We've all heard it by now. "Begin in the middle of the story." Plunging into your book headfirst gets the readers' attention and draws them immediately into the situation. A running start sets the tone for the entire book. Here are a few examples of first sentences from my books:
"You're being watched," Ambassador Vrill whispered to Amelia. - Alien Embrace
Shaking violently, Michaela whispered, "I can't do this." - Alien Rule
I looked around the pine tree-filled woods that surrounded me and sobbed. - Netherworld: Drop Dead Sexy
We're already well into the action right from the start, inviting the reader to find out what all the drama is about. But sooner or later, you've got to play catch up. The back story has to be addressed. After all, everyone wants to know how the character got herself into her present predicament. We also need to relate the history of our characters; what made them the people they are today. There are many tools to address this need, tools that will hopefully entertain the readers as much as inform them. I recommend using all of them, scattering them like breadcrumbs along the story for the readers to pick up as they go along.
Tell Me About It
Having your characters tell each other what's going on is one of the easiest ways to feed the readers need-to-know information. Just don't pile it on too heavy. We don't want page after page of a character relating her life's story to her companions, because in real life, we'd duct tape her mouth shut after a certain amount of time. Lay it on too thick, and your readers will shut the book, slap a ten-cent sticker on it, and put it in the next garage sale.
Here's an example of sharing back story through dialogue from Alien Salvation. An Earth woman is speaking to aliens who have crashed their ship:
She nodded at the badly dented spaceship behind them. "It looks like you're having a little trouble."
The Kalquorian glanced back at his ship, his frown deepening. His gaze returned to her, and he stepped closer. Lindsey caught a scent that reminded her of cinnamon.
"Much trouble," the man agreed. "Portal unstable. Make damage."
"The Bermuda Triangle wormhole? Yeah, it eats ships. None of ours can use it unless they're double hulled with buffer fields." She licked her lips. "Are you here to hurt Earthers?"
His eyes widened, and he held his hands up. "No to hurt. We to work containment for radiation."
From this we get the aliens don't speak English that well, they used a portal too unstable for their ship which resulted in the crash, and they're on assignment to contain radiation. They also aren't there to harm Earth people. It's short and sweet and gets the job done.
There are times when longer dialogue can be used too without becoming overbearing. In Alien Rule, Emperor Zarl of Kalquor shares his story of surviving a shuttle crash in which his mate was killed. He speaks of his loss for about a page and a half, but I interwove reactions and questions from his listeners to keep it from becoming the Dreaded Info Dump (more on that later). As long as it was kept a lively conversation, it didn't read like an essay.
A few weeks ago I covered the terrible dialogue creature, 'as you know'. That's the back story tool best not employed. Do not have your characters tell each other what everyone is already aware of. It's clunky and unnatural. For an example of how bad this technique is, please refer back to the 'Say What?' blog.
Get the Hint
You don't have to drop back story in like a ton of bricks. Alluding to past issues can tantalize while sneaking in little bits and pieces of the tale's history. Snippets of information allow for gradual spoonfeeding and keep the work from getting bogged down. In Alien Rule, Jessica's past trauma of being caught in a tornado kept showing up throughout the book:
Jessica screamed as whirling darkness fell upon her. The roar of the wind pressed everywhere, and she battled against the shredding sky as it pinned her helpless body. "Lindsey! Lindsey!" she cried, reaching for her sister.
Thrashing, she fell off the lounger, tangled in the soft cover keeping her naked body warm. Two of the triple moons remained in the sky, gleaming through her untinted windows and lighting her Plasian quarters.
The dregs of the nightmare tugged at her, making her heart race even as comforting reality asserted itself. She lay still on the soft carpet, fighting to catch her breath.
Just a dream. I'm safe on Plasius. Past is past, and all is well.
"After twenty years, I should have outgrown this by now," she grouched, extricating herself from the linen wrapped around her.
From this short passage and others that pop up throughout the story, we know something terrible happened to Jessica at some point in her past. We get bits and pieces to entice us until she is finally forced to face her fears and give us the whole story.
Groovy Man ... I'm Having Flashbacks
I love the flashback. It lends immediacy to the back story, letting you tell it in its entirety. The longer the flashback, the more pivotal it should be. Only something huge earns the right to have its own scene, perhaps an entire chapter. The flashback also has to have bearing on the immediate situation.
After alluding to the tornado in Jessica's past throughout Alien Rule, I finally come to the point where it must all come out in gory detail. Jessica is forced to come to terms with the trauma of losing someone she loved and nearly seeing her sister die. She begins to tell the story, at which point I switch to the flashback so the reader can 'see' the events unfold rather than being told about them.
Warmth enveloped her white-knuckled hand gripping the edge of the podium. Jessica blinked to see Rajhir's hand covering hers. She looked up into his kind purple-blue eyes. "What happened, Jessica?" he asked quietly.
She took a deep breath. The room was silent, yet behind the hush she heard the remembered voice of the monster, how it screamed like a jet engine and filled her ears until they popped from the pressure.
"My parents had gone to a friend's funeral, leaving my older sister and me with a babysitter. A big storm blew up out of nowhere--"
* * * *
Five-year old Jessica stood in the doorway between the den and the screened-in back porch watching the storm. Sudden afternoon storms on summer afternoons were the rule in south Florida, but this one was wilder than most. Roiling dark gray clouds blotted out the skies, and the wind whipped the razor-sharp palmettos without mercy. Rain drummed against the roof of the McInness cottage so loud she had to cover her ears. Lightning flashed to the accompaniment of deafening cracks of thunder.
From this point the flashback continues until the entire back story has been revealed and we return to the present day situation:
But Jessica had to help Lindsey. She ran back, the pain in her chest unimportant in her determination to do her duty.
"Lindsey! It's okay! I'm coming!"
* * * *
"...I could have waited for rescue as Narpok did," Jessica told Rajhir and the assembled council. Her eyes streamed with silent tears. Clajak could see her shaking from his seat, and it took every ounce of self control to not run to her side.
This flashback ran for seven pages, much too long for dialogue, interior monologue (covered next) or even the Dreaded Info Dump. It was imperative I delve deeply into this back story, as it not only made Jessica into the strong yet vulnerable woman she was, but it also held the key to winning the men she loved.
Thinking Deep Thoughts
The internal monologue, in which a character is thinking about something, is another handy way to divulge back story. This is another one of those situations in which you don't want to get too heavy-handed, though. Internal monologues run the risk of slowing the story down and boring the reader. Keep it to enticing little bits and pieces.
In Alien Salvation, dissension is a major problem for Dramok Bacoj's clan. I let the reader know there's a long-standing issue through one thought Bacoj has, rather than going on and on about it:
Japohn ran his hand over the hull. "The whole skin is crumpled. It's my fault. We should have taken the long way and avoided the portal like you wanted."
Yes we should have, Japohn. But we always have to do things your way, don't we? Bacoj bit back the angry words.
This problem will be dealt with eventually in the story, but this and a couple of other thoughts are all I required to set up the difficulty within Bacoj's clan.
The Dreaded Info Dump
As much as I hate to go here, sometimes you have to step away from the main action and pile the back story on. Usually known as exposition, I call it the Dreaded Info Dump because this lump of information not only slows the tale, but it brings it to a halt. If not handled carefully, it can kill your story.
In Alien Rule I had a ton of background that had to come out fairly quickly. Because I wanted this book to stand alone without readers having to be familiar with its predecessor Alien Embrace, I was forced to explain a lot. The following points had to be addressed almost right off the bat:
1. How Jessica and Michaela came to be exiled on the planet Plasius with death sentences hanging over their heads.
2. Why the women were afraid to attract the men who could save them.
3. The fact that Michaela was an intersex human, something abhorred on Earth, and how she escaped the authorities' notice for eighteen years.
4. The background of the conflict between Earth and the planet Kalquor, along with Kalquor's desperate hunt for compatible female mates of other species.
That's a lot of ground to cover. My solution was to mix the various modes of imparting back story. Some of it happened through dialogue. A little bit snuck in through internal monologue. Even a couple of mini-flashbacks were thrown in. But the majority of it showed up in the form of exposition, the longest stretch of which ran for eight extended paragraphs. Ouch.
If you have to engage in the Dreaded Info Dump, make sure you bring out your best writing. Keep it engaging, keep it immediate, and keep it lively. Keep it as short as possible, the Eight-Paragraph Wonder says. Actually, I think I info-dumped even harder in Alien Embrace. I'm afraid to look to confirm that. But I did all in my power to keep the Dreaded Info Dumps from reading like middle school book reports. Think more along the lines of relaying enemy activity to your commanding officer. Quick, concise, to the point. Get in and out as soon as possible.
Back story is a necessary evil. We have to go there. How you do it determines whether or not your readers will hang on for the slower stretches of the ride. So work hard to make the past every bit as engaging as the present. Then you can comfortably invite your readers, "Let's catch up, shall we?"