball cherubic caretakers were probably paired with equally peculiar little kids, making it necessary to mix and match. Then again, maybe he was being punished for some heavenly transgression, grasped that short straw or simply lost a celestial bet.

    Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, can’t wait to experiment. Thank you sooo much.

  • Wonderful post! I’ve been waiting for it (in hopes that I could find my hook). Hey, you weren’t thinking about me in that first paragraph, were you?!? 🙂

  • Thank you so much for an excellent and extremely helpful post!

  • MM Jaye

    Extremely helpful, indeed. Page 40 and all the rest. I’m an avid reader and reviewer, but what I’ve noticed more often than not, is a polished first chapter (opening hook, deep PoV writing, the works) but the rest of the book does not live up to it. It makes me think. Maybe writers work really hard on the first chapters (I know that ’cause I’ve done it) writing, re-writing, repeating, as there’s the Look Inside feature on Amazon and the option to download a free sample, but they don’t seem to go the extra mile to do that with the rest of the book.

    Hmm, that’s a nice subject for a blog post: How to treat all your chapters like a first chapter.

    Greetings from Greece!
    Maria (MM Jaye)

    • Interested take MM!! You might be right, I don’t know. I think a good editor will keep a lazy writer on track. I know this because I, myself, am a lazy writer who has been blessed with great editors :). You should write that blog post! xoxox

  • What a helpful breakdown of hook options and how they seduce us. Out of curiosity, I went to my ms to see what happens on page 40, and through luck or instinct, it is the end of a chapter with a big, overall hook! Great info. Thank you.

    • Pia, I don’t think it’s luck or instinct. I think that most people pay attention to pacing and around 10K words there is generally a “moment of no return” no matter which method of plotting you use. Unless you pants, in which case, I can’t comment because pantsers amaze me 🙂 🙂 :).

  • Kate, pantsers need hooks too. As you know when I write it pours out of me and I just try to hang on and keep up. But after the end is hit I have to read it over many times for the editing and etc. I loved this piece because it will help me find if I even have a hook. It is hard to break my writing down and use all the advice on writing because most of the time I don’t know what they are talking about but as a true lover of the written word I read, listen and do workshops hoping that occasionally I can find an acorn that I can use to help me get close to creating a good book. This is an acorn I can use. Now to look at page 40. Thanks so much. Jo or some call me 50.

  • I haven’t finished my latest book, but I am working on it. (I have completed two other novels, one – Broken Glass- a historical fiction novel I am working to find publication for. In the meantime, I am working on the my next novel. I haven’t heard of the page 40 rule (or concept) before. Once I have written the final word I will apply your suggestions in my editing process. Thanks for this. I will repost this on my own blog site, Historical Fiction Addicts at kellylynnereimer.wordpress.com

  • […] while back, I read a blog post on finding the right ‘hook’ for your manuscript – an opening line that would grab […]