How to Pitch Your Novel What's the Difference Between Your Story's Hook and Your Story's Heart

How to Pitch Your Novel: What’s the Difference Between Your Story’s Hook and Your Story’s Heart?

Quick! You’ve got less than a minute to convince me your story is worth my time. What do you tell me? You’ve got to pique my curiosity with mystery and potential, while still conveying the bulk of the plot, theme, and general tone. No problem! you say. But when you sit down to actually figure out how to pitch your novel in such a stellar way, you realize these two ingredients aren’t necessarily going to be compatible within the confines of such a short description.

Your story’s hook and your story’s heart aren’t the same thing. What your story is really about–its heart, its core–may not be its hook at all. Fortunately, when you realize this, it suddenly makes the whole job of cramming both into your pitch or back-cover summary about a mega-billion times easier. This revelation goes beyond just learning how to pitch your novel in the most effective way. The differences between your story’s hook and your story’s heart will affect every page you write. The sooner you figure out which is which–and how to best optimize them both–the better your book will be.

What Is Your Story’s Heart?

Your story’s heart is what it’s all about, way down at its center. This is the soul of your story. If it’s a love story, a thriller, a coming-of-age story–that’s going to be a fundamental aspect of your story’s heart. But we’re talking more than just genre here.

The heart of your story is its essence. It’s the point. The easiest way to figure out your story’s heart is to ask yourself two questions:

1. Why are you writing this story?

If the answer is, “I love romance” or “I want to make a difference in young people’s lives” or “I had an idea for a political drama set on Mars”–then that’s a great starting place for identifying your story’s heart.

2. What’s the story about?

When your BFF asks what you’re writing, what do you tell her? “It’s a story about a kid who ends up in the prison on Rikers Island, where he is inspired to turn his life around, thanks to the school there.”

Maybe that was the exact answer Paul Volponi gave regarding his YA novel Rikers High. It’s a snappy summary of his story’s main thrust. Other stuff happens in his book, but this is the point. This is the heart.

Examples of Story Hearts

Consider the beating heart of a few more stories:

A man with the ability to jump through space to anywhere in the world is captured by people trying to harness his abilities. (Reflex by Steven Gould)

A weakling prince is sold into slavery, where he searches for faith and grows into a warrior while fighting as a gladiator. (Light of Eidon by Karen Hancock)

Edward Rochester’s first wife struggles to maintain her sanity in the face of his casual cruelty and their loveless marriage. (Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys)

Reflex Steven Gould Light of Eidon Karen Hancock Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

You’ll notice these are all very streamlined descriptions of these stories. They don’t incorporate subplots or plot twists, because those things are ultimately extraneous trappings to the true of heart of their stories. When you’re pitching your story, don’t worry about the extras. Just focus on the true essentials.

What Is Your Story’s Hook?

Now what’s this about your story’s hook not being the same thing as your story’s heart? Granted, sometimes the heart and the hook are the same thing. Or, rather, sometimes the story’s heart is unique enough to act as a good hook in and of itself. Indeed, the heart should always be specific enough to stand on its own. “A story of star-crossed lovers” will never be as effective (in any capacity) as “two star-crossed teenagers fall in love and, when their families object, end up committing double suicide.”

But even in the midst of a fabulously specific and unique heart, your hook will almost always be something even more specific and unique. In the Writer’s Digest feature “Meet the Agent” (March/April 2014), literary agent Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein encourages authors:

Really think about your novel’s hook. What makes it stand out? How is it different from all the other novels in my inbox?

The hook is what grabs people’s attention. We’ve all read coming-of-age stories. We’ve all read ill-fated love stories. We may even have read stories about kids in juvenile detention or teenagers killing themselves for love. These ideas may be at the heart of some really stupendous stories, but without a hook to grab curiosity, readers will never take a deeper look.

To identify your hook, ask yourself these questions:

1. Why should the reader care about this story?

This is the whole reason the hook even exists in the first place. If readers were automatically going to be interested in any ol’ thing you wrote, you wouldn’t need to bother with the hook. You could tell your tale and trust that readers would share your interest just because. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

So why will readers think this story is interesting? What will make it stand out from the rest of the coming-of-age stories and tragic love stories?

2. What is the single most interesting and unique element in this story?

You may be stumped after that first question. Lots of us are. We don’t always start writing a story because it’s unique or has a built-in hook. We’re writing it because we love its heart. And we do love it. But you have to take a look past the surface reasons.

Why did you need to write this story? Why couldn’t you just go read Romeo & Juliet and call it good? Start looking for the single most interesting element your story has on tap. To narrow that down yet some more, consider what’s unique about your story. More often than not, that’s where you’ll find your hook.

Examples of Story Hooks

So what are our original example stories’ hooks?

ReflexA man can jump through space. That’s relatively unique, even amongst our glut of superhero stories these days (especially in comparison to, say, super-strength). Even better? This potentially super-powered story doesn’t follow any of the obvious plot tropes from the comics. It’s not about a superhero using his powers to save the world. It’s about a freak being hunted, tortured, and having to figure out how to save himself.

Light of Eidon: Consider the elements this story offers: a prince, a weakling, a gladiator, a warrior, a faith crisis. In themselves, none of these are too unique. But combined, they offer some pretty interesting mashups. A weakling prince as the hero? Don’t see that one very often. A captured prince fighting as a gladiator? Nope. (Although, of course, it’s a different story when it comes to captured generals fighting as gladiators.) Throw in that crisis of faith (which is really the heart of the story), and suddenly some extremely interesting possibilities begin to surface.

Wide Sargasso Sea: This one has an instant built-in “unique factor”: it’s a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, told from the perspective of the mad wife in the attic. This one’s almost cheating, since the hook is built right into the premise. But, of course, it’s really not cheating at all. We just feel that way, ’cause it makes the rest of us look bad.

Once you’ve got your story’s hook figured out, you may be able to work it right into the description of your story’s heart (as in the descriptions of Rikers High and Romeo & Juliet above). If you can, so much the better, since that practically answers our next question for us.

Rikers High Paul Volponi Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare

How to Pitch Your Novel: Hook First or Heart First?

Now that you’ve differentiated your story’s heart and its hook–and narrowed them both down into short and specific tags, which should come first in your sales pitch to an agent or reader?

The hook always comes first.

Remember: nobody’s going to care about the heart of your story until you convince them to. And the only way you’re going to convince them is by first hooking their curiosity. For that, you’re always going to want to give them your best shot right away. Present that most interesting and unique thing about your novel right up front. Don’t save it. Give it to them straight. If you can’t grab them right away, you’re sunk. So bring out the big guns!

Depending on the medium you’re working in (query letter, synopsis, back cover copy), you may be limited in how much space you’ll then have to share the heart of your story. In some instances, it might not be necessary to include it all. All you really care about is reeling people in. They can discover your story’s heart when they read the book!

But if you are required or have the opportunity to share your story’s heart, do it as pithily as possible–and always try to phrase it as a hook of its own. Never tell people what a story is about (“It’s a tragic love story.”). Always show them (“Two teenagers fall in love at first sight and turn suicidal when their parents object to their getting married a few days later.”)

Once you have your story’s heart and your story’s hook well in hand, you’ll be ready to meet any potential agent or reader with confidence. But don’t wait until then! Figure this stuff out before you ever start writing your first draft. Doing so will help you focus on what your story is really about and empower you to build a heart and a hook that will live up to any sales pitch.

 Tell me your opinion: Have you ever been confused about how to pitch your novel in a way that includes both your story’s hook and its heart?

How to Pitch Your Novel: What's the Difference Between Your Story's Hook and Your Story's Heart?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I found this very useful, I never really considered the hook before. I wish I had it much sooner. At least now, I have some ideas on how to pitch my next book.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    Enough times, when writing a query letter I’ve found it difficult to produce a synopsis. The same though would be case for anyone in the same shoes. Any person who’s had to grow so close to their world and to their characters will inevitably find it difficult taking back the necessary steps, assessing what their hook should be.

    But therein lies the solution! As the very same coin’s opposite face, being “so close”, being so “knowingly attached” to your story will also inevitably mean your knowing how to hook it.

    It will be there! Your intimate knowledge and your deep emotions will eventually bring you to it.

    (Happy New Year everyone!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Querying is a tough one for all of us. It’s a totally different artform from the novel, so it’s no wonder so many of us end up pulling out our hair!

  3. I could answer that better if I could just figure out the answers to all those questions, LOL. Know my story? Absolutely. Love it? in every possible way. Have any idea how to answer questions about how on earth to figure out what OTHER people might think is unique or interesting? Nope. Not a clue.

  4. Thank you for this. I just found your website and am so thankful I did! I’m *literally* just starting out and have an idea for a book. I’ve written some but also doing research to help fill out the context. I’m going to use these questions to help me with my outline and hopefully be a bit ahead of the game.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! Despite the title, these are definitely great principle to consider in the outlining phase.

  5. K.M… I think I’ll drop everything now and consider the “pitch” for my nearly completed book. It’s time to start blitzing the publishing world. Hook and Heart — glad to see the challenge distilled down to its essentials. In filmdom we talk of the “elevator pitch” — you know, you might find yourself in an elevator for 15 seconds with Harvey Weinstein. It happened to me once — in the elevator with the head of TeleFilm Canada. I had 30 seconds, after which he told me to have my proposal on his desk Monday morning. Two weeks later a cheque for $20,000 to write a first draft. Yes, indeed! I’m going to work on my pitch. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, novelists use the same terminology. Now to get all those agents and directors to ride in the elevator with us…

  6. Hi,
    I’m a new author . My publisher released my 1st book 12/1/14 and my third will come out 1/15/15. There is such an incredible amount to learn but I’m finding great sites to study… yours is very, very nice.
    Thank you

  7. Thank you for this post! I’ve been struggling to find a way to describe the difference between these two concepts. The temptation to start with the heart of the story is almost overwhelming because it is what I as the author care most about. However, you are right. It is not about me. It is about the person whom I want to care about my story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree: the heart always beckons us. And it should also end up beckoning readers by the time they get into the story. But it will rarely be the reason they *start* reading it.

  8. I used to be confused about this, several years ago. And while I will sometimes still try to cram it in there, I’m getting better about this aspect the more I have to do it for back cover copy. 🙂 Still, it requires a lot of practice, and a lot of editing. 😉

  9. Another excellent post! I love the concept, and the examples – Heart/Hook is a great 1-2 “punch” for promoting your book.

  10. I so love this post !!!
    I have my novel almost ready to go out in the world and so I’m really into writing all this presentation material (query, synopsis, pitch, anything). So far, I’ve pulled my hair out. I can’t get my head wropped around it. But the way you put things makes a lot of sense. I’ll try this way, and let’s see 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writing queries and promo material is an art form unto itself. Anything we can do to simply our understanding of it is a good thing!

  11. Can you explain the difference between “hooking somebody” verses “ruining the suspense of your story?” When are spoilers okay?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good hook creates curiosity, so by its very nature it’s all about *not* spoiling the story. If we tell readers what’s going to happen, we instantly burst the bubble of their curiosity. That said, when it comes time to write your synopsis, don’t be afraid of spoilers. At that point, you want to tell agents your entire story, so they can get a feel for whether or not your story is able to sustain itself from beginning to end.

  12. Just want to say thank you – this article was very helpful 🙂

  13. Thank you so much for this article! I have just completely finished my first book and was looking for tips on how to pitch my story in the best way. I’m new to blogging over at https://shortstoriestallideas.wordpress.com/ but I thought that would be a good way to find new resources and make connections! I’m so happy I found you! Any small tips on getting on agent? I am following your site now! 🙂

  14. Thank you for this extremely helpful tool. I’m using it right now to begin assembling my queries!

  15. Halima Omar says:

    I ‘m still a little confused. When you describe and show authors examples on the hook and the heart. They sound the same to me. Is there anyway you can simplify it. What is the main difference between the hook and the heart?

    Thanks,
    Hallie

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes they are the same. The simplest way to look at it is like this: the heart is the essence of your story (e.g., “it’s a love story”); the hook is what makes it interesting (e.g., “it’s an alien love story”).

  16. A lot of thanks! Really useful help us newbies writers doing a query letter 🙂 Seeing one is a thing, but directing us in our history and truly built it … wow!

  17. I’ve been working on a powerpoint for the writing class I’m teaching, and this was exactly what I needed! We’re going to be talking about query letters and this breakdown really helped me while I was working on my explanation of the hook. Thank you!

  18. I made the “mistake” of looking of how to query while I am in the middle of a manuscript. I say mistake, simply for the fact that it is now all I can think about and it takes away my focus on the manuscript. In some ways, it is good because I feel like if I can nail down the hook and heart, it will help me in finishing. On the other hand, though, I’m obsessing a bit. I’m having trouble with finding the hook. At the moment, I think the heart COULD be the hook but wonder if I’m too close to it.

    This is the heart: a young woman that has been enslaved all her life has the chance to earn her freedom, but when the price is her own father’s life, she has a choice to make. Is that sufficient for a hook as well? Or should I dig deeper?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Looks good! Only other thing I’d like to see is a specific detail about why or where she’s enslaved, to ground the setting.

      • I’ve been thinking how to best convey (briefly) that point since why is a big part of the whole story so I don’t want to spoil anything, but would adding something like this work?

        A young woman that has been enslaved all her life has the chance to earn her freedom, but when the price is her own father’s life– a father that she only knows from her dead mother’s stories– she has a choice to make.

  19. thank you, this is really helpful. i’ve struggled a lot with pitching in the past (just finalizing my first book) & have literally described it as “a girl with no arms has robotic arms attached & after that everything changes. it’s got robots, aliens, cybernetics, basically all of your typical scifi stuff.” & looking back on that description now i just want to smack myself, lol. while i have tons of heart in my story & obviously feel strongly about it, i guess i have a hard time conveying that when talking about it (especially in person) but i will try to use these tips & write out some guidelines so maybe i won’t sound so silly in the future :p thanks again!

  20. haha, agreed! thanks 🙂

  21. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Your story sounds like it has a great built-in hook. Cyborgs still aren’t tremendously common, so that’s a great place to start. Maybe leave out “all your typical scifi stuff” the next time though. 😉

  22. Hi Ms. Weiland, Could you help me with something? In your discussion of narrative openings, you emphasize questions and the corresponding need for answers. In considering this need to know about the lives of strangers in the story and on the screen, why should we be remotely interested with the characters in the story or on a screen. I mean, we see strangers everyday, and most of the time, they don’t catch our attention…so why should fictional characters make any difference?

  23. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    First of all, we can always presuppose a degree of reader interest simply by the fact that they’ve picked up the book to begin with. If they weren’t interested in reading about strangers, they wouldn’t have purchased the book. But beyond that, it’s the author’s responsibility to make the reader care, and we do that via these hook questions. We need to create an interesting element, a contradiction, a juxtaposition that grabs readers’ attention. There’s always something out of the ordinary in an interesting book’s opening character or situation.

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