by Debora Dale
You’ve heard it dozens of times. Backstory does not belong in your opening chapters. If you’re like me, as you write those opening pages, your character’s backstory is itching to be told. You feel the need to explain WHY the heroine is running or what caused the hero to be so bitter. You want to tell the reader up front what precipitated your opening scene. Problem is, readers want to be caught up in the action rather than bogged down by your setup.
Remember Edith Bunker from the TV show, All in the Family? Remember poor Archie’s reactions as she told him one of her long-winded stories? In one of the show’s episodes, he mimed making a noose and hanging himself while waiting for her to get to the point. It was quite funny for the sitcom situation. Not so for a book. A reader with a story that’s told the Edith Bunker way, will fling that thing across the room.
So how do we get around the need to tell what came before the opening line to bring our character to this precipice? Well, one way that works for me is to think of the opening chapters as backstory. Yes. For the moment, forget what came before and let that page-turning opening BE the backstory. Those opening scenes, the inciting incident, THAT is what the story will revolve around. The problems arising in Chapter One must be addressed and resolved in your book. Those problems will lead to more problems, with each escalating until the ending resolution.
In my WIP, my hero carjacks my heroine. That’s the opening scene. It’s clear from his dialogue and interior monologue that he doesn’t want to do this, and that indeed, he’s never done anything like it before. But it’s also clear that he has to do it. Why? What set him on his way to commit this criminal act? Well, we’ll have to wait to find that out, won’t we? Unanswered questions. In the meantime, we’ll watch the action, feel the desperation, learn by his manner that he’s not violent and is in fact apologetic. He is the hero, after all. But, the heroine doesn’t care about any of that. She only wants to keep herself safe. It isn’t until she gets to know the hero that she’s ready to listen to why he did what he did.
Until that point, the point where a reader will actually care about the why’s of it all, it’s vital to resist telling what came before your opening line. Build on chapter one. Let backstory drip onto the page sparingly. Tell just enough to raise more questions for your reader. It’s not about who your characters were but who they are now and who they’ll be by the end of the story.
Imagine yourself on a blind date with a charming man. He’s well dressed, handsome and smells delicious, too. You sit across from him at dinner in a most romantic restaurant with soft music, candlelight and white-gloved servers. And then your date speaks. His voice is soft, seductive. Deep. But his words… is he really sharing the sordid details of his dysfunctional family? Why is he pointing out all his flaws and the reasons for them? Does he think you’re a shrink? Does he need a shrink? Is he making excuses for odd behavior yet to come? I don’t know about you, but I’d run from that man. And I wouldn’t look back.
However, if he told me about his interests, where he lives, what he does for a living, who some of his friends are and what they’ve done for fun recently, then I’ll begin to care about the man as he is today. If he invites me on an outing with those friends, then mores the better. And when, eventually, I hear about his dysfunctional family, I’ll smile inside because some of this man’s unique peculiarities will suddenly make sense. I will care. I might even look back to that first date and understand why he ordered a glass of wine but never drank it. Before that, I only cared that he did. After that, I’ll care why.
Bottom line – make your readers care about who your characters are today. Then and only then should you introduce them to your characters’ yesterday.