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A lot of people (including myself) will tell you that story ideas don’t really matter. There are no original ideas, after all. And while this is true—the execution of a story matters more than anything else when it comes to quality, and there are no completely original ideas—the idea, or the hook, is what will get readers interested in your story in the first place. And it will provide you with an excellent tool for marketing besides.
Coming up with the hook is the first step in writing a satisfying romance novel. Romance especially relies on hooks because at the center of the romance novel is a so-called predictable storyline: two people with some problems meet and overcome those problems in order to win love. It’s not as simple as that (we’ll to get to that in later posts), but where it starts is simple: a tiny kernel that is the hook.
So what is a hook?
The most important characteristic of a hook is that it holds inherent conflict. It’s a story situation that creates tension among your characters and that can lead to all kinds of interesting scenes. The hook is also often a story’s unique spin in the context of its genre—it’s what gets people excited to consume that story because it feels like something they may not have consumed before—but this isn’t a requirement of a hook. Many hooks also include an element of irony.
Here are some examples:
- Teenagers from feuding families fall for each other (Romeo and Juliet).
- A serial killer uses the horror movie genre to terrorize a group of high school students (Scream).
- An “airhead” blond goes to Harvard Law School in order to win back her ex-boyfriend (Legally Blonde).
- A biker struggles to be a good man and father while also being part of an outlaw motorcycle club (Sons of Anarchy).
- A bride falls for the florist she meets on her wedding day—who is a woman (Imagine Me & You).
- A high school chemistry teacher starts cooking and selling meth to pay for his cancer treatments (Breaking Bad).
- A suburban mom starts selling weed to maintain her lifestyle after her husband dies (Weeds).
As far as originality goes, you can see above that Breaking Bad and Weeds essentially have the same hook, yet they are very different TV shows.
The simplest examples of hooks in romance are story situations embodying tropes. For example, the enemies to lovers trope always implies conflict. Inherent to the trope is an internal conflict in which your characters fight between two instincts: desire for their lover and hatred for their lover. There are thousands of stories out there that use this trope. For some examples, try searching “enemies to lovers romance” in the Kindle store.
For some specific romance hook examples, I’ll use the hooks from my own books (to avoid stepping on fellow authors’ toes):
What got me excited about writing Escorting the Escort was the contrast between a sexuality on the ace spectrum (specifically, demisexuality) and the inherently sexual job of an escort. With Making It Better, the story bloomed from the idea of how someone could get back with a toxic ex and still have a happily ever after. You might notice that Making It Better also embodies the second chance trope.
What do the above have in common?
Hooks imply conflict.
If you didn’t already know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, what would you think of while reading that hook? Probably how the teenagers’ love would be impacted by their families’ mutual hatred. By nature, feuding families aren’t going to want members of those families connected to each other in any positive way, and they definitely wouldn’t want the families joined by marriage. In the play, Romeo and Juliet marry in secret, but conflicts arise, such as their cousins dueling to the death and Juliet’s parents disowning her when she refuses to marry another man. In a romance, the characters would overcome these conflicts and live happily ever after, but as almost everyone knows, the conflicts that start as a result of Romeo and Juliet’s hook lead to the title characters’ suicides.
How about the hook for Imagine Me & You, a romance film? Reading that hook, you’d definitely wonder how the main characters will get around the very big conflict of the marriage. The other conflict the hook implies is what some readers call the “out for you” trope. The character who is married doesn’t expect to fall for a woman, and her learning this about herself causes her to resist the romance.
Some hooks put unique spins on their genres.
Not every hook does this, and it’s not a requirement, but it can certainly help create interest for a story. The hook for Scream especially has this characteristic. Scream is unique in that it satirizes its genre and has a “meta” quality due to the villain and the victims all referring explicitly to horror movies and horror movie tropes throughout the film.
Breaking Bad and Weeds also have this characteristic, as both of them put a new spin on the crime genre, since it’s not typical that either a high school chemistry teacher or a suburban mom would be the main character involved in organized crime. It could be argued that Sons of Anarchy puts a spin on the crime genre as well, since it features an outlaw motorcycle club as an organized crime group as opposed to the more traditional mafias, drug empires, etc.
Some hooks have elements of irony.
One thing that often interests readers is an element of irony. This is another characteristic that not all hooks have but that can help make people want to consume your story. Irony also does double duty in that it implies conflict.
In this context, “irony” refers to an unexpected situation. Legally Blonde has irony because most people wouldn’t expect a ditzy blond to go to Harvard Law School. Most people also wouldn’t expect a high school chemistry teacher (Breaking Bad) or suburban mom (Weeds) to sell drugs, nor would they expect an outlaw to want to be a good person (Sons of Anarchy). As a satire, Scream makes heavy use of irony in the hook and throughout the whole movie, unexpectedly calling out and subverting horror movie tropes while at the same time being a horror movie itself.
How to Come Up with a Hook
Coming up with a hook isn’t always easy. Sometimes you’ll get interested in an idea seemingly out of nowhere and be compelled to write it. But oftentimes, you’ll need to purposefully tap into your creativity to find an idea.
There are several ways to generate story hooks. One of my favorites for romance writing is to find a trope I like and brainstorm situations that satisfy the trope. For my favorite, enemies to lovers, I might make a list of reasons people would be enemies and go from there.
Another way is to find a story situation you love and come up with your own version. For example, maybe you loved Legally Blonde and want to write a romance with a similar hook. Instead of an “airhead” blond who goes to Harvard to get back with her ex, you could write about an extremely shy woman who joins an improv comedy troupe because the guy she likes is a member.
A story hook is the smallest kernel of a story. It is a situation that implies conflict and oftentimes puts a new twist on a genre and/or includes an element of irony.
Every story needs a hook, and it is from here that all conflict, characterization, plot, etc. stem.
Part 2 of the How to Write a Romance Novel series covers setting.
 Here’s a caveat: it’s common for newer writers to have anxiety about people stealing their ideas. This post is not intended to encourage this. There’s no need to be precious about your story ideas because for one, you can’t copyright them, and you shouldn’t try to do this through other means (cockygate, anyone?). In fact, your story might have the exact same hook as another story, and that’s fine. The reader who loves that other story is waiting for yours, and your unique voice and point of view will set your work apart.