Query Queries: How can I create an irresistible hook and synopsis?


“Sell the book, don’t apologize for it, and know how to condense its true meaning to a couple of sentences.”  — Jonny Geller, CEO of Curtis Brown (John le Carré, David Mitchell, Susanna Clarke)

Within the first few pages of a novel, you need to make it impossible for readers to put your book down. In a query letter, you have to make do with just a few lines. This part of the letter is known as the hook. Your hook should show agents how your book is different from the thousands of others in your genre. It could be an awesome concept that makes the reader wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before. Just look at the hook for Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter:

Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likable: he only kills bad people.

Another great hook might involve an intriguing central conflict, like the one in Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:

About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him — and I didn’t know how potent that part might be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

Not only does this introduce the genre and tone (dark paranormal romance), it sets up the narrator’s dilemma: she knows she’s in love with a man who might kill her. What will happen next? Is she walking into a trap? Will her love conquer the vampire’s bloodlust? Perfecting your hook might take days — but it’s the most important part of your pitch, hands down.

Now that you’ve “hooked” the agent, it’s time to reel them in with your synopsis and get them to request your manuscript.

“The synopsis should serve to really get an agent interested in your book,” says Erin Young, a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Burret. “Think about this as if you’re writing the back cover of your book for future readers.” This is your opportunity to shed some light on:

  • The plot
  • The primary characters
  • The central questions or conflicts that drive your story

Let’s look at the back cover of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and see how its blurb addresses those points.

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

With just over 100 words, this synopsis lays out the plot, offers an impression of two multi-layered characters, and leaves us with the question that serves as the book’s engine: Did Nick kill his wife? Without a grand mystery at the center of your book, you can still build up to a gripping cliffhanger by defining the central conflict and stakes. “High stakes” help your readers invest in your characters and stories; without them, we have no reason to care about the outcome of your book. So make sure the letter-reader knows what your protagonists stand to win or lose.

Remember: your hook and synopsis should make up around 50% of your letter. That’s 150 or 200 words at most.

Happy writing!

Query QueriesWriting Life

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