It’s a term that is used ad nauseam by movie execs, and is discussed so freely by TV producers that you’d think it was the name of their last-born child. “What’s the HOOK?” they’ll ask. “I like your pitch—the characters are great, I can see it on TV—but I still can’t quite grasp the show’s HOOK.”
Ugh. For writers, it’s an obnoxious phrase that gets in the way of any pitch that at first glance seems slightly complex or multi-layered. For producers, it’s a term that connects CONCEPT to MARKETABILITY, and conjures up visuals of SNAGGING would-be audiences at the very mention of the new movie or TV series. But really—what is a HOOK?
Simply put, a HOOK is a concept that seems fresh, daring, sparkly and NEW, and can also be summarized quickly in just a few impactful words. It usually describes a situation—an INCITING INCIDENT—that is so GREAT that it will fuel a multi-season run or a blockbuster movie without veering from this initial setup.
Suburban mom deals weed. Yup—you hooked me.
Social butterfly gets amnesia. Hook, hook, hook.
Normal people develop super powers. Hooked—and hung.
A good hook should be embedded in the LOGLINE for any pitch or spec script, but should be easy to isolate. It’s the TWIST that washes the bored look from your face and makes you say, “oh yes, I’d watch THAT.”
And having a great hook makes sense. If you want to sell your projects and push your career forward, your will NEED to make sure your concepts each have a clear and exciting hook. But it is also a term that seeks to bottle every single movie idea and every single TV show idea into the same Hollywood blockbuster model. Simply put, some great movies and great television shows do not have great hooks!
What’s the hook for Seinfeld? A show about nothing? Four friends hate everything? Yuck. No way. That show would have a very tough time selling in today’s hook-obsessed marketplace, and yet… It’s friggin’ Seinfeld! And what about Annie Hall? Taxi Driver? An effete intellectual nerd discovers his match in a quirky soul-searching musician? A lonely veteran drives a taxi around NY talking to himself? Those movies could NEVER get made in our current hook-y world. And that’s the problem…
Hooks are easy to wrap your head around, and are sold around town like fast-food because no one ever has to STOP and READ anything. You get it all from the hook. And while this works well some of the time, the result has been that shows and movies without those crispy, sparkly hooks are very often just swept under the table.
So what does this mean for you, the writer?
It means that if you want to play ball, you need a hook. It’s unavoidable. Particularly for TV writers, your pitch will not get sold without a contemporary-sounding, kicking-ass-and-taking-names HOOK. But you should also be aware that you MAY have good ideas or have written a good script that simply can’t be summarized in five words. And that’s okay. Your path will be harder. Those projects might sit on the shelf a bit longer. Butit doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or will never sell in the future. Concepts with great hooks will move quicker and open more doors, but once your career has generated some momentum, there WILL be opportunity to push forward some projects with greater complexity.
What’s the hook for Mad Men for instance? An ad exec in 1960 lives a double-life? Hmmm. Not the strongest. And what about for The Wire? A street-smart police unit taps the phones of drug dealers? Pretty damn generic. And yet, Matt Weiner and David Simon were able to get these shows made because they—the writers—were already proven entities.
So it can happen! But not overnight. If you are a new writer and want your career to develop faster, you need to make sure your ideas have great hooks. Unfortunately, the term “hook” and the concept “hook” are here to stay. As writers, the best we can do is to be savvy about the business. Get on the hook now, and some day in the future you might be in a position to break free. (Right, Julia Roberts?)