Contemporary advice on how to attract an agent or publisher will usually throw words at you like “hook,” “logline,” and “pitch.” The terms come from the film industry, but they’re becoming standard in publishing as well.
So what do they mean? Are they just sexy terms for a synopsis?
Not exactly. The distinctions often blur, but here are the basics:
LOGLINE is a term that once applied only to screenplays, but has been creeping into the literary world. It consists of one or two sentences describing the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide:
“Wizard Of Oz, fantasy – A tornado whirls a farm girl from Kansas to a magical world where she accidentally squashes an unpopular head of state.”
A HOOK is a paragraph or two giving the characters, premise, and conflict, like a book jacket cover blurb. (Skipping the cover blurb accolades. Self-praise doesn’t just sound narcissistic, it screams, “clueless amateur.”) The hook should be the main component of your novel query letter.
“The Wizard Of Oz is a middle-grade fantasy novel set in a magical land where much of the population suffers from self-esteem issues. When Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, arrives via tornado, she accidentally kills the ruling witch.
The witch’s powerful sister wants Dorothy dead, but Dorothy only wants to get home, which she cannot do until she finds the right traveling shoes.”
A PITCH can contain either or both of the above. You can make a pitch in writing or in person. It tells – in the shortest possible time – what your book is about and why somebody should buy it. This is what you memorize before you go to the Writers’ Conference, hoping you’ll get trapped in an elevator with an editor from Knopf.
All three should be composed in the present tense, starting with title and genre.
None of the above should be confused with a SYNOPSIS, which is a detailed run-down of the complete plot. (But not too detailed. Lots of submission guidelines ask for a one-page synopsis these days. More on that in another column.)
Examples of the logline/hook/pitch are posted at AgentQuery: http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx They offer a formula that boils down to this:
When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.
Another formula is available at Kathy Carmichael’s fun “pitch generator” http://www.kathycarmichael.com/generator.html
You can find a college-level course in hooking in the archives of the indomitable Miss Snark. In her Happy Hooker Crapometer last December, she solicited and critiqued nearly 700 hooks. You can read them all, with bloggers’ comments at http://misssnark.blogspot.com/
Here’s Miss Snark’s Hook Me Up formula:
X is the main guy; he wants to do_____.
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do_____.
They meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.
Don’t take that to mean that novels must have cartoony plots and Snidely Whiplash villains. The antagonist can be anything that keeps the protagonist from his goals, from a wicked witch to the hero’s own addictions.
Film producer Jonathan Treisman provides another formula in his article on loglines at the Writer’s Store http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=231. He says a logline should provide:
The protagonist’s SITUATION
The important COMPLICATIONS
The ACTION she takes
The potential TRANSFORMATION
The SIZZLE: sex, humour, thrills
Don’t forget sizzle. You can convey it with tone and word choices, depending on your genre.
For chick lit, use a humorous tone:
“When the romantic adventures of a southern belle are interrupted by an icky war PLUS a so called-friend steals her boyfriend, Scarlett whips up a fabulous outfit in order to seduce Mr. Wrong, who in the end, doesn’t give a damn.”
For a coming of age story, emphasize high-stakes conflict:
“With his life in constant danger from the monstrous carnivore Snowbell, young Stuart must fight for his right to exist, and prove once and for all whether he is a man or a mouse.”
Don’t forget to weed out clichés. Here are some overused phrases to avoid:
little did he know
comes back to haunt her
race against the clock
web of deceit
determined to unmask
wants nothing more
spins out of control
torn apart by
vows to expose
world falls apart
forced to confront
Whether you’re composing a logline, a hook, or a pitch, remember that less is more. Keep it short. And keep working on it. These few words are as important as any you’ll ever write.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org