Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Backstory in the Opening Chapter? Sure, Why Not?

I’ve been sending the first couple of chapters of my YA paranormal to my critique partners and one of the most common complaints I’ve received is that they didn’t understand why the character did what they did. I can point to many reasons for this, including a lack of interior thoughts, but in many cases my CPs didn’t know enough about the character’s backstory to understand her motivations.

Everything I’ve read says backstory shouldn’t appear until the second chapter at the earliest. The first chapter should be about the MC being in motion, solving the immediate problem, all the while keeping the reader tightly focused on the character and what’s happening to him at that point in time. Backstory can come later, after the reader is hooked.

And that’s how I began my story. I didn’t explain why the character did what they did if it required knowing the character’s backstory. I ruthlessly avoided all mention of anything that happened before the scene began, assuming the reader would be happy to wait until the scene was over before they learned the reasons. But all it did was confuse my CPs.

For example, if I had the hero come across a bomb and make the decision to try defusing it instead of running away, but I hadn’t told the reader the hero has had past experience with this kind of thing, my readers began wondering if he was stupid. But telling the reader about the hero’s past is backstory. Arg! What to do?

So I spent last week reading through the opening chapters of a dozen or so novels and noticed the books I enjoyed reading most were the ones with backstory. Even in the action-packed, fast-paced, no-time-for-the-past, in-your-face openings. Not infodumps, mind you, but scattered around in snippets, disguised within dialogue, interior thoughts, or occasionally in the narrative itself.

My conclusion? When the experts tell us to avoid backstory in the first chapter, what they really mean is we should avoid the pace-killing, paragraphs-long infodumps the reader doesn’t need yet.

So how much backstory do you put in your opening chapter?



  1. That's the best way to do it - a sentence here and a sentence there. Just enough to give a little without stopping the action.

  2. I struggle with info-dumping. I try the trickle, sometimes it's too much, sometimes not enough. But you're right. The reader needs to know why in order to invest in the plight.

  3. Yup - you put it little tidbits of info, the sort of stuff that works under the Need to Know rule: the info a reader needs in order to understand what's happening, and NO MORE than that. You can save the rest for later, when the action isn't so fast.

  4. I can tolerate a certain amount of waiting to find out what the MC is doing in the first chapter. Not all readers can. There is a certain style of reader who wants everything explained when it happens. Other readers find that tiresome.

    If you do include backstory, yes -- it should be in snippets and it should feel organic, not just plopped in there.

    If it makes you feel any better, the first chapter of any book is probably the one I rewrite the most, trying to find the correct balance.

    (Except for the manuscript I'm working on now. In this case, it's the last chapter.)

    *bangs head on desk some more*

  5. When it comes to Chapter 1, write it as if you were writing a screenplay of a movie. You can't write backstory because it will never translate onto the big screen, but it can come out in little sneaky ways. Use dialogue or a prop, something that indicates what is crucial for the audience to understand in that initial chapter.

    Backstory sometimes is necessary, but never info-dump. Info-dumping is never necessary and always slows the pacing down to a crawl.

  6. Yes, I agree that some backstory helps, not hinders, the opening chapter. It helps the reader identify with the character(s). I don't think I ever found the right balance in my own middle grade before I started editing, but maybe someday.