Too much, if any, backstory allowed...
by Mike Chiero
Hello, sir. May I have your thoughts on backstory, please? Is devoting most of the first chapter to backstory unwise? Would doing that "turn off" an editor to the degree that he/she won't even bother to give the story a chance?
What if the main character's history with another character really needs to be told for the novel to make sense? Is there a way for that to happen before things heat up without an editor throwing my manuscript out the window? Any thoughts on this will be very much appreciated, Mr. Strathy.
To some extent this issue depends on the genre.
With literary fiction -- or fiction that spans the divide between literary and genre fiction -- backstory can be more extensive. In fact, in some literary fiction, backstory occupies more than half the book. The aim is often to show the complexity that goes into the key decision or action taken by the main character at the crisis or climax.
On the other hand, genre fiction readers often find extensive backstory to be a tedious distraction from the plot. Too much, and they start wondering if anything significant is actually going to happen in the story.
However, regardless what genre you are writing in, I would suggest you begin the story with an event -- a significant, irreversible action or decision that changes a character or characters' circumstances and gives them a new purpose. This event needs to capture the reader's interest and make them curious what
Most of the time, this opening event will be in the present and will be the first time the reader meets the main character. The aim is to to hook the reader on the present story and then fill in the backstory as needed.
Sometimes you can begin your story with an event that happens before the main character enters the story. This is often the initial driver (or inciting incident) -- the event that causes the rest of the story to unfold. This is a less popular option, because many readers want to meet the main character right away.
In a more literary story, you might get away with making your first event be backstory. By backstory, I mean not the initial driver but perhaps an important event in a character arc.
Some stories even begin with the last event of the story (chronologically) and have the rest of the book show the events that led up to it. However, you would only do this if that event does a better job of drawing the reader into the story than starting at the beginning -- for example, if it creates a strong sense of mystery.
The one thing you should not do is begin your story with an infodump -- a lengthy description of the story world or its history that contains no significant event, because that seldom hooks a reader emotionally.
Generally speaking, readers care far more about people making tough choices than they do about exploring concepts.