A story with a single, driving purpose. A central theme. A reason for the narrative to be told, rather than the noisy, aimless hodgepodge that too many of us are content to experience and label the modern condition.
It all starts with your ideal reader.
We should explain.
In Stephen King’s book On Writing — a must-read if you happen to be a writer, like us — he talks about how most storytellers try to write their stories down the proverbial middle to please the greatest number of readers. If the story is too violent, it’ll gross out the squeamish. If it’s too vulgar, it’ll offend Grandma and all her friends. If it leans politically left or right, it’ll alienate the opposite. If it takes a hard stand, it might come off as preachy, and most people hate being preached to.
Writers strip and strip, blunting their edges or rounding the corners so their stories are soft and inoffensive. Remove whatever might distress someone, and sprinkle in more of what’s popular or proven. Then they end up a straight shot down the center, a mainstream book for the mainstream reader.
As a result, King says, the book says nada. It stands for nothing. It bothers nobody and inspires no one. It evokes no strong emotions. It’s less than vanilla. Completely unflavored. Plain, like water-flavored ice cream.
Now, here’s the thing: You don’t actually want your book to be mainstream.
You want it to alienate some readers. You even want it to piss some of them off.
After you publish that book, you do want some bad reviews. A handful of haters. If they’re not there, then you’re doing something wrong. Try harder next time. Try a bit more to cross the line.
Now, there’s obviously a limit here. Smart writers aren’t shocking for the sake of sensationalism, nor do they offend merely to ruffle feathers. But they do stand by what they believe, and they aren’t afraid of some readers running off screaming. Because alienating some readers will draw you closer to others. The same strong voice and stance that pisses some people off is required to create super fans. Contrary to the very human desire to please everyone, stories are only good when they make a few waves. You don’t want universal approval. Not at all. Aim to polarize. Your story should be right for some people and totally wrong for others.
Wait! Johnny and Sean, you’re contradicting yourselves. You said earlier that we should be telling our story to please ourselves, not anyone else. So why are you suggesting we consider anyone else’s opinion, be they few or many?
Hang in there. What seems like a contradiction will make sense by section’s end. The short answer for now, though, is that you can’t live in a vacuum no matter how hard you try. You will be surrounded by others, and that means attracting the right others. The right reader for the story you’d like to tell.
Remember our role model Stephen King? He recommends writing all stories with a single ideal reader in mind.
One person, alive or dead, for whom your story is a perfect love letter. If that person had a wishlist — from the ups and downs of the plot to the language used to the tropes to the humor to everything else — your book would check every one of the boxes. And because no two people are alike, what tickles your ideal reader will revolt someone else.
If you write with a single ideal reader in mind, you’ll hit a core audience exactly, a halo audience around them excellently, and a larger “type” audience even farther out. You won’t attract people on the other side, but that doesn’t matter, and it never will.
You can’t please everyone, and ironically by trying to do so, you’ll truly please few.
A “hook” is the unique angle for your story that gets an audience’s attention and lets them understand it immediately.
For my book Fat Vampire, the hook is right there in the title. If anyone asks about it, we tell them, “It’s a story about an overweight guy who becomes a vampire, then is stuck that way forever in a world of slim, sexy, cover-model-beautiful vampires who think he’s not good enough.”
Boom. Instant understanding.
That’s why executives from a major network emailed us one day asking if they could option Fat Vampire for TV. Because it got their attention and held it. From day one, they praised the story’s simple, clear hook.
“There is literally nobody we say ‘Fat Vampire’ to who doesn’t immediately understand what it’s about and want to hear more.”
For our book Dead City, the hook is, “A new drug stops a zombie plague by halting (but not reversing) the disease within infected people — leaving a population made of humans, feral zombies, and a half-undead underclass in between.”
The hook for Sean and Dave’s Yesterday’s Gone series is, “Most of the population suddenly vanishes one night, leaving survivors — from innocents to predators — to build the new world order.”
Get the idea? A hook isn’t a description or a summary; it’s an attention-grabbing zinger that’s half “what it’s about” and half “OMG, that’s so cool!” Of these two, the “so cool” part is more important.
Consider the hook for Dead City. See how it’s all premise and no plot? If that was all we told you about Dead City, you’d know something about the world in which it takes place, but nothing about the characters or what happens in its pages. The hooks for Fat Vampire and Yesterday’s Gone hint at that stuff, but not much. A good hook should pull out the story’s coolest, most unique element, not give a blow-by-blow of events. Sometimes “what happens” sneaks into a hook, but other times the WOW element claims center stage.
Here are a few examples of hooks that may ring some bells to get you started.
“Man gets a wake-up call that causes him to reexamine his life, then becomes a devoted family man instead of a workaholic.”
“Alcoholic has a realization, gets sober once and for all, and turns her life around.” “Woman realizes she’s been a doormat too long, then breaks the glass ceiling and builds an empire.”
“Crusader, pushed down one too many times, rises against all odds to ease suffering in the world, or maybe saves the environment.”
Any one of the above could easily describe a dozen movies. In fact, some of them describe well-known movies so well, they’re practically clichés. Especially the first one. I found “Man gets a wake-up call that causes him to reexamine his life, then becomes a devoted family man instead of a workaholic” on a few internet lists with titles like Cliché Movie Plots We Wish Hollywood Would Give Up Already.
So let’s talk about the ingredients of a solid hook.
First of all, you’ll want clarity. A hook should be immediately understandable, even if the person hearing it is distracted, half-interested, or in a rush. When we talk about Fat Vampire, there’s no danger of people failing to understand it. Your hook — which, remember, is different from something like plot (which comes later) — should intrigue with crystal clarity.
“A blue-collar guy does great things,” for instance, isn’t clear at all. What are the great things? And why is “blue collar” mentioned? Is this a tale about grassroots change (organizing laborers, rallying a working-class town) or a story about breaking out, like Homer Hickam escaping his destiny as a miner’s son to become a rocket scientist in October Sky?
Your hook should elicit questions, but only because whoever you’re telling it to wants to hear more — not because your explanation has left them scratching their heads.
Second, a good hook should be specific. There’s a truism in marketing that says selling to a small, highly-focused group of people is always better than appealing to everyone. Sound familiar? It should; we talked about it when we mentioned Ideal Readers in the last section. So focus, focus, focus your hook.
Interestingly, Phoebe was better handling cups and ice instead of the party as a whole — or, even broader, “Rachel’s birthday festivities.” Don’t say you’re going to help people; say instead which people you want to help. Talk about how you’re going to help them. The narrower, the better.
Flashlights can illuminate a room but lasers can etch steel. The only difference is focus.
But while you’re making that hook specific, don’t let it get too complicated. The third thing a hook should be is simple. That doesn’t mean vague. It’s direct, to-the-point. Usually, creating simplicity is less about changing the hook itself and more about changing its description.
As an example, here’s how Charity: Water describes its mission on its website:
We travel the world to find inspiring organizations who are providing long-lasting water and sanitation services, and then we fund their most successful programs. Our goal isn't just to get water flowing, but to make sure it flows for many years.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s a noble mission and a great summary of what they do. It’s highly specific and exactly the kind of thing they want in their pocket when an interested person they’ve already intrigued asks for more. But if we were one of Charity: Water’s key people circulating at a party, we’d want a shorter, simpler, hookier version that could intrigue in three seconds instead of the fifteen it takes me to read the above.
Maybe something like:
We get clean water to people who need it.
It’s still clear. It’s still specific, clean water instead of more generalized charity. But now it packs a fast, focused punch. When we pitch our stories for TV and movies, we need that fast punch to get a producer’s attention, but you need it to get and hold your own. If all great stories are about obsession, then the hook is what you should become obsessed about. Don’t craft yourself a hook that you’ll have to read to recall. You want something easy enough to remember no matter what.
The last thing your hook needs is purpose.
A reason to intrigue.
This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant. The Story Solution isn't just about writing, it's about the story of your life. While StoryShop University is hitting on the points that may help you in writing, if you want to take charge of your life and construct your story the way a writer does, The Story Solution is for you.
Next Week: Characters