What’s a Good Hook for My Book? (Nonfiction)

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A great hook is like your credit card, you never want to leave home without it. Whether you’re at the beginning of your writing process or you’re in the final stages of giving readings and talks, it’s essential to have a concise, snappy elevator pitch that conveys the essence of your work.

Early on, a good hook helps you solidify your ideas for your new project. As you start to shop the proposal, it will attract an agent to your work. Finally, it will help booksellers sell the finished book. An effective pitch explains why you’re devoting several years to the project. And why others will want to read it.

What does a good hook consist of? It’s a few sentences that 1) showcase what makes your book unique, 2) tell us why it matters, and 3) offer a glimpse of your narrative strategy or how you intend to tell your story. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

WHAT MAKES YOUR BOOK UNIQUE?

A writing teacher of mine used to say that coming up with formulas for reading or writing was a pointless exercise; all the great books and great films teach you how to read them. His point was that every important work of art is unique. That’s what makes them exceptional. Your book and your pitch are no different. You need to tap into and explain what’s different and special about your project. Unique worlds, unique takes, a unique body of knowledge, and/or unique characters/relationships may all vault your project from slush to acceptance pile.

A Different World: Uncharted terrains are always a lure. What’s a relatively unexplored corner of history? A part of the world we don’t often see? A company or industry we’ve never glimpsed from the inside? We all love brave new worlds. Smart authors use that to their advantage when they pitch their works.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo peels back the curtain for an in-depth look at the invisible families left behind by a booming India. Boo takes us on a guided tour of a part of Mumbai that most readers have rarely experienced or seen up close. Unsurprisingly, the fresh world is something every invariably glowing review of Boo’s book notes.

Similarly, Michael Lewis’s The Big Short takes us inside the world of bond and real estate derivatives markets. We go on a journey with several outsiders who foresaw the risks that were piling up and the economic devastation that would follow in the wake of  the burst real estate bubble. We’d heard about CDOs and subprime mortgages in the news, but a deep delve into the lives of those markets’ successful speculators before and during the 2008 crash was a unique angle.

H is for Hawk, a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of loss and grief that plays out in the unusual world of falconry, a sport most of us have had no contact with and know little about.

In all these examples, a unique world grabs our attention and contributes to a stand out hook.

What’s Your Take: Some worlds and subjects are perennials in the nonfiction landscape: the Revolution, the Civil War, poverty, and crime. Nowadays even the brain is a familiar subject. Why do we pick up yet another book on familiar subjects such as the psychology of success or our Founding Fathers? As any lover of Hamilton the musical can tell you, it’s all in the take. What do you have that’s new to say on the subject? Do you have novel insight into a universal problem or emotion? Are you upending the conventional wisdom?

In Evicted, Matthew Desmond tackles extreme poverty through the unique lens of families who rent. Eviction, once rare, has become the norm for many. Arguing that evictions have become yet another lucrative business model contributing to our growing inequality, Desmond shows that we cannot talk about urban poverty in America today without a serious discussion of housing and its hardships.

It’s conventional wisdom to “Trust your gut.” But do we really understand what we mean when we talk about our intuition or how we make decisions? In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman breaks our thinking down into two systems: system 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; system 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Rethinking how we think, Kahneman reveals how we swerve away from rationality, how we can correct our biased misunderstandings, and how we can make better choices.

Desmond and Kahneman both turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Their new and surprising takes on the familiar subjects of poverty and the psychology of decision-making compel our attention to their work.

The Brilliant Tour: Some authors aren’t looking to pick a fight. They’re more concerned with educating their readers. Their books are unique in helping readers understand an otherwise complicated field or a phenomenon. Success lies in clear and lucid explanation of complex topics or in a compelling description of something new in the landscape.

Books such as Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind are as much a brilliant tour of the latest advancements in neuroscientific research as they are novel argument. Likewise, American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales is less a convention-busting argument than a compelling portrait of young women coming of age in a brave new online world ruled by frequently hostile forms of social media.

Captivating Characters/Relationships: Flawed and charismatic characters dominate nonfiction much as they do novels or the movies. We’re drawn to biographies of men like John Adams or The Wright Brothers (David McCullough again) for the brilliant, complex men at their core. Similarly in her bestselling work of narrative nonfiction, Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling tale of the contradictory Louis Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent turned defiant Olympian who drew on his stubbornness and his ingenuity to survive a crash into the Pacific during World War II. Great characters and relationships make or break many a nonfiction work. Writers of memoir often forget to ask themselves: but am I an interesting character? If not, you’ve got more work to do.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Once you’ve identified what makes your book unique, the next step is to answer the question of why the reader will care. Sometimes we care because we finish the book with a better understanding of the world than we had when we started. Or we might gain practical knowledge that we can immediately put to work, a major appeal of self-help titles. Sometimes, as with novels, we’re gripped by a compelling tale with high emotion and high stakes. Sometimes we simply better understand ourselves reading about others. There are different ways of making your reader care. But for a proper hook, you must be able to say why a reader will want, or more than that, why the reader MUST HAVE this book.

WHAT’S YOUR NARRATIVE STRATEGY?

Let’s say you already have a great idea that’s easy to get others excited about. You may even have already written the magazine or journal article articulating your stimulating contribution. But then when it comes to writing the book you realize you are lost. How can you possibly come up with 85,000+ words on this topic? One way to come to terms with whether you’ve got a book-length project in you and your idea is to try and articulate your narrative strategy.

One caveat before we explore a few strategy or structure options. Many writers’ first instinct is to simply relay events in chronological order. Chronology can be a powerful tool. But beware relying on it too heavily. Use chronology to help put your major events in sequence, but don’t be a slave to temporal order. Pure chronology can leads you down the path of writing a work that simply relates one damn thing after another. What are some alternatives?

There are as many narrative strategies as there are books and writers. Let’s start with three of the most common: a journey structure, an argument structure, or an explanatory structure.

The Journey: If you’re writing a historical tale, a biography, or even a story of current events, sometimes the best approach is to think about the specific journey you want to tell. Journey structure allows you to identify a beginning, a middle and an end to the tale. It allows you to build in suspense: how will the journey end? Will the heroine achieve her goal? Will the journey transform our main subject or character? Books don’t need to cover an individual (or phenomenon’s) life from cradle to grave, with all the detritus that implies. Focus on a specific slice of life, the meaningful bits. The vast middle of the book, or the road trip itself, is then structured by the salient conflicts—and only the important conflicts–that happen along the way. Journey structure focuses on a life’s most dramatic arc rather than the much less readable kitchen sink that most lives resemble.

In Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Return, we accompany the author on a journey back to his native Libya. As Matar searches for the truth of his father’s disappearance, we learn about Libya’s political past and present and about how one man deals with unthinkable loss. Journey structures are staples for fiction as well as non-fiction storytelling, one reason so many narrative non-fiction authors love them. And because we readers instinctively follow journey structure, it’s often a good choice for the base narrative of a book that has multiple narratives braided in and/or some complex chronological moves. [Here’s a fascinating discussion of Rebecca’s Skloot use of journey structure for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book with a very complex structure.]

The Argument: Perhaps you are writing an argument book rather than a history. Argument books can be broken down into three basic parts often called “the what”, the “so-what” and the “then-what.” The “what” identifies the conventional wisdom you are tackling. What do others say on this topic? What’s your take? What’s new? Part II addresses the “so-what”. It explains why it all matters. How will what we do or what we think change as a result of your new take? Finally, in Part III you can address the “then-what”. Armed with this new take, what do we do now?

In the bestselling Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lusting argues that obesity is not a behavioral aberration or a character flaw. He believes we can’t address our national weight problem by characterizing it as one of gluttony or sloth or diet or exercise. The problem, he claims, is sugar. In Part 1, Lustig challenges the conventional wisdom that a calorie is just a calorie and shows how sugar is especially deadly for our eating habits. And in Parts 2 and 3, he focuses on the science of obesity: how the body burns energy versus storage. These are all the “what”. Part 4 is the “so what”: it explains the toxicity for our body chemistry of our current fructose-filled, reduced fiber environment and how the American global diet is killing us. Parts 5 and 6 are the “now-what,” or the proposed personal and public health solutions. It’s a strong structure for a powerful argument book.

The Explanation: A third approach to structure is the explanatory book. In these works, chapters are laid out in a sequence that best explains the topic at hand. The bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli was exactly that. Chapters can focus on key topics in the field or key questions and ideas. Argument books try to instigate change; explanatory books document it.

These are just a few examples of narrative strategies. There are others. Writers endlessly debate structure. The best writers invent structures that uniquely fit the tale they want to tell.

Don’t worry if you experience some doubts about your chosen structure. Structures are bedeviling right up until the moment you nail them, at which point the triumph is sweet. Also, remember, a book’s shape will often transform as it is written. The most important thing is to get some kind of blueprint down. A clear structure map will attract an agent and sell the proposal. It will also keep you on track as you embark on your book writing journey. Being able to clearly identify a narrative strategy up front strengthens your pitch or hook for your book.

SUMMARY

What does a good hook consist of? Remember you only have a few sentences. You want to tell the listener 1) what makes your book unique, 2) why it matters, and 3) offer a glimpse of your narrative strategy or how you intend to tell your story. Don’t over worry it if things evolve as you go along. Relax and have fun with it. It’s all part of the process of good writing.

Questions? Thoughts? Add them in the comments below.

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