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?