Just as I heard from various sources, a plot has to start with what the reader will find through most of it. And that's what I did, the first scene shown is the main event that triggers the story. Such scene includes action, romance, drama and violence, basically just what is seen throughout the story.

However, after that scene, there's a chunk of significant size of the story showing 1 or 2 years before that event, to flesh out the protagonist and other characters, and explain the setting and why and how the starting scene happened. Only after all this backstory (some pages) is that the story really begins. But the reader, at this point, now knows who the protagonist is, what are his motivations and how important is the journey to reach his goal.

But by doing that, would the readers get bored and want the story to start off already? Of course, such backstory is not just boring backstory, it has romance, action, drama, just like the starting scene, but it's not short. Maybe I could break it down into smaller chunks and show them in flashbacks. However, there are already two other subjects that are shown through flashbacks, and probably the reader would get annoyed by the plot going back and forth so many times.

So what I ask is: would there be any problem if I leave it this way?

  • Could you be thinking about this? writers.stackexchange.com/q/26070/23013
    – Kyle Li
    Jan 28, 2017 at 11:42
  • @Kyle No, it's a big backstory, but not that big.
    – Yuuza
    Jan 28, 2017 at 16:07
  • I've read some books where the backstory is separated from the main text by the use of sans-serif italics for the preliminary backstory. In others, it's shown to be preliminary by a special chapter title. Jan 29, 2017 at 2:57

3 Answers 3


Every story has a bootstrapping problem. You have to establish characters, a world (fantasy or not), a problem or desire, and the obstacles to that problem or desire, and the story cannot really get going until all of that is done. Starting with action is not particularly effective in itself because action is not interesting unless you care about the character.

I think there is far too much emphasis given in advice to writers about the sequencing of things in early chapters. Sequencing alone does not solve the problem. What I think you have to do in early chapters, in order to keep the reader going until all the elements of story are in place, is to maintain promise. Whatever you start with, you have to execute it in such a way that the reader sees promise in it, and wants to read on to see that promise fulfilled.

One can find examples of promise filled openings that start with every kind of device, from character to world-building to action. You can find countless examples that start with all these devices that have no promise at all. It is not that any one of these devices is inherently superior, inherently has any more promise, than another. It is that whichever the writer chooses, it is executed it in a way that has promise.

What is promise? It may be different things for different readers. It is probably quite different for a hard SF fan than it is for me. But whatever its subject matter, I think all promise has one common ingredient, and that is a sense of reality, of grittiness, of three-dimensionality. If it starts with people, you immediately feel them as people.

In the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which opens on two secondary characters, you get an immediate sense of affection between the Bennetts from Mr. Bennett's affectionate teasing of his wife. It all seems real. It is full or promise. You are in.

In the opening of the first Harry Potter book we get an extensive and highly exaggerated description of Privet Lane and its inhabitants. (A secondary setting peopled by tertiary characters.) The promise here seems to lie in the wit of the telling and also in a recognition of the kind of place and people that are being satirized. Again, we are in.

Every Steinbeck novel starts with a lengthy description of place, and by about the middle of page two you are ready to call your real estate agent, put your house on the market, and move to wherever he is describing, because it seems so much richer and brighter and livelier than where you live. It is full of promise.

So yes, we need to pull the reader in, we need to provide promise, but promise is not found in any particular sequencing of the elements of story that have to be introduced -- it is found in lucidity of the telling, in the writer's ability to make us feel we are somewhere real, however fantastical it might be.

  • 2
    Great examples. And another answer that I'm interpreting as "Hey, writers, read more!" Apr 19, 2017 at 17:21

There are many ways to handle that. Almost too many, to be honest. I can't tell you which to pick, or if the way you are currently doing it is right or wrong.

It all depends on your skill as a writer!

And more importantly, this is why you need beta readers. They can tell you if you are boring your readers to death, or if these flashbacks are super enticing and you shouldn't change a letter to any of it.

Some alternatives that might fit your narrative.

  • Alternating chapters.

    Consider alternating between the story and the flashbacks. Even if the flashback chapters are shorter, this is one tool it takes a master writer to craft just right. One example, from Sydney Sheldon, is to give the protagonist a reason to care about these flashbacks. He had his protagonist reading her grandfather's journal, detailing his life during and after World War II, and what Jews went through during this time.

  • 'Dream sequences'

    This is quite common, and a tool I come across sparingly. More common in fantasy settings, likely with characters with 'the sight'. Or perhaps just a narrative tool to flesh out a stoic character, recalling his past and rounding him out and why he's such a stick in the mud now (mostly I find this type with 'army dude' and it usually involves his wife leaving him for some stupid superficial reason).

  • 'Cooldown interjection'

    You never want to overload your reader with tension. Because if your scenes are visceral, they will feel the tension in their own body, and may become stressed by your work. Though this only applies to some heavy scenes, not all, it is something to be mindful of. So how to lower the tension without breaking it all to pieces? Let's say your protagonist is in a warzone, and there is no way out. A 'one-way ticket', as it were. Well, in moments of relative peace, let the character think back, give him something to be hopeful for; a loved one that's on his mind (a lover, child, brother, best friend that's too much of a wimp to join the army), and just like anyone would do to self-soothe, insert these flashbacks.

Maybe you can come up with a dozen other options, but these are what I can come up with off the top of my head.

  • Lol, I was going to suggest checking out another question, but someone beat me to it in the comments above ^_^
    – Fayth85
    Jan 28, 2017 at 11:51

This is a Your Mileage May Vary question. There's no way for us to say if it's boring wthout reading it. Write your book, polish it, hand it to a beta reader, and ask if your backstory is boring or engaging.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.