One of the most common bits of advice given to young writers is to cut the first three chapters–this is often good advice. Many a manuscript that I’ve read in contests could have used the first one, two, or even the first fifty pages cut. It’s all backstory, not story. Now, don’t get me wrong–a lot of times the writer needs to have written these pages. Writing helps you get to know the characters, but then you have to ask, “Does the reader really need to know this” and, “Does the reader need to know this in right up front?” Very often, the backstory, but it’s set up stuff. So how do you know what’s backstory.
1-Things that happen before the incident that sets the main story in action all belong to backstory. In Burn Baby Burn, the main story starts with the heroine finding a half-demon baby on her doorstep. That’s what I want on page one to kick off the story. There are small bits of information that need to be woven in later, but having Zie (our heroine) find trouble on her porch sets the action moving. However, I still needed to know more about Zie and Josh (her partner), so I had backstory to write–but that backstory didn’t belong in the story. (You can read these pages in a free PDF here.)
2-Things that impact the character may be needed in the story–but hold onto them until they are absolutely needed. Again, in Burn Baby Burn, I had information about the characters and how they met, but there were also secrets that each of the characters were keeping. I wanted the characters to hang onto these secrets for as long as possible. Josh, the hero, had to give up his secret earlier than Zie, but Zie’s secret was one she was ready to carry to her grave–it’s a huge moment for her to trust Josh with her past, and so hanging onto this information gave it impact in the story.
3-Weave in what the reader does need to know as if it were a strong spice–meaning keep it to a sentence or three, not a paragraph or three. The key word here is “weave.” Obviously, some backstory helps the reader into the story. You need setting and some background in order for the reader to settle into a scene. Too little information is like throwing a reader into the deep end of a pool and the reader may leave the story rather than try to muddle through. (Or the reader just may not care because there’s so little to care about.) If you think of your story like a good stew, you want a rich flavor–but you don’t want the first spoonful to overwhelm the reader. Or, if you want to use the metaphor of weaving, think of your backstory as threads. You want threads in the weave, not a big lump.
4-Look for the story to start as close to the start of the main story arc as possible. In a romance, this means you want the main characters on the pages and meeting up and having major conflict issues as soon as possible. In other stories, such as Urban Fantasy, you want to get the reader into the fantasy–and the big issues for the characters–right away. The one way to break this rule is if you can make the writing–and the information–utterly fascinating, go ahead and put in a lot of background. However, this takes a lot of talent and work.
5-When in doubt, start with conflict–start when the main character’s life is pushed out of balance. Any character who is in trouble is pretty much automatically in conflict–that character has to decide what to do next. That’s at least going to give you something interesting for the character to do (and so you have a greater chance of grabbing the reader’s interest). In Burn Baby Burn, Mackenzie Solomon is a demon hunter–so finding a half-demon baby on her doorstep gives this character an immediate problem. She has to make immediate choices–she has a problem in her life (and conflict over what to do next). In the next book in the series, Riding in on a Burning Tire, she wakes to find security from work pointing guns at her–an obvious, immediate problem. Stories that start off with the characters faced with choices and conflict and a lack of balance in their lives will tend to pull the reader in more so than a story that starts with a character getting into a car and going to work and nothing happening.
6-Watch out for using action that is only action at the star of a book. This is one of those double-edged swords–done right, action can give you a great action opening. But there are dangers. If you throw the reader into the middle of bank robbery, the reader has no idea who to root for–the robbers or the cops? If you toss the reader into the middle of action, and the writing is not clear and crisp, you can confuse and lose your readers. Action that is just action might give a movie a big bang opening, but if the writing is not brilliant, this can be boring on the printed page. In general, focus more on the characters who are in trouble–strong characters will better pull the reader into your story.