Ever wonder why you hear that it's "taboo" to include backstory in the first chapter of a novel? I always did, too, until I discovered some psychological reasons why it's best to keep it out of the first chapter for the modern reader. I wrote an article, which originally appeared on Suite101.
Save the Backstory For Later
Why Not to Present Backstory in the First Chapter
There are three reasons why it’s usually best for a writer not to include backstory in a novel’s first chapter.
Writers often hear the advice to not include backstory or the character’s past history within the first chapter of the story.
Many balk at this. After all, a character’s backstory explains things, makes the character’s actions make more sense. Otherwise, the reader will be confused or, worse, dislike the protagonist for his actions because there’s no explanation for this aberrant behavior.
Also, backstory sets the stage for future conflict. Past secrets often cause problems for the story characters. If the reader has no knowledge of those secrets, there’s no conflict opening the story.
While all this is true about the role of backstory, there are three reasons it should not be in the first chapter.
The Reader Is Not Yet Invested
While in days past, readers would be willing to stick with a book through a chapter or two, meandering through long setting descriptions and character backstory, this is no longer true for the modern reader.
Many buyers in a bookstore will read a page or two to determine if the book interests them. If those two pages fail to do so, the buyer puts the book back on the shelf.
Two pages. Sometimes only one.
If a book has backstory within the first chapter, whether in a flashback or expository dialogue, the writer risks losing the reader’s interest.
The reason is that the reader doesn’t yet care for the characters. Since she doesn’t know the characters yet, she’s less likely to be interested in a character’s childhood or past secrets.
You don’t want to risk boring your potential book buyer.
The Past Cannot Be Changed
Readers usually are not interested in the past simply because it is not dynamic, it’s static. It happened. It can’t be changed.
Most readers expect a story to be about what is happening now. They want to see what will happen to these characters they’ve been introduced to.
They want to decide if these characters are worth spending money and time for. They want to see the characters “in action.” They want to see a hint of what the story conflict is going to be.
Writing about what happened to the characters before the story opens makes it harder to grab the reader’s interest. Typically, the reader wants to see the story “in action,” not a reminiscence about what happened “before.”
Mystery Hooks the Reader
When characters engage in conflict and a mysterious hint is given as to motivations, it compels the reader to keep reading simply to figure out the mystery.
By giving tantalizing hints, the writer forces the reader to need to know what happened. This writing technique is a surefire way to keep the reader turning pages.
This is why it’s often good to eliminate backstory from the first chapter, and perhaps only give a hint as to the character’s past, especially as it relates to the current conflict. The reader is hooked by the conflict, but she’s also hooked by a need to understand the deeper currents running beneath that conflict. She’ll keep reading to find out.
A Hooked Reader Wants Backstory
Once you open with an active scene, the reader will be more likely to need to know more about these exciting characters she’s just read about, and a bit of backstory in the next chapter will satisfy that need.
The key is to hook the reader first.
Once the reader is intrigued by a self-explanatory opening scene, with interesting characters engaged in conflict, the natural lull in the story rhythm is the perfect place for some backstory to bring deeper clarity.