How to Hook Your Reader: 3 Tips for Novelists

Wednesday, May 04, 2016
by Diane O’Connell

Recall the last time you were perusing your local bookstore, or looking at books online. If a new book intrigued you, you’d be compelled to flip it over, or click to read the novel’s “flap copy”—the short description that tells you what the book is about.

This copy is, essentially, an author’s sales pitch to readers. When written well and conveying a strong and unique story idea, flap copy can be an author’s key to grabbing readers. When a story’s vision has big weaknesses, on the other hand, a potential buyer will lose interest and go off in search of another book.

Honing in on what really piques a reader’s interest lies in maximizing your novel’s potential for dramatic change, and creating something readers haven’t seen before.

The following 3 tips will help you in both crafting a compelling story and a solid pitch for a completed novel.

What makes a novel sell:

1. An original Concept

I often describe the vision for your novel as the spark that ignites the story idea, inspiring a full-fledged novel. Think of this as an author asking, “What if?” and the novel exploring the question in depth. For example, Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, was channel surfing one night and caught glimpses of a reality TV competition and then war footage on the news. The compelling contrast sat with her, and in answering the big “What if?” in detail, she developed the dystopian—and fresh and original—vision for her novel.

To maximize your novel’s chances of standing out in the market, make sure the big idea for your novel is solid and completely original, not hitched to an already popular bandwagon, like vampire romance novels. For tips, read 6 Ways to Generate Ideas For Your Story.

Ask yourself: What about your vision makes your story truly different from other novels out there?

2. A dynamic main Character

Many first-time authors make the mistake of having a main character who snags the main spotlight or the most “screen time” in a novel, but without really putting him to the test. The main character of any compelling novel must be forced to make choices he hasn’t had to confront before. Your main character must also have something very vital at stake: life or death, honor, love, vengeance, etc.

This element of risk is what can really hook a reader into wanting to know more. Readers want to see characters tested to limits, facing countless roadblocks and changing drastically over the course of a novel.

Ask yourself: Would the changes my main character undergoes make her near unrecognizable by who she was at the beginning? Will readers want to see how the character faces up to difficult tasks?

3. A hard-to-solve central Conflict

One of the greatest problems I see with first-time novelists is that the central problem of their story is not big enough. This doesn’t mean every book needs to have a literal ticking time bomb, or bodies piling up a la Hollywood blockbusters. The conflict must be deep, difficult to fix and meaty enough for readers to be intrigued by for an entire novel.

Most people actively try to avoid conflict in their day-to-day lives. But conflict is what novels need to succeed—it’s why readers pick up books in the first place, to dive into a story world where characters face obstacles. A good novel’s central conflict shouldn’t be something that can be solved easily under the story’s other circumstances, or make a reader question, “So what?” For instance, if an author’s central conflict starts out as a nerdy boy wanting to date a hot girl, a reader may think this conflict stale and overdone. But if the boy’s father is suddenly marrying the girl’s mother, there’s another hurdle adding another layer of intrigue.

Ask yourself: Is my novel’s problem so big that readers will ask, “How is the main character going to get out of this one?”

Concept – Character – Conflict: If you keep these “three C’s” in mind when writing your novel or your pitch, you’ll be sure to have readers hooked!


Diane O’Connell is a former editor at Random House and author of six books, including the award-winning The Novel-Maker’s Handbook: The No-Nonsense Guide to Crafting a Marketable Story. As editorial director of Write to Sell Your Book she has helped dozens of authors achieve international publishing success. Diane’s passion for helping authors improve their craft and for the entire process of writing and publishing has made her one of the top editors in the field and a sought-after speaker at writing conferences and workshops throughout the US. She also conducts a twice-yearly Guided Novel Writing Retreat in Lenox, MA. To find out more about Diane, her book, and her retreat, please visit:


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