Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hooks & Tags.

Sewing? No. Today I'm talking about query letters and a not-so-fine distinction many new novel writers don't quite see: the difference between a hook and a tag line. The reason fiction writers often miss the difference is that the phrase "tag line" comes from the evil world of screenwriting, and the tag line has contaminated everything.

I'm taking parts of this from a post I made on a thread on AbsoluteWrite. The writer of the original post had a query letter that wasn't getting a good response. They posted the hook from their letter. The problem? Their hook was actually a tag line. I won't use that writer's tag line, but here's something similar:

"Is it worth pursuing your dreams if the search only brings you pain?"

Okay, so maybe it wasn't that bad, but you get the idea. A tag line is something a marketing department comes up with to put on a one sheet (movie poster). It is not the sort of thing that makes anyone want to see the movie (or request a partial) because it doesn't mean anything. It could apply to a thousand different books or movies or TV shows.

What is a hook? In screenwriting land, a hook is a log line. It is your incredibly interesting, infinitely-marketable, audience-ready plot. It is hopefully high-concept. A hook is the one line that makes your would-be reader or viewer or agent say "that's interesting, I haven't seen that before, I have to know how that story turns out." Here are some examples, poorly written by yours truly:

-A young boy discovers he's a wizard and is sent to a secret wizarding school.

-A girl returns to her family home to find a cure for a curse that is causing her feet to turn to glass.

-A five-year-old boy raised in a single room must escape from the man who has held him and his mother captive.

-A young woman falls in love with a man who travels through time.

All are novels, obviously, and most literary fiction. It can be done. A hook is what is driving your book, the underlying question that must be solved. At their best, they give the reader an idea of a unique problem that is big enough to drive an entire plot and get them started thinking about how they would handle the same issue.

As a side note, it's not necessary to have a high-concept hook. In a novel they can be much softer:

-A young man rides his horse away from his troubled family and tries to build a new life in Mexico.

-A man tries to reclaim the love of his youth, having waited sixty years for his beloved's husband to die.

Note that these softer plots may be of less interest from a beginning writer. An agent reading your query letter might not trust that an unknown writer will have the chops to pull those two stories off as well as Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In short, a good hook makes an agent think your book can be marketed, has a target audience, and will sell. It is the heart of your query letter. There's no room in a query letter for a tag line.

No comments: