Think about this quote from Hemingway. If prose is architecture, it needs to reveal only the essential elements of the story. Some writers would argue that the backstory is essential to their story therefore it is impossible to skip. Other writers will argue that the backstory gives a sense of the story, prepares the atmosphere and make their characters sound multi-dimentional. Is the backstory one of the things people skip? Yes and no. It depends on how it is used.
The backstory is a part of the story of your novel, not its goal. It helps. It enhances, but it does not replace the action.
Think about it that way. When you introduce a setting in your story, do you describe the interior decorations of the house first, like the color of the furniture, or do you start by the type of house it is?
Is it a two-story house? Is is an apartment? Is it a house with old-fashioned furniture, smelling of mildew or is it a vibrant modern place with translucent tables and postmodern art on the walls?
Think about the type of house as the action and the details as the backstory.
Some writers spend a lot of time describing the feeling of their novel before they introduce the action or tell us why we should read their novel. They forget that we have only a few pages to reel in our readers. It is like describing the flavor of a product without telling us what the product is in the first place. It is boring and confusing. They forget to announce what is the most important thing in the novel that will grab the reader. What can you do with this product?
For example, if you are writing a fantasy novel and you need to describe a house that looks like a maze. Will you tell the reader that there were some cracks in the wall and shaded lamps or will you describe a succession of dark rooms that look identical, as in The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart? Are the cracks in the wall more interesting than the series of rooms where the hero will get lost? Actually describing the hero lost is more important than describing the house itself. Why should I read further? Because I want to know what will happen to the hero, not because I want to know how this house looks like.
The backstory would be all the elements that are not really important to understand the place where the hero lives or what happens to the hero there. The backstory should appear from now and then, here and there, as a trickle of information, not as main hero in the first chapter of your novel. Actually, as a rule of thumb, do not use any backstory in the first three chapters of your story unless it is impossible to do otherwise.
Only tell the reader what is important to know to follow the story, then trickle in a few information from his past.
The problem with the backstory is that it bogs down the narration and adds details that only the writer wants to know about. The backstory is the writer’s research. Just pick and share the most interesting parts of your research. If the backstory does not advance the story, it is better to kill it.
The backstory should be part of the action and should only cover one paragraph maximum.
One of the major reasons a reader will skip or throw away a novel is because the writer has spent too much time describing the past of his hero. Now, think about it that way. When you meet someone, are you interested in her or in her past? Do you want to know if the person is interesting or do you want to know what the person has done in the past like her biography?
The backstory can slow down the action to a crawl and discourage the reader from reading the rest of the story. Too much backstory appears like the writer does not know his craft and dumps-down information he could have started with in the first place. If you have to describe how a hero feels about his mom’s death and how it impacts him, just starts the story at the funerals and not a few months later. If this piece of information is so important, the story has to start there.
Some more thoughts from agents:
“Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for the start of your novel:
Start close as close to the action as you possibly can. No contrived build up. Place us right in the thick of things.
Set up the stakes of the novel early. The reader wants to know why they are reading the book.
A literary novel does not mean it doesn’t have a plot or stakes. In fact they need to set those very early on too.” Carly Watters, agent.
“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.” Adam Chromy, agent
(Writer's Digest University: Everything You Need to Write and Sell Your Work By Editors of Writer's Digest )
“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.” Rachelle Gardner, agent.
“Backstory” by Vicki Hinze