Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
Reading For Writers 101: What Book Jackets Teach About A Story’s “Hook”
I read a lot. And since I’m a writer, reading isn’t just entertainment, it’s instructional. I learn from every book, whether good, bad or middling. Because of this, I’ve decided to start a blog series called “Reading For Writers 101” about all the writerly things one can learn from reading books.
Today’s lesson: Book Jackets that LIE.
Recently I’ve encountered many books that disappointed me because the book jacket led me to expect certain things and then did not deliver. Let me give you a couple cryptic examples…
The first book jacket promises a haunting mystery about a heroine who can’t remember anything about the night all her friends died and she survived. Instead, the book is a Twilight-esque romance where the heroine promptly forgets about her dead friends when she meets a mysterious, hot, rich, foreign-accented boy.
The second book jacket promises a heroine who becomes a paranormal creature and must balance her new paranormal life with her regular life. Instead, over a hundred pages later, the heroine still doesn’t know what’s happening to her even though it’s obvious to the reader because we read the book jacket.
The problem in these two very different examples lies with the novel’s “hook.” The hook is what draws you to a book, piques your interest, and makes you want to read it. The hook attracts readers.
The first book uses a whole different genre to hook readers. The mystery is the most intriguing part of the story, and then it is largely ignored. Not cool! A hook drives the story. It’s not an add-on to make the story more interesting. If you find yourself pitching a book with a hook that doesn’t have much to do with the actual story, either redefine your hook or rewrite your story. Because the two should match.
The second book doesn’t mislead the reader about genre. In fact, I think it gets the hook right, but gets the story structure wrong. The mistake it makes is very common, and is a mistake I’ve made myself – too much set up. If the hook is what is intriguing about the story, what draws the reader in, it should happen at the beginning, not halfway through the novel. Otherwise, there’s no suspense because the reader knows what is going to happen and is impatient for the story (that the book jacket promised) to start.
Reading these novels and their book jackets made me think of what would be on the jacket for the novel I’m currently writing. What’s my hook? How do I pitch this story? And I noticed something – whenever I told people about my book, I told them about the second half. So I tried to pitch the book with just what happened in the first quarter… and it wasn’t as intriguing. Reality sunk in; I was making the “too much set up” mistake!
And this is why reading not-so-great novels is useful. We all make these mistakes. Instead of getting angry and ranting about the injustice of said crummy book being published, take a hard look at your own writing and make sure you’re not doing the same thing. Trust me. I know the set up rules, but I really thought that that was where my story started. I was wrong, but these mistakes can be hard to spot until you see someone else make them.
Learn from the greats, but also learn from the books that don’t quite pull it off.
Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW
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