A query letter hook is the way that you capture a literary agent’s attention right at the start of your query letter. It’s the most critical part of your “sales pitch”, and its goal is simple: make someone want to read your book! You need a great hook to get someone to read on, fall in love and ultimately, champion you through the long and winding road to publication.
You should be able to sum up your book’s concept or main idea in a single line. Sometimes called a tagline, logline, shoutline, premise, mission statement, or elevator pitch, the query letter hook is the singular fastest and most impactful way that you can communicate what your book is all about. Some people count the hook as the entire first paragraph of your query letter, but in this context I’m referring to the single-liner, the gut-puncher, the one statement that’s going to make a literary agent sit up and pay attention.
Query letter hooks and book blurbs are frighteningly similar. Think about the number of book jackets, or social media posts, or even movie posters that precisely sum up what the story is about. It’s the unique selling point (USP), the crux, simply put, the heart of your story.
Query letter hook examples
Here are some of my favorite examples of famous stories that can be summed up in a single sentence, when applied with the query letter hook treatment:
- A dinosaur theme park goes awry. (Jurassic Park)
- When a princess falls into mortal danger, a young man must find his force to defeat an evil galactic empire. (Star Wars)
- The serial killer isn’t on trial. He’s on the jury. (Thirteen)
- The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father. (The Godfather)
You can find a bunch more examples on Publisher’s Marketplace, a comprehensive announcement platform that publishes book deals that were recently brokered by literary agents and editors at major New York publishers. These single sentence announcements offer great inspiration, while giving you a good idea of what sells. You can also check out Twitter pitch events for similar inspiration.
8 tips for constructing your query letter hook
You can see from all of these examples that while the sentence structure and tone can vary, the concept is the same – they balance character and plot, while creating intrigue. I’ve summed up my top tips for constructing your query letter hook below:
1. Put your hook at the beginning
You only have a few paragraphs to capture a literary agent’s attention, so don’t be shy with your hook. Put it right up front, so they can immediately see what it’s all about. Many querying authors miss a trick and bury their query letter hook further down. Don’t bury the lede.
2. Get punchy
The punchier you are, the more likely you are to accurately and succinctly sum up what your book is about in your query letter hook. Make it as impactful as possible. Don’t use adjectives. Make every word count. Surprise your reader. Remember, this is marketing copy, designed to sell.
3. Keep it brief
Your sentence should be under fifty words. Any more than that, and you’ll be left with an overuse of commas that will leave your reader breathless. To the punchy point above, keep it short and snappy. You can go into more detail in the paragraph that follows one-liner.
4. Highlight the conflict
What does the protagonist want? What’s keeping them from getting it? What choice/decision do they face? What terrible thing will happen if they choose one option; what terrible thing will happen if they don’t? There should always be something at stake.
Here’s another form of the same thing:
The main character must decide whether to ________. If they decide to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril they face are______. If they decide NOT to do this: the consequences/outcome/peril they face are________.
Contrasting themes, ideas, and characters create interest and intrigue. The more oppositions, the better.
5. Be specific
This is particularly important with stories that involve intricate world building. What sets your world apart? What is it that is going to make a literary agent care? The more specific and granular you can get, the more enticing the premise becomes. No literary agent wants to read the same, generic premise that they’ve seen many times before. The best hooks contain an element that is uniquely yours.
6. Make the reader care
The absolute worse response to your hook is: “Who cares?” If nobody cares about your hook, nobody will care about your story. You need to make the hook original and specific enough for your reader to feel invested in the outcome. Or else it’s just… meh.
7. Don’t position your query letter hook as a rhetorical question
Rhetorical questions can be used sparingly, but only further down your query letter. A rhetorical question is just too vague and slippery for the hook, which should be an instant grab, enticing them to read more. Besides, rhetorical questions are so overused, and can get very irritating very fast.
8. Don’t give away the ending
There’s various discourse on this one, but if you want my opinion: you should never give away the ending. Why? Because it eliminates the intrigue. You only have one sentence, which doesn’t give you a whole lot of room to accurately convey the story. And who wants to know that they all lived happily ever after? Save the surprise for when the literary agent requests and reads your manuscript.