Today I’d like to share some advice on an issue that comes up often in my query letter critiques. What can you do when your hook just isn’t grabbing readers? Or maybe your query is missing a hook altogether? One of my favorite solutions is to try using a tagline. It’s an easy type of hook to recognize, and it’s almost guaranteed to get attention if done well.
First, let’s clarify some vocabulary here.
Hooks, Taglines, and Intergalactic Destruction
The hook is one of the trickiest elements to get right in a query, but a good one can make the difference between ho-hum and “tell me more” in your query letter. The term hook is used to encompass a range of possibilities, but it basically means a catchy, provocative sentence or short paragraph at the beginning of your query (usually directly preceding your summary). A tag line is a specific type of hook, a one-liner that you’ll recognize from your favorite movie trailers. Here are a couple of good examples:
“Earth. It was great while it lasted.” –Armageddon (That one gets me every time! Humor is always a plus if your subject matter allows for it.)
“Your mind is the scene of the crime.” –Inception (It doesn’t get any more concise and punchy than that. Eight words does the trick!)
“She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.” –Erin Brockovich (A simple, elegant summary of the gist of the story.)
Now here’s one from the cover copy of a middle grade novel:
“Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged.” –The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (So provocative! How could you not start reading this book?)
Finally, click here for an excellent example from an actual query. Be sure to read the entire query to see how the tagline relates to the summary.
So, what do all of these taglines have in common? They jolt the reader’s interest and emotions. A good tagline can also keep a query letter from sounding like nothing more than a list of events in a plot outline. Or from being just plain boring. They’re the whipped cream and chocolate drizzle that made you order that latte! After reading thousands of queries in the slush pile, I can’t tell you how refreshing this type of cleverness can be. And while they work especially well for sci fi, mysteries, and thrillers, I’ve seen them used effectively in virtually every genre.
So how do you know your tagline has what it takes? Try it out on friends. They don’t need experience or special expertise on queries—the beauty of an effective tagline is that it appeals to everyone. Watch your friend’s reaction closely—a smile, a nod, questions about your story? You’re good to go. Blank stare? Throat-clearing? Diplomatic mumbling? Time to give it another shot!
What are some of your favorite movie or novel taglines? I’d love it if you shared them here!
Need help with your query letter? My critiques are $65 and include a second pass at no charge—I’ll read your revised version and let you know if you’re ready to submit. Send me your query or questions at anitaedits(at)gmail.com.