Hi friends! I mentioned offhandedly a few times on social media that I was thinking about making a video discussing some of the most common issues I’ve seen while helping people edit their query letters, but I think such a resource would be useful to have as a blog post as well. I’ll put the info here first and then maybe make video content of it later.
These are the things I’ve done while crafting the hooks in my query letters—and by hooks, I mean the part of the query where I wrote about the plot of my book and tried to leave agents feeling desperate to read the opening pages! This part of a query is similar to the summaries you see on the backs of books in a lot of ways.
If you’ve got a perfectly polished query letter, then you might not need this advice. And that’s awesome! But if you’re getting rejection after rejection (though let’s be honest, who isn’t right now) and you feel like something needs to change, I hope this helps!
Step 1: Break the Novel Down
Okay, so you have this huge freaking manuscript in front of you and someone had the audacity to say “Tell me about it in 400 words”?? Sounds fake, but whatever. (Kidding.) In order to do so effectively, it’s important to take a step back and look at your novel’s structure.
I use a combination of some different writing resources to do this. First, I take a piece of paper and split my novel into three acts. You can read more about the three and four act structures in Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel. As an example, I’m going to use the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope. If we’re breaking that movie down into three acts, I’d personally title them something like this:
Act I: The Call
Act II: Save the Princess
Act III: Destroy the Death Star
Get the idea? If you’re thinking um, no, I do not get the idea then read this next part carefully: transition points between acts are (usually) marked by doors of no return.
Step 2: Identify Doors of No Return
I’m not entirely sure who coined the phrase “doors of no return.” I personally picked it up from one of my creative writing college professors and really liked it. You can identify a door of no return fairly easily: it’s when a character makes a decision that changes their life completely. There’s no going back! In A New Hope, Luke has a couple doors of no return.
At the end of Act I, Luke decides to accompany Ben Kenobi on his journey to save the princess from the Empire. A lot of things help lead him to this decision, especially when his aunt and uncle are killed, but it’s important to note that the real door of no return is when Luke makes his choice. This is because readers (or in this case, viewers) want to see the main character change over the course of the story.
At the end of Act II, Luke and Han save Leia and they make their daring escape. When they arrive at the rebel base, Luke decides to participate in the fight against the Empire, mainly by helping destroy the Death Star.
Once you’ve taken note of your story’s three acts and the two major doors of no return that separate each one, you’re just about ready to get started writing your hook!
Step 3: What’s Your Inciting Incident?
If you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey, then firstly, congratulations on paying attention in high school English and secondly, get ready to locate one last crucial part of your story: the inciting incident, otherwise known as the call to action.
In A New Hope, the call to action is Luke finding the hologram of Princess Leia in R2D2’s memory. That’s his first foray into the world of the Empire versus the Rebellion.
Your inciting incident is important to add into your hook as well, so make sure you have it clearly defined. Then, you’re ready to start writing your hook.
Step 4: Get Writing
Okay! Now here’s the method I like to use:
- Introduce your character and their “normal”
- The inciting incident happens
- They pass the first door of no return
- In Act II, they take action
- End your hook by hinting at the next door of no return
- Throw in some stakes (AKA tell the audience what will happen if they don’t succeed!)
With this structure, here’s an example of what a hook for A New Hope could look like, with each of the above parts of the hook labeled (please keep in mind I’m doing this on the spot and it will not be perfect, just a first draft):
(1) Luke Skywalker dreams of leaving his desert home of Tatooine behind to become a pilot, but his aspirations are constantly pushed to the side by his uncle. (2) But when Luke finds a hologram of a beautiful princess, asking for aid from an Obi-Wan Kenobi, he feels compelled to help. Seeking out Ben Kenobi, who might have a mysterious connection to Obi-Wan, Luke’s life changes forever: Ben explains that Luke is strong in the Force, a power held by the now-extinct Jedi Knights of old, and encourages the young man to join on the journey to save the princess. (3) Luke refuses, but when he returns home and finds that his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Empire, he realizes his path forward lies with Ben and the Force.
(4) With the help of smuggler Han Solo, the group infiltrates the Empire’s base—a planet-destroying weapon called the Death Star. They race against the clock to save Princess Leia, an important leader in the Rebel Alliance fighting against the Empire, and escape capture without being caught. (5) As they navigate encounters with deadly stormtroopers, devouring monsters, and the evil Darth Vader himself, their situation becomes more and more dire. (6) They have to make it off of the base alive so they can warn the Rebellion of the Death Star’s next target: the Rebel base itself.
Okay this is NOT A PERFECT QUERY. There are a lot of things that could be improved upon by just glancing at it: it’s complicated to read, it introduces too many characters, and the prose is lacking at best. That’s okay for now though, because this is a first draft! My example is the basic structure you might find useful for your hook. Each element is laid out carefully and connected to the next in a way that’s simple, concise, and easy to understand.
From here? Crack your knuckles and get ready to edit until the prose and the voice shine! We can talk about those details another time. For now, I hope this helps with your query letter woes. Follow me on social media for more querying tips and writing updates!