A story— whether novel, short story or TV series— has two parts. The actual story that you see, and the backstory— the things that happened before the story started. But when an author is sorting out some story ideas, how does he know which bits go in the story and which in the backstory?
Sometimes it can go either way. Author Lawrence Block tells of an early novel of his that started out in a boring scene. Block’s agent suggested he start with chapter two— with the main character carrying a dead body in a rolled-up rug— and use the old chapter one as a second chapter, as it explains why the main character was trotting about town with a stiff.
In the television series The Walking Dead, a natural beginning point for the story would be the start of the zombie apocalypse. But that would involve majorly expensive scenes of global panic. So the main character, Rick Grimes, is unconscious in a hospital throughout the beginning of the zombie epidemic. He wakes up in a hospital full of walkers, in a nearly abandoned city. He meets Morgan, who tells him what has happened. We experience the story as Rick did— and we skip over the backstory, which the producers of the series didn’t really want to tell.
Some would-be writers go to the opposite extreme. They want to begin with the main character’s early life, or his college years, or his first girlfriend— even though the action doesn’t start until he turns into a vampire at age 35.
In science fiction or fantasy stories, it is common NOT to begin with the main character’s first battle or big action scene. The author needs to introduce the characters and the world before a major action scene will be meaningful. Think of the first book in the Harry Potter series. Harry is at first an orphaned infant, about to be dropped off at the home of unwelcoming relatives. Then we see Harry as an older boy, still unwelcome in the only home he knows, but about to discover the world of magic. By the time we get to the point that Harry has his first battle with dark forces, we already know him and care about him.
There are no hard-and-fast rules to decide what is story and what is backstory. Much depends on what story the writer really wants to tell. The main rule, though, is that wherever you begin, something must be happening. It may not directly relate to the main conflict of the story. For example, in Elizabeth Moon’s “Trading in Danger”, the main character is in the process of being kicked out of her planet’s space academy. This is not the major conflict, either of the novel or of the Vatta’s War series. But it’s enough forward motion to keep the reader going and to introduce the main character, Kylara Vatta.
So— next time you sit down with a good novel, think about the backstory as well as the story. Did the author start the story in a good place? If you had been writing the novel, might you have begun at a different point? Think about these things.