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Friday, September 11, 2015

The Big Idea of Your Novel

by Allen Arnold 

There’s a classic story, probably mostly true, of how a monster movie screenplay was pitched to Hollywood studios.

In 1975, Jaws had become one of the first true pop-culture summer blockbusters movies. Imagine shortly after that you are trying to get the green light for your screenplay about a monster in space. No one in Hollywood is exactly standing in line for this story. It’s up to you to create interest in it. But you know you’ll only have a few minutes at most with the major studio heads. What can you possibly say that will cause them to pay attention?

The folks tasked with this came up with a brilliant pitch for the screenplay.

They positioned it as “Jaws in Space”.

That’s it. Three words.

And that’s all it took to hook a powerful studio. The line was so catchy and yet so simple. And the rest is history.

Alien became not just a blockbuster movie but a decades-spanning franchise. It even has an equally powerful positioning line for the movie poster: “In space, no one can hear you scream”.  

Both lines – one for internal Hollywood decision makers and one for the people buying movie tickets – are visceral and unforgettable. They draw you in. Leave you wanting more.

Can you describe your novel in a few powerful words? Not a few paragraphs –a few words. A sentence at most. You need to because that’s the attention span of most people. Anything beyond that and most people won’t remember. They have too many other things competing for space in their brain – including what they are going to eat for dinner, when to pick up the kids and whether they have clean clothes to wear tomorrow.

You need a phrase that causes your target audience to smile, gasp or lean in closer. The goal isn’t to tell them your whole story. It is to cause them to want more so they will buy and read your story. That’s it. Accomplish that and you are on the way to growing your tribe of readers.

When done right, the catch phrase or positioning line captures the concentrated power of the primary concept that makes your story unique. It is what will draw both agent and publisher to your proposal. It is what will turn the potential reader’s head and then keep the pages turning. It is what will fuel buzz in the marketplace.

To be sure, there’s an art to crafting the right succinct phrase. Some credit Blaise Pascal for saying, "I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one." It’s true, saying more with fewer words is hard work. That’s okay. Do the hard work.

Start with the central premise that makes your story unique. If you find yourself hitting a brick wall when trying to come up with this positioning line, the problem may lie within the story itself. Perhaps the story doesn’t yet have a truly unique premise or twist. If that’s the case, spend more time on story development and then craft the positioning line.

The goal of a great line is to leave people wanting more. It must be intriguing, unexpected, compelling, playful, or disruptive.

The more generic the line is, the more forgettable it will be.

The more detailed and wordy, the more folks will glaze over. That’s why great positioning lines rarely include character names – because names aren’t the big idea or original concept.

The more obvious a line is – the less compelling. A great line for a romance novel is never “Will she find true love?” Because, um, the answer is apparent. Asking a self-answering question as the tagline only highlights how predictable the story is.

Now it’s your turn. What is the hook for your current book?

Allen Arnold loves the epic adventure God has set before him. From the mountains of Colorado, he leads Content & Resources for Ransomed Heart Ministries (led by John Eldredge). Before that, he spent 20 years in Christian Publishing - overseeing  the development of more than 500 novels as founder and Publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction. He was awarded the ACFW Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. But that doesn't really describe the man. Allen savors time with his family, craves the beach, drinks salsa by the glass, is hooked on the TV series "Once Upon a Time" and is passionate about helping storytellers tell better stories from an awakened heart. 


  1. Great reminder of how powerful well-chosen words can be. I feel strongly that a good hook makes a huge difference, as you say. We liked the hook for my latest book so well that we put it right on the cover: "What do you do when the whole world suddenly...stops?"

  2. I love Linore's hook!! Mine for my debut novel had one acquisitions editor say she'd buy it for the hook alone. :) The hook? With a friend like Claire, you need a gurney, a mop, and a guardian angel.

  3. Thank you for your encouragement about the hook! Great thoughts. I also have read your posts with Write His Answer, and wanted to say thank you for encouraging writers!


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