My novel "Paranoid" (thriller, 100,000 words) starts out with a familiar premise: an innocent person stumbles onto a conspiracy so huge that he can't go to the police without proof. They would just assume he was insane. So he has to fight a shadowy, diabolical organization -- alone and on the run -- while the conspirators hunt him down.
It sounds like any one of a dozen thrillers, from "The Holcroft Covenant" to "Six Days of the Condor". But theres a crucial difference: the hero of "Paranoid" really is crazy. Three quarters of the way through the book, that becomes undeniably clear. The President of the United States has not been 'replaced by an impostor'; the President's son is not the only one who can rescue the country from a Devil's bargain with the mafia. In fact, the President's son is an axis-one, clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He also happens to be a trained soldier and martial artist, with an intimate knowledge of the life and habits of the leader of the free world.
In the other words: the perfect assassin.
For the reader, this revelation punches every expectation inside out: the hero is suddenly the villain; the sinister agents chasing him down are actually the Secret Service ... the good guys. And the final twist, revealed through a few bars of music whistled during a televised rose-garden interview with the President, is that even paranoids have real enemies.
And sometimes it takes a crazy guy to save the world.
You're all going to scream when I tell you this is a hook. It violates absolutely everything I've said up to this point.
It works because you can't write an XYZ-form hook for a novel that shifts abruptly (or even not abruptly) in the middle.
This is a hook that you can ONLY use in an agent's letter. It's obviously not going to work for flap copy.
And it works for me because one of the things I love best about Ken Follet is how he starts out with the villain as a sympathetic character and then very subtly shifts to the hero. If you haven't read Key to Rebecca, well, my sympathies. It's the best example of this I can think of. Eye of the Needle too.
The trouble is, when you have a hook like this, those first pages have to be riveting. I start out wanting to like it, but since I know this is a very difficult form to execute well, if I lose confidence you can do so I'll stop reading. I lose confidence when I see misspelled words, fragments, clunky writing.