If you’ve managed to finish an entire novel, give yourself a high five and throw yourself a party for one, because you’ve made it farther than many aspiring writers ever do. Plus, you’re going to need that pep when you move onto the next step: your query letter. And most importantly, your query letter hook.
Writing a query letter with a powerful, engaging hook is the key to getting your work on the shelves of bookshops and libraries and in the hands of readers. Let’s take a closer look at what a query letter is, why a good hook is so important, and how to write one that will catch an agent or publisher’s attention.
A query letter is a proposal to a literary agent (or sometimes a publisher) that introduces them to you and your book. It’s a brief letter of introduction to see if they want to enter into a business relationship with you to represent your work.
In your query letter you’re going to show them what your book is about, why you think you’re a good fit for them, and why partnering with you to get your book out into the world is a smart business decision.
An agent will want to see that while your book has similarities to ones that already have a loyal established audience, it’s different enough that it offers something exciting and new. This is where your hook comes in.
What is a hook in a query letter?
In a query letter, the hook is a short summary of your book that makes the literary agent want to know more about your story. Your query letter will also include your book’s word count, comparable titles, and target audience so that the literary agent knows who best to market it to.
Like a fish hook, successful query letters “hook” the agent’s attention so that your query letter doesn’t end up in the shredder like the other 99% of query letters that they receive.
You can learn more about how to write a query letter in our detailed lesson, here.
Why do you need a hook in your query letter?
Query letter hooks are essential in getting your manuscript past the publishing industry threshold. In general, most literary agents will only spend a short amount of time skimming over your query letter before deciding whether or not your book is of interest to them—sometimes less than ten seconds.
This isn’t because they’re mean gatekeeping curmudgeons or because they don’t respect the work you do; it’s because they have literally hundreds of very similar query letters sitting in their inbox, and they have to read them all before they can go have lunch.
Since an agent’s time is limited, you need to be able to hook their attention quickly, so that they feel compelled to read more of your work instead of tossing your query letter and moving on to the next one.
This makes the hook one of the most important parts of your query letter, and that’s why writing a good one is so critical to your book’s success!
5 steps for writing a query letter hook that will grab your readers
Writing a great query letter hook can mean the difference between becoming a published author and wasting away in artistic obscurity.
Fortunately, you can use a simple, reliable storytelling formula to pack a lot into a small space. The formula for writing a great hook is putting essential story elements, or beats, together in a sequence that describes your book: the protagonist, conflict, stakes, and a final dramatic statement.
Let’s look at the five parts of the formula for a great hook:
1. Start with your title
Despite the old adage, we’re all guilty of judging a book by its cover. In book pitch or query letter, your “cover” is your book’s title. Your title should be unique, clever, and memorable; “The Knight’s Quest” or “Summer Holiday” aren’t going to make you stand out from the crowd.
Examples of eye-catching titles include “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (Douglas Adams), “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” (Julie C. Dao), and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Stephen Chbosky).
Even before the literary agent reads the rest of your query letter, your title is triggering a subconscious response. When they read an uninspiring title, they start bracing themselves for an uninspiring experience. But when they read an unusual, intriguing title, they’ll be interested in learning more.
2. Introduce your protagonist
Your protagonist is the star of the show (the word “protagonist” comes from the old Greek and means “principal actor”). The literary agent—and your readers—needs to fall in love with your main character. Your hook should introduce them to your protagonist, the world they live in, and why they’re someone we want to root for from beginning to end.
You may reference an antagonist or a love interest in your query letter hook, but avoid bringing in more than three characters. Your goal is to touch upon the very basic plot points of your story—you can think of this like an “elevator pitch.”
As you describe your protagonist, you may also mention the setting. This is especially important in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction, and in contemporary stories where the setting plays a big role in shaping your main character.
For example, “Jimmy Delaney is a mob boss living in 1950s Chicago, cashing in on the economic destruction left in the wake of World War II.”
Or, “Marketing executive David Cole, exhausted by his fast-paced life in the highrises of New York, decides to sell his condo and become a rancher in Nebraska.” Setting is important when it intersects with character.
A one-sentence description of your protagonist is the first beat in your query letter hook.
3. Briefly describe the conflict
Conflict is what drives a story forward. In your hook, you want to show what’s making life difficult for your character and how it’s about to change their world. It sounds like things are going pretty well for Jimmy and David… until??
Maybe Chicago elects a new mayor with some pretty brazen, hard-hitting ideas about how to get crime off the streets. Maybe David finds that his new community is hostile towards the rich outsider in the trim-cut suit.
The second beat of your hook should describe the first major turning point in your story. This will make the literary agent want to see what happens next.
4. Show what’s at stake
Conflict in a story is only meaningful when the protagonist has something to lose. This is your chance to go into a little more detail about what’s driving your story. What your protagonist has at stake becomes the third beat of your story’s hook.
Most conflicts could be resolved pretty easily, except for that one thing that makes it complicated—that one thing is your story’s stakes.
For example, if Jimmy the mob boss wants to stay out of reach of the law, he could decide to go straight, he could lie low for a while, or he could start again in a new city. Those are all easy solutions to the conflict—but now ask yourself why he can’t.
Maybe Jimmy needs to stay where he is because he has a loved one in the hospital, and the illegal money he’s making is paying the medical bills. Those are Jimmy’s stakes, and what makes the conflict—and your hook—compelling.
If David the marketing exec doesn’t like living on a farm, he could just go home and probably get his old job back. Ask yourself why he can’t.
Maybe he’s secretly running from tax evasion charges or a high-profile scandal and is trying to start a new life. Now we suddenly have tension—a story, and a hook.
5. Introduce the dramatic question
The dramatic question is a promise you make to the reader within the first quarter of your story and answer before the end of the book. It’s the Big Question that forms the backbone of everything else that happens in the plot.
Once you have your protagonist, conflict, and stakes, the dramatic question begins to take shape.
In Jimmy’s story, the dramatic question could be something like, “Will Jimmy outsmart a politician even more ruthless than he is?” In David’s story, the dramatic question might go along the lines of, “Will David earn the respect and loyalty of his new community?”
In a query letter hook, it’s best to invert this rhetorical question into a statement. Rather than ending your hook on open-ended, rhetorical questions, which can feel a bit forced and trite, turn it around into a confident closing sentence that hints at the story to come.
For example, “Will Jimmy outsmart a politician even more ruthless than he is?” can become “Jimmy will need to stay one step ahead of the game if he’s going to outwit a politician even more ruthless than he is.”
In the next story, “Will David earn the respect and loyalty of his new community?” can be inverted as “David’s going to have to earn the respect and loyalty of his new community.”
Identifying the dramatic question and turning it into a closing statement forms the final beat of your hook.
3 mistakes to avoid when writing your hook
Now that we have an idea of how to compose our story’s hook, let’s look at a few of the pitfalls new writers make when pitching their query letters to a literary agency.
1. Including too much backstory
Exposition is tricky to master in a story, and it’s even more cumbersome in the limited space that a query letter hook allows.
The hook isn’t meant to be a full summary of everything that happens in the story and everything that leads up to it; include only as much as you need to inspire interest in discovering your story. They can enjoy the rest of your sparkling storycraft when the agent requests to read the full manuscript.
Think about what your story might look like as a short blurb on Amazon—that’s where you want to be with your hook.
2. Introducing too many characters
Likewise, you don’t need to include your full cast of supporting roles in your query letter hook, no matter how proud of them you might be. Three is a good general maximum when it comes to including characters in your hook: the protagonist, the antagonist, and possibly a love interest/sidekick/complication.
Any more than that and it can get a bit overwhelming in such a short space. Think of your secondary characters as a surprise reward to the literary agents who reads your full book.
3. Preaching a theme
Avoid lecturing in your query letter hook. You may want everyone who reads your story to come away with a resonant and powerful theme, but you don’t need to preach it to the literary agents just yet.
At this point, they’re not looking for a raw and powerful lesson that the world needs to hear, nor are they interested in your societal views about contemporary culture. They’re just looking for a good story that they think they can sell. If your story is good enough, your message will come through naturally.
Bonus query letter mistake: Not following guidelines
When you write a query letter, one essential thing to keep in mind before you even begin is to carefully read the submission guidelines. These will usually be posted on the agency website.
As we’ve mentioned above, literary agents receive thousands of query letters each week, and the easiest way for them to whittle down the pile is to toss out the ones who didn’t bother to familiarize themselves with that particular agency.
All literary agents have a “manuscript wish list” of things they want to see from new writers. They may ask for the first ten pages of your book alongside your query letter, or just a summary of your story premise. They may ask for you to reach out by email, through a dedicated submission portal, or they may be restricted to snail mail queries only.
All literary agents have their own preferred methods, so make sure you follow directions and target your query letter hook to each individual one.
The tried-and-true formula for a great hook
Now you know the formula for composing your hook for your query letter out of individual beats: protagonist, conflict, stakes, and dramatic statement.
Start writing your hook by noting down what each of those is in your story. Once you pinpoint these central elements, it’s just a matter of putting them all together into a summary of approximately 3 sentences.
Here are a couple of examples to show you how it looks.
Jimmy Delaney is a mob boss living in 1950s Chicago, cashing in on the economic destruction left in the wake of World War II. When a new mayor is elected with some hard-hitting ideas about how to get crime off his streets, Jimmy’s line of income—and his only means of providing for a sick father who knows nothing about the Life—begins to crumble. He’ll need to stay one step ahead of the game if he’s going to outwit a politician even more ruthless than he is and protect the people he loves.
Marketing executive David Cole, exhausted by his fast-paced life in the highrises of New York, decides to sell his condo and become a rancher in Nebraska. But he quickly learns that farm life is a world away from the pizzerias of Manhattan, and his new community is hostile towards the rich outsider in the trim-cut suit. Unable to face going home and dealing with the consequences of a devastating mistake, David’s going to have to earn the respect and loyalty of his new community before his past catches up with him.
Once you identify those four essential story beats, it’s amazing how easily they fall into place as a strong and compelling hook.
By using this simple storytelling formula, you can create a query letter hook that will make literary agents excited to read more of your story.
A compelling hook opens doors for your story
Writing a great hook that pulls the reader into the story is your key to the gilded gates of the publishing world. And when literary agents are wading through hundreds, or even thousands, of hopeful query letters, a compelling hook can be the make-or-break moment.
With these simple tips, you’ll realize that a query letter hook doesn’t need to be complex, or intimidating, or arcane; all it has to do is tell a good story.