Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Terrible Analogy of the Hook

Your reader?
Let's talk about analogies for a moment. In public school they start teaching analogies pretty early on as part of the English subject. Kids learn them as a formula. This is to this as that is to that. I think this may be at least partially the reason that people in general are terrible at making analogies when they get older. Because analogies aren't just a formula for pointing out similarities. Analogy is a cognitive process by which we transfer information or meaning from one particular subject to another particular subject. We use analogies when there is a particular subject that is difficult to understand and so we find another subject that is easier to understand, then we transfer our understanding of the easy subject to the hard subject. Naturally, they need to be two subjects that can potentially understood in the same way because they have similar meaning.

Now let's talk about a particular analogy that I find... problematic. In advice for writers of stories, the act of crafting the beginning of a story in such a way that the reader feels compelled to continue reading is commonly referred to as "hooking the reader". A common term thrown around is "The Hook", meaning that beginning part of the story that is specially constructed to grab the reader's interest. Now, I have no issue with the idea of writing specifically to capture reader attention and keep them from putting your book down. Here's where my problem is...

The terms "The Hook" and "hooking the reader" and also "reeling them in" clearly are references to the sport of fishing. Now if you spell out this analogy in a bit more detail you end up with enticing the reader in with a delicious worm and once they've taken the bait, entrapping them with a hook piercing their flesh rendering them unable to escape at which point you can just casually reel them in. As a reader first and a writer second I do not like being compared to a fish on a hook. As a writer who is a reader I think it is dangerous for writers to let the meaning of an analogy that compares writers with fishers and readers with fish and books with worms on a hook sink into their creative subconscious. The meaning conveyed by a fishing analogy turns writers into predators and readers into prey. This meaning is inherent to the terminology. It can't be separated out from references to the act of fishing.

Furthermore, I think in many writers it accidentally leads to a subconscious habit of placing all the emphasis on the "hook" at the beginning of the story leading to a more casual approach during the "reel them in" phase in the middle of the book and getting downright lazy with the ending, because the fish is already in the bucket by then. I'm not claiming that all writers who take the "hook the reader" approach do this, but I've encountered enough books that fit this description and that made me feel like the writer did not value the reader beyond getting them interested enough to pay for the book. And when I encounter a book like that I'm going to avoid the rest of that author's work, I'm also not going to recommend their books to anyone else, I may even go out of my way to discourage people from reading their work.

The author/reader relationship is a delicate thing. It doesn't blossom if the author makes the reader feel like a fish on a hook, reeled in for monetary gain.

So I'd like to propose a different analogy for that aspect of writing craft that is concerned with capturing the reader's interest early enough to keep them reading. I'd like to propose looking at the beginning of the book as an appetizer.

An appetizer, as we all know, is a simple yet flavorful dish that comes before the main meal and is meant to stimulate the appetite in preparation for the courses to come. And I believe that's what we should focus on in our story beginnings, presenting the reader with uncomplicated yet intriguing content that stimulates their interest in preparation for the much richer and deeper middle and the more thrilling and emotional payoff at the end. A "hook" leads to a fish in a barrel waiting to be someone's dinner, an appetizer leads to a satisfying meal. We shouldn't be trying to "hook" readers, we should be trying to stimulate their appetite for the exquisite meals we've crafted for them.


  1. I can't believe I hadn't thought of this before. You're right - although luckily I haven't read too many books lately that fizzle out by the end. Love the idea of an appetizer - such a better way to approach the relationship with readers.

  2. Hmmm...I hadn't thought of it this way before, but you make some good points!

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)


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