The First Chapter: Hook, Description, and Backstory

This article came out of the contests I've judged. These are some of the common things I see in most entries when it comes to hooks, description and backstory.

Starting with description--pros and cons.

There are two camps about starting a scene with description:

1) Most historical writers and some sci-fi/fantasy writers like the whole idea of the novel like a movie camera, panning into the scene and describing the setting in detail to place the reader there before anything starts to happen.

2) Most suspense/mystery writers tend to start with action, and to give details of the surroundings and what's happening through subtle hints in the dialogue or narrative.

Each method can be done poorly. If you spend too much time setting the scene or if you don't do it well enough, an editor won't get past the first page because it's too boring--nothing going on.

On the other hand, if you land the reader in the middle of action but don't do a good enough job orienting the reader in space and time, they can feel disjointed and out of touch with the character and what's going on.

My stance is #2, for several reasons. One, if I "under describe," that's a lot easier for me to fix than over describing--it depends on the writer.

Two, starting in the action is more of a hook to the reader to get them reading past the first paragraph, past the first page, and that is key. I've read wonderful poetic description in a book, but if the description isn't about something interesting to pique my interest, the skill of the writer doesn't keep me reading past the first page.

I write suspense and Chick-Lit, so I land the reader in the middle of action. You don't have to be as extreme as I am.

Hook 'em with the first line.

Start the novel with a catchy first line. Cute, clever, mysterious, dangerous, puzzling, get the picture. Basically, something unusual is happening or going to happen.

As she jogged off the path, Nora saw a pair of glowing eyes from the trees.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon until Grandma drove the car into the side of the house.

You can also start a novel with dialogue, because that's inherently in the middle of some action. Here's the opening line of my current wip (I'm too lazy to look up another example and type it in. :)

"If you can snag a date for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, I'll go with the family to church." Her brother Satoro folded his arms and gave Risa a superior smile.

See? Something out of the ordinary is happening to Risa, and I started the story in dialogue. You don't have to do both necessarily. Just make sure something interesting is happening:

Do a generic description.

It's hard for a reader to jump into a story without at least a rudimentary understanding of where they are. In Louisiana? On the moon? In a bar called Louisiana on a moon base?

Description doesn't need to be pages or even a paragraph. A good trick to give the reader a general feel for the setting is to mention a cliché, with a twist:
"The party had the attitude of a drunk, ditzy blonde."

Another trick is to mention something significant, detailed, which embodies the setting:
"He stared at the scarred, sagging wooden doors before swinging them open and stalking into the bar."
The mention of the swinging wooden doors conjures up images of a spaghetti western.

After that sentence to "sum up" your setting, you can pepper details in throughout the scene in your characters' action beats (see Sneak and pepper).

Sneak and pepper:

Here's my next move: I sneak in hints throughout the dialogue and narrative to describe the setting and give backstory. I pepper snippets of information here and there rather than all at once.

Again, I'm going to use my wip.

In this passage, I want to introduce Risa's sister Emi, and show that Emi is fashionable and much skinnier than Risa, who is self-conscious about her weight. I also want to show it's set in the living room of their parents' house. I want to show some of the interaction between Emi and Risa as sisters, and Emi and Satoro as brother/sister. I also want to deliberately create a MYSTERY with Emi's reaction to a question Risa asks (this will pique reader interest and keep them reading). Lastly, I want to hint that they're gathered for a weekly family dinner (which I explain in more detail later).

"I should have figured you two would argue before dinner's even on the table." Their sister Emi slammed the front door and sauntered into the living room, running a manicured hand through freshly-highlighted hair.

Risa wasn't sure it looked good with Emi's manufactured tan. "When did you get that done?"

"Today at Janet's salon." Emi set her Fendi baguette handbag on their parents' hardwood end table.

"Mom's going to have a fit."

A flash of something passed over Emi's eyes, but then she shot Risa an unconcerned glance. Risa didn't turn away immediately—it had almost looked like guilt.

Emi draped her size-two figure over Papa's ratty recliner and took in Risa's brown corduroy pants. "You look like you lost weight."

Satoro loosed a braying guffaw. "Yeah, maybe from her mouth."

Emi's pointed-toe shoe, idly swinging over the arm of the recliner, suddenly connected with her brother's skinny behind. "Satz, you're such a jerk." Her gaze paused over Risa's fitted white shirt. "New?"

"Not since last week's family dinner." Risa tugged the cotton lower over her barrel-shaped midsection.

I dole out information on the setting and backstory in snippets. That's deliberate for two reasons:
1) It keeps an air of mystery if the reader has to figure out what's going on, and it keeps them reading.
2) It doesn't slow down the reader's reading pace with a long descriptive paragraph, I can keep the action moving and paint the surroundings at the same time.

Describe by response.

Rather than describing the setting around the two characters, I try to show how the characters RESPOND to the setting. Any description is paired with some emotional reaction. That way you're not spending precious page time describing flowery wallpaper—instead, you're both describing the wallpaper AND showing something about the character at the same time:

He eyed the overblown roses on the peeling wallpaper, resentful that he and not his uncle would be the one tearing it down and replacing it eventually.

See what I mean? Describe setting by REACTION. In my passage, I show both the room and Emi's comfort with the house by her walking into the living room and sitting sideways on Papa's chair. Setting is a great way to give insight into your characters--and backstory, too!--without a descriptive paragraph.

Less is more.

Readers can infer a great deal if you just mention a few vivid, specific key words.

Like Risa's brown corduroy pants--I don't have to describe the fit, the cut, the brand, but you as the reader have an idea of a pair of brown corduroy pants you've seen or worn. I don't need to describe it more because I leave the rest up to the reader's imagination.

The same with Emi's description--I just mention the highlighted hair, manicured nails, Fendi baguette, and fake tan. The reader has a picture in their mind of Emi without a single word about her facial structure or her eyes. You're probably assuming she's got makeup on and a slim, trendy outfit.

Just think of a few specially-chosen words and you can describe anything in very little page space.

Dealing with backstory.

Don’t open with it. Period. Save it for later in the scene or chapter, preferably in chapter two.

Any knowledge you give to the reader has to cause the reader to ask more questions.

What that means for you as the writer is that any narrative or backstory has to be very carefully chosen and given. Any narrative or backstory has to have a very specific purpose for the story, and that narrative or backstory should work to make the reader ask more questions about the character or storyline.

You want to foster that sense of “What’s going on?” for the reader that will make the reader keep reading in order to find out.

Don't use a convenient fiction device to tell the reader. For example:
"Father, is your sister Agatha, who divorced your best friend Harry and moved to Oklahoma, coming into town soon?"

Create an aura of mystery to make your reader want to know the past. Give as little information as possible in small snippets. Here's an example from another WIP of mine:

A stabbing bolt shot through her pelvis. Erika couldn’t breathe for a second, then it faded away. Her skin felt clammy. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the rough towel. She blew air in and out, but there wasn’t a reoccurrence, only dull pulsing.

Erika met Larry’s eyes, deep-set and shadowed, piercing her with concern. He’d been the one to run her to the ER that night, to call her OB/GYN, to hold her hand when the general anesthesia wore off.

“I’m fine now.” She elbowed him aside a bit rougher than he deserved, but she wanted to get away from that look on his face.

The next mention of her pain is the next chapter, but this small mention makes the reader wonder what's going on.

You can also motivate another character to need the information. Make sure it's not just another fiction device, like the maid asking the master what happened to the missus. The character who wants the information has to have a good reason to need it, and has to fight to learn what he needs to know. Tie the information to action.

Study more craft.

There's always newer, more creative ways to write hooks, setting and backstory. Innovative articles pop up online all the time. A few books I've found useful are:

PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell (excellent discussion of how to start your novel strong)


  1. i have a question, is backstory what happens before people get to your current place in the story. I am writing a novel, but the publisher wants it post civil war, the problem is, well, that's in the MIDDLE of my story, so I figured I'd start in the middle and what happens AFTEr the civil war and then tell the backstory in the middle of the book and end with Well, you know the END. DOES that make SENSE????!:)Can you do that or will it sound stupid now

  2. i think i left this comment already but.... is backstory what happens before you get to the presentin your's my problem, the publisher wants it set post civil war, but the only problem is that is in the MIDDLE of my story. If I start with that and then later the backstory in the middle and end with the end, is that stupid? And will it confuse readers, can you even DO that...and is that an example of backstory, so it's two questions really.

  3. I'm not quite sure I understand your scenario, but here goes:
    So your publisher wants it to happen post Civil war, but the story as written already starts in the middle of the Civil war and then goes into post Civil war?

    Typically, "backstory" is stuff that happened BEFORE the story opens, but that is revealed sometime in the course of the story. So the events happen before the story, but the information is told to someone during the story. So your "backstory" has to happen before the story opens, but it can be revealed in the middle of your book.

    Does that answer your question?


  4. okay, so i forgot the replies go to another email I am soooo sorry in the late response, seeing I forgot to check the other email, didn't know that's where the answers were sent. Should find out next time. But YES, that answers my question from like April. but it doesn't matter they rejected my manuscipt! but thanks anyway! :)

  5. I'm sorry about the rejection! :(


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