What will make your book fly off the shelves? A good story, high quality writing or a strong voice won’t help you unless readers know your book exists. And for that, you need such an interesting premise that readers around the country are chatting up your book. In other words, you need a hook.
As I've studied my bookshelf, I've come up with a few guidelines that illustrate what gives a novel a strong premise.
§ The novel gives beloved fairytales, historical figures, novels or paintings center or side stage. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Sherlock Holmes), While Beauty Slept(Sleeping Beauty), The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vermeer’s painting), Dear Mr. Knightley (a love for all things Jane Austen) and The Constant Princess (Henry VIII’s first wife) are all examples. Readers want to spend time with favorite characters and art.
§ It ties the story together with a hobby. Ordinary hobbies such as knitting and cooking can certainly draw in readers who enjoy knitting or cooking themselves, but if you can find a twist, this will make it stand out from the crowd. For example, in The Language of Flowers, two characters with a love of gardening send each other messages not with notes, but with flowers, each delivery carrying a symbolic meaning only they understand. Unique hobbies can give your story a little flash as well – i.e., custom shoe design or wild life rescue.
§ It allows readers to do something they’ve always wanted to do (vicariously). I bought Forgotten because it was about a character who, after being stranded in Africa for several months, returns to find that her job, her romance and her apartment are all gone. She’ll have to recreate her life. Spoiler alert: I was disappointed by the book as it did not live up to its promise of the heroine of getting a life makeover, but that promise is what made me buy it. What other deep seated desires will connect you to readers?
§ It creates zinger beginnings or zinger twists. When an old man in the prologue of The Lost Wife tells a wedding guest she looks familiar, and at last figures out that she was his wife just before the Nazis invaded Prague, that certainly sent readers to Amazon’s checkout cart (me included). Burying a zinger in the middle of the book is a harder sell, since it’s not something readers will see when they browse. But I heard about Still Missing from multiple readers because of its buried zinger, and it’s exactly why I picked it up.
§ It starts with vulnerable characters at risk. The little boy locked in the cupboard in Sarah’s Key is a great example of this. But even more ordinary risks – a teen without adult love or support (Dandelion Summer) or a Puritan woman being coerced to marry a man she doesn’t trust (Love’s Pursuit) are good draws. Readers only need to hear the concept to feel they need to see the character to safety.
§ It features a character the world depends on. High stakes Tom Clancy type novels where the character must stop nuclear bombs from detonating or bring an end to a plague outbreak, or fantasy novels where the hero/heroine holds the key to the coming war (think Lord of the Rings) are examples.
§ It begins the story with profound emotion readers can connect with. Remember, readers don’t know the story or the characters yet, so it must be something they can easily connect with. In Coldwater Revival, the heroine is apparently stillborn at birth, but begins to breathe with the loving attention she receives from her father who won’t give up on her. Who can't connect with a stillborn baby and a father's love?
Think about what made you pick up your last book, or even better, what had you chatting up the book to every reader you knew? Once you’ve found the quality that made it so compelling, you’ve probably found the hook. Now it’s your turn. Find a hook for your own work.