I was poking around on Goodreads the other day -are you on Goodreads? If you're not you so should be. Find me as Claire Dawn and friend me!- and I saw a review which really struck a nerve.
"It just did not live up to it's potential."
What they really mean by potential here is "hook". A hook is, simply put, anything that's going to grab your reader.
The best (or worst, depending on how you want to look at it) example of a great hook gone to waste is the movie THE LAST AIRBENDER. It's hook (as is the hook of many movies these days) is that it first had a large following in another medium- in this case a cartoon called AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, in my opinion, the best non-Japanese anime-style cartoon ever made. They started with a great plot, and a huge fanbase, and somehow managed to make a movie so bad that I found myself thinking, "Damn, this screenplay is aweful. I could do better!" DURING the movie. If you have time to think about screenplay (other than being a film student) during a movie, that is not a good thing.
Some books have hooks so individual that they sell on hook alone.
Many memoirs fall into this category. For example, if someone turned up a stack of previously unread letters by George Washington, and they were put in a book, it would be a best seller. The hook is that George Washington wrote them and it doesn't really matter if they're about his daily diet or his favourite vacation spot. The hook is that strong.
But there are also novels which work on hook alone.
- Some hooks work on originality. Twilight, when it was new, was a rare find of a teen falling in love with a vampire.
- Some hooks link a new tale to an older, more well-known one. Ella, Enchanted is a re-telling of Cinderella.
- Some hooks cater to a niche market. MG series tend to do this well: Baby Sitters' Club (for girls who babysit), Saddle Club (for kids who like horses), Royal Ballet School Diaries (for girls who do/like ballet).
But there is a danger in having a really good hook: the temptation to let the hook do all work.
I find it's most common (and even accepted) in niche movies. I love dance movies, but when I watch a dance movie, I suspend the part of me that cares about plot and character development. The same is often true of sports movies. But every once in a while, one will come along that does everything and it will be so, so good. (Watch THE BLINDSIDE if you don't know what I'm talking about.)
Ways to correct this problem:
1. Ask yourself- Would anyone like this book if:
the Love Interest were a regular guy and not a werewolf-fairy-ghost-of-Henry-III?
they didn't know beforehand it was based on Star Trek?
it wasn't about (insert obscure niche here) that never gets the time of day in novels?
2. Careful scene-by-scene editing.
A hook is a very high-level, overall concept. It is featured at every level, but is usually only the star when looking at the work as a whole. Keeping your individual scenes tight means you're not depending on hook alone.
3. Plot and character development.
There are several ways to do this. You can draw out the plot arcs, write out the major plot points, summarize every chapter, etc. You just need to make sure you have a plot, and it's not mundane or predictable.
For characters, you want to make sure they are more than pieces on the chess board. If your hook is that it's a re-telling, make sure that they bring something new to the page.
4. Add something unrelated.
Holly Thompson's ORCHARDS is about a girl trying to deal with the guilt of knowing that she might have been able to stop someone from committing suicide. But that's not all that is going on. Kana, the MC, is half-Japanese, and her mother sends her to Japan to reflect after the suicide. By adding this, ORCHARDS is no longer just another book about suicide.
What other ways can you think of to ensure that you're not just dependent on hook alone?