It is not a good idea to start a book with back-story. Flashbacks are good ways to tell the reader more about the character’s motivation, but they should be used only when the scene is slowing down – never in the middle of tension. They stop the action. If it works, that’s good. If it doesn’t work, get rid of it. Just make sure you aren’t giving too much information in one chunk. Authors, especially first-timers, often think they need to tell everything about the character’s background in the first chapter. What often happens is the reader gets bored and will skim over it to find the “current” story. I do that all the time.
There are a couple lines of thinking when it comes to back story these days. Some publishers think it is best to NEVER use back story in the main section of the book. They maintain that anything from the past that must be made known can be interspersed in small snippets throughout the story.
Others think back story is just fine, but all agree that there should never be more than a page of back story at a time; two paragraphs would be ideal. This is a good rule for you, as a beginning author, to follow. Recently, someone pointed out to me that Angela Hunt’s newest book contained an entire first chapter of backstory; however, it was done so well, the reader wouldn’t have noticed it had she not been doing a book report. Remember, these “rules” are important for beginners to learn and follow, and then as you grow as an author, you’ll learn how to employ new techniques or how break the old ones in your writing.
How to write flashbacks:
Back story should always be written in past perfect tense for the first sentence or two, but don’t carry it through the whole flashback. For example:
Jane leaned against the window. The glass felt cool against her forehead. Flashes of John ran through her mind. She remembered the day he’d brought her there.
John had just bought that flashy, blue sports car, and had apparently wanted the whole neighborhood to know it. He had driven up to Jane’s parent’s house and honked the horn loud and long to get everyone’s attention.
“All right! We know you’re here!” she called from her upstairs bedroom window.
“Come on down and I’ll give you a ride.”
She did his bidding and soon they were driving through the streets of the city.
“Where are we going?” Jane asked when he turned off the highway onto a rocky lane on the outskirts of town.
Jane watched trees, wildflowers and tall grasses that had never seen a lawnmower as they sped by the landscape. John drove up to a small, two-story, white house with an equally white picket fence. She held her breath. This was it! Their dream home!
Now, twenty years later, she couldn’t imagine herself living anywhere else. The rooms held so many memories—their memories of a life built together. This old house spoke of John everywhere she looked, and it comforted her.
In the above scene, the first and last paragraphs are written to show what is actually happening now in the story. They are written in third person past tense. The rest is considered back-story or a flashback. Note in the second paragraph the tense is past perfect and uses ‘had’ to denote that this section is going back even further in time.
Then from the third paragraph until the last, I reverted back to the same tense as the first paragraph, even though we are still in the flashback. ‘Had’ is not necessary throughout the entire flashback, as it would bog down the scene with unnecessary words and would actually become tedious to read.
Remember to use flashbacks wisely, and your readers will enjoy reading every word of your story—all the way to “The End.”