The false
Author Toolbox,  Querying

The False Choice-authortoolbox

Query letter hooks often end with a choice, some decision the main character must make, but when the relationship between the two isn’t clear, the reader is presented with a false choice.

What is a false choice?

A false choice happens when the two possible outcomes presented are not mutually exclusive.

Julie can either have ice cream, or she can wear the blue shoes.

The reader’s first reaction is to ask “why?” What do these two things have to do with each other?

In a recent query letter I shredded, the writer ended the letter with a false choice: The character had to choose between a boyfriend and helping her mom save her business empire.

While there are a million different scenarios how this might occur, the writer had failed to explain it. As a result, the relationship between the main character pursuing a relationship with her new beau and sacrificing of her mother’s business empire was not established.

This is the job of the query hook. It must explain the character’s dilemma in a way that someone who knows nothing about the story will understand. This may sound obvious, but it’s a common problem in query letters, Authors frequently don’t recognize that connection isn’t apparent because they know the story. This is why it’s important to have someone who isn’t familiar with your story read over your query.

Let’s take a look at the original example: Julie can either have ice cream or wear the blue shoes. Now, we have to fill in the missing details.

Julie’s blue shoes are the best-est shoes in the whole world. They are the same color as the sky, and they make a squeaky sound with every step.

One day, mommy gives her a super pretty dress and tells her she must wear the ouchie black shoes. Julie says, “No, no, no.”  But then mommy promises her that she can have ice cream for dinner.

Now, Julie must decide: she can either have ice cream, or she can wear the best shoes that were ever made.

Now, the link between the two choices is clear. Without these details, the reader would never see how these two items are connected. In this type of query letter, the purpose of the hook is to explain the main character’s dilemma. The dilemma is the hook. If it isn’t clear, then the query won’t work.

Examples of common false choice pitfalls

  • relationship vs. career (Why is having a social life interfering with the job?)
  • having a family vs. having a career (What is standing in the way of work/life balance?)
  • relationship vs. friends (Why does the character need to choose?)
  • personal growth vs. staying the same (What are the consequences of stasis?)

If, after revisions, you cannot explain the relationship, then there may not be one. This means you have a true false choice in your query letter. If this is the case, you must go back to your manuscript and figure out what your main character’s true dilemma is.

Answer these questions:

  1. What does your character want?
  2. What is standing in her way?
  3. What must she do to achieve her goal?

If you cannot find it, then your manuscript is flawed and may need revision.

Once you have these elements, present them in a way that will insure the reader will see how they connect.

Ending your query hook with a false choice will ruin it’s effectiveness. The agent needs to know what is really at stake. Don’t give your characters a false choice. Make sure the connection between the elements are clear.

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The false


M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


  • DRShoultz

    Great warning about false choices. I often get too close to my novels and characters, make assumptions, and build tension the readers can’t understand.

  • cherylsterling1955

    I’m no longer in the business of query letters, but your points are valid for use in a book blurb or even an outline. The writer must know what’s at stake and how each decision the character makes affects future choices.

  • raimeygallant

    Such a fantastic post! I have seen this before. It’s so confusing when reading a query letter. You get to the final sentence, and the only question I still have is, why is this the choice. Will add this into my facebook posting schedule. 🙂

  • Iola

    I know many authors hate writing the synopsis. I wonder if this is because writing the synopsis highlights poor structure, lack of GMC, and writing issues like false choices?

    Your post certainly shows why agents and editors like query letters and a synopsis – it shows you the problems. Thanks for sharing!

  • TD Storm

    Nice insights here. It’s a question of how much context to give the choice in the query, right? People want to be concise, so they might end up leaving out the crucial context.

  • lyndleloo

    It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to end on a false choice when you know your own story inside out. Getting another set of eyes on your query (or several) is so important! Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • Adam

    I’ve never specifically thought about this issue, but that is interesting.
    Most of my stories, to date, have been rooted in a conflict between an external task or goal, and an internal obstacle or “nature” that cuts against said external task or goal.
    But I can also see how the internal itself is associated with another external option/value.
    Definitely a potent question to ask in any story. “Why can’t the character have both?” And as you say, it’s not a matter of claiming the dilemma is impossible, just under-explained/established.

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