In my first draft of a novel, I often put in too much backstory too soon. I want the reader to understand the set-up, so I rush to lay it out as fully as possible.
Then, when I come to a second draft, I realise I didn’t have to lay it all out. There are some things the reader needs to know and other things for which the reader can be made to wait.
Bafflement is bad, but a calculated mystery is good. The urge to find an answer is a great incentive to keep the reader reading.
With literary novels, the reader is often expected to put up with a great deal of bafflement. I picture readers of literary novels gritting their teeth and muttering, ‘This will be good for me if I can only make it through this first hundred pages.’ Genre fiction aims to be more reader-friendly.
As a writer of genre fiction, I recommend asking a friend or fellow-writer to read your first 20 pages, then quizzing them to see what they have or haven’t understood.
But back to calculated mystery. You need to give enough solid backstory so that the gap of what’s missing is clearly visible. In other words, you want readers to know what it is they don’t know.
What was the unpleasantness that happened in this house before Vee and Lorrie moved in?
Exactly why is Denny’s relationship with Mal on the rocks?
Questions like that make readers go looking for answers.
What you don’t want is a general vague miasma. You don’t want the kind of obscurity where your readers go ‘Uh?’ and throw up their hands in despair. It’s one thing to pose a question, another thing to pose so many questions that your readers feel they have no firm ground to stand on.