Have you ever started reading a story in the newspaper or a magazine and turned the page after the first paragraph? I have. But wait a minute. Why did you do that? After all, the headline captured your attention, right? Yes, but unfortunately, the writer failed to create a story hook to keep you reading.
Similar to a fishing hook, a story hook holds bait that grabs a readers attention and a barb that pulls them through the rest of the story. If you’ve been struggling to break into your favorite publication, take a look at your query letters and see if you’ve created a story hook that attracts and grabs the editor.
Create a Story Hook in 1 of 3 Ways
When your editor reads your query (and if published the readers read your story) she will be asking herself, “Will this idea thrill my readers?” Because, frankly, if she isn’t thrilled, her readers won’t be either.
I once asked the editor of a small regional publication how many emails she gets on any given day. She said about 300. Three hundred emails you have to compete with. It’s just too easy for someone to hit that little trash can icon at the top of the page and move onto the next one. You don’t want that to happen. You want her to keep reading.
Another editor told me that she judged a story idea by its ability to make her cry. If she didn’t cry or have some other kind of emotional response, she didn’t assign the story.
So, what makes a good story hook? A good hook can be a personal story, a news tie-in, or a statistic. Let’s look at all three.
Anecdotes make great story hooks
Personally, I use this method a lot. I tend to always pull a personal experience or a moving event from someone else’s life to create a story hook for my stories. Here are a few examples:
This example came from “Be Your Own Coffee Roaster,” an article I wrote for Grit magazine.
“My parents poured boiling water over a heaping teaspoon of shiny brown granules, stirred, and called it coffee. It pried open their eyelids each morning and carried them through the afternoon’s slump. It made me gag.
While in college, I worked as a typesetter for a small publishing company. Printing houses offer an array of aromas all their own, but one smell in particular captivated me forever — the coffee brewing on the break room table. First a sniff, next a sip, and then I was accustomed to having coffee pry my eyes open each morning. I never dreamed it could get better than Maxwell House in my automatic drip coffee pot — until I met Monty. Monty Ruckman started roasting his own coffee because he wanted to find that perfect taste. “
Another one, “When Lightning Strikes Make a Lemo Drop Martini,” is from The Roanoker, a regional lifestyle publication:
“On an ordinary day of shopping, Reggie Wood, 71, pushed his cart out into a thunderstorm to load his car with his purchases. Not ordinary, was that when a clap of lightning singed the air, Reggie jumped.
Just three months prior, while sitting in his easy chair watching the game, lightning struck Reggie and Ann Marie’s home on Bosworth Avenue. Thinking it hit their generator in the backyard, Reggie went to check. When he returned inside, he smelled the smoke. The lightning had struck their house. He quickly put collars and leashes on Lucy and Duchess, their two fur babies, and went out the front door into the pouring rain.”
The trick with anecdotes is to choose something mysterious, emotional, or compelling enough to keep the reader reading.
Use statistics for story hooks
If you heard of an outlandish or surprising statistic, wouldn’t you want to learn more? Recently I learned:
- Eighty-four percent of the city of El Paso, Texas is Hispanic.
- Since the early 1900s, the population of black bears in North America has gone from endangered to almost one million.
- And that road debris caused over 200,000 accidents resulting in 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths from 2011-2014.
All of these statistics could make interesting story hooks. Here’s an example from something I wrote for Costco Connection.
“Traveling through a construction zone on I-95 in Georgia, Costco member MaryBeth Crissman watched a ladder fly through the air toward her. Despite heavy traffic and concrete barriers on either side, she managed to avoid an accident. Others aren’t so lucky.
According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, road debris caused over 200,000 accidents resulting in 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths from 2011-2014. Improperly secured items like ladders, furniture, or mattresses falling from vehicles, are included in that lot.”
A news hook gives your story urgency
If you’re eager to get your story published, and who isn’t, create a story hook from something in the news. A news hook is something trending that makes your story time-sensitive rather than evergreen. Instead of thinking, “I’ll put this in my Maybe Next Year folder” your editor will think, “This story needs to go in the next issue.”
A news hook could be news. Do you read the headlines? I receive a “daily headlines” email from my two local papers as well as other regions of Virginia, the New York Times, the paper local to the publication I write for regularly, LinkedIn’s Daily Rundown, the Skimm, and Owler’s Daily Snapshot. (There are plenty more options to subscribe to, too.) They keep my inbox full of what’s happening in the world and I often find story ideas there. And if the idea is timely, I’m sure to let the editor know.
A news hook will also help you to hone an idea from ho-hum to oh yeah! For instance, take “5 Tricks to Teach Your New Dog.” We’ve all read listicles like this, over and over again. But what if a celebrity dog trainer recently published a book with new scientific findings that changed his techniques? Those new findings, his book, his expertise, would be the fresh that could sell your idea to editors.
So, let’s identify what makes a news hook:
- The findings of a new controversial study
- The things famous people do–arrests, lawsuits, charitable work, publications
- An anniversary story like “50 Years Since…” that follows up on the event.
- Something holiday or National Day of X related. I once sold a story on children and television viewing because I tied it to National Screen-free Week.
Different ways to use your story hooks for more ideas
You can create a story hook by twisting or slanting a news story in different ways to come up with different angles. Here are a few ideas to reslant what’s already out there:
- Turn a national story into a local one. Using the tragic story of a mass shooting, you could list ways to keep your children safe at school for a regional parenting publication.
- Turn a local story into a national one. The national news outlets don’t know everything. If you read the headlines of your local papers, as I mentioned above, maybe you will find a local story that would have national appeal. This is exactly what the major news networks do to end their nightly newscasts.
- Turn the holidays into something new. Forget the listicles of gifts for mom on Mother’s Day or “What to Buy the Person Who Has Everything” at Christmas. Come up with something totally different by combining trends or statistics with the holiday.
- Feature an award winner. Regional pubs host “Best of…” contests all over the country. Television is full of “American Idol” type shows. Find a winner with an unusual story and use that as a hook for your target publication.
- Play the devil’s advocate. Tired of reading the staggering statistics of peanut allergies in children, I wrote a piece for a regional parenting publication championing good ‘ole PB&J. Here’s the hook I wrote for that:
“With the staggering number of children allergic to peanuts, those not allergic are getting the short end of the stick. After all, who doesn’t like a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich now and again? From its rather elitist beginnings over 100 years ago, to becoming a lunchbox favorite, to its ominous reputation in the world today, the PB&J has enjoyed immense popularity.”
Of course, these are just a few ideas.
Another thing to consider when pitching timely topics for publication is the timeline. One thing I learned as a magazine editor is that if we wanted a skiing story for our January issue, we had to shoot the photos when there was snow on the ground. That required some serious advance planning. I once covered a home remodel for The Roanoker. I interviewed the homeowner in October. She had the place decorated with colored leaves and pumpkins. When the photographer arrived, she replaced those decorations with silk flowers because the story was to be published in the spring.
Magazines plan anywhere from three months to a year in advance. Hopefully, you can find a copy of the publication’s editorial calendar with due dates to help you before you pitch something the wrong time of year.