Conflict is good; backstory is bad.
Donald Maass is a highly-regarded literary agent. In my years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve never found more important guidance regarding conflict, pace, and back-story than Maass sets out in his Writing the Breakout Novel:
“The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough; or, perhaps, a failure to use bridging conflict to keep things going until the main problem is set. In fact, it is the primary reason I reject over 90 percent of the material I receive. Why do so many writers fail on this point? It is such a simple flaw to fix!
“No doubt about it, high-tension openings are job number one. What about after that? How fast should a story clip along? Where should the high points and low points fall? When should a subplot scene be inserted? Are cliff-hangers clunky and obvious, or do they serve a real purpose?
“Narrative pacing is the novelist’s biggest challenge…. A determination to portray a particular time, place or person, or perhaps to say something of importance to the reader, is the strongest test of whether a particular scene or sequence belongs. Is the material utterly necessary to your purpose? Yes?
“There is your answer . . . unless, of course, we are talking about setup or backstory. Here are two major traps. So fatal is the business of “setting up” something in a novel that I believe the very idea should be banned. ‘Setup’ is, by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out. Find another way.
“Backstory can be essential to understanding a plot point or character: in particular, it can deepen inner conflict, motive and other factors that affect sympathy. But which backstories are important? When should they be presented? Novice authors begin their novels with backstory or drop it in too soon. Backstory delivered early on crashes down a story’s momentum like a sumo wrestler falling on his opponent. Because it is not yet necessary, I usually skim it. Remember that backstory is, for the most part, more important to you, the author, than to your reader.”