Hooks, Loglines, and Pitches: What Every Writer Needs to Know

Some nice news: This blog has been nominated for the Top Writing Blogs Award by ECollegeFinder.org !

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to start sending that masterpiece out into the marketplace, you’re going to run into words 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:

Here’s the basic formula for a logline:

When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.

“When Dorothy Gale gets tornadoed to Oz and accidentally squashes an unpopular head of state, she must find a wizard to help her get home to Kansas, or be killed by the ruler's evil sister and some nasty flying monkeys.”

A HOOK is longer—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 a query letter to an agent, editor, or reviewer and is essential for your back copy or Amazon blurb.

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.”

Or you might want to try the “Hook Me Up” formula of the late, great Miss Snark (I suggest stating the setting first, especially for fantasy or sci-fi.)

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 the “bad guy” reference to mean you need to make your novel sound as if it has a Snidely-Whiplash-type villain. The antagonist can be anything that keeps the protagonist from his goals, from a wicked witch to the hero’s own addictions. If you want to read more on antagonists, Kristen Lamb has a fantastic blogpost, “Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker.”

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 that Writers’ Conference, hoping you’ll get trapped in an elevator with Stephen Spielberg or an editor from Knopf.

When composing your pitch, you want to answer these questions: Who? Where? What’s the conflict? What action does the protagonist take? What are the stakes? How is it unique?

To get started, it's fun to play with Kathy Carmichael’s clever “pitch generator” This is fun and amazingly useful. I’m so glad to find it’s still going strong after six years.

Here’s her generator’s pitch for the Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is a (x) word fantasy novel set in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy Gale is a Kansas farm girl who believes a legendary wizard can help her get home. She wants to return to Kansas to be with her Auntie Em. She is prevented from attaining this goal because her transportation vehicle is sitting on a dead witch, she’s being attacked by flying monkeys and her traveling companions are a little dim.

Hooks, loglines and pitches should all 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 post.)

In all three, you also want to convey the tone of your book:

You can have a humorous logline:

“When the romantic adventures of a southern belle are interrupted by an icky war PLUS her goody-two-shoes-BFF steals her boyfriend, Scarlett whips up a fabulous outfit in order to seduce Mr. Wrong, who in the end, doesn’t give a damn.”

Or punch up a coming of age story by emphasizing high-stakes conflict:

“With his life in constant danger from the monstrous carnivore Snowbell, young Stuart must fight for his life, and prove once and for all whether he is a man or a mouse.”

Or go for the thrills by emphasizing the most dangerous scene:

“Marked for death along with his companions, a toy rabbit must learn to cry real tears in order to save himself from being thrown into a burning pit by the boy loves.”

Or give the overall premise:

"When the adopted son of Kansas farmer discovers he’s a strange visitor from a another planet, he tries to save the world, one clueless girl reporter at a time, in spite of opposition from an assortment of megalomaniacs armed with green rocks." 
(What is it with heroes and Kansas?)

When you’re composing, don’t forget to weed out clichés. Here are some overused phrases to avoid:
Whether you’re writing a logline, hook or 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.

It’s a fun game to play with classic stories. Anybody want to jump in with loglines for their favorite books? (or your own?) I’d love to see more!

Next week we have a very special guest. Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward, will be talking to us about her personal experiences with rejection. Catherine has also announced she is giving one of her special limited-enrollment workshops on the weekend of February 4th. She'll be teaching the secrets of self-editing. Every participant will get personal editing advice on a WIP from Catherine as well as the members of the group. The workshop will be held in her own studio in gorgeous Cambria, California. In true "Pay it Forward" spirit, she's only asking that you pay what you can afford. This workshop will fill up quickly, so contact her soon if you're interested. Further details at ryanhyde@cryanhyde.com.  If you don’t live on the Central Coast, there are lovely places to stay in Cambria, so consider a weekend vacation. One of my favorite places to stay is the Cambria Pines Lodge —very affordable at this time of year. It has gorgeous views and gardens and is only five minutes from Catherine’s home (no, I don’t get any perks for recommending them.)

Indie Chick Anthology fans: Read Prue Batten's story about her encounter with an amazingly clueless agent on the Indie Chicks page.

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