Ah, the old dilemma. You need to introduce your characters, give us some important bits of their history, but without taking attention away from the exciting things happening in the here and now of the story. I’ve heard it said that if your second scene occurs before your first in the timeline, you opened at the wrong place. To some extent, that’s probably true, but it’s a delicate balance to open in the right place in the action but also at a catchy place to hook your readers.
Even when you’ve found the perfect opening scene, you will need to show some degree of history for your characters. There are lots of ways to do it, but here are three useful options to give a different feel to the piece, or to mix things up if you’ve always found yourself doing it the same way.
Let’s say someone breaks into the home of our main character – Lee. His reaction to this is heavily influenced by the fact we’ve decided his father beat him as a child. You could start the story in his childhood and show it, but in most cases that’s going to be too early. Instead, you could employ one of the following methods.
Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. It had taken him a long time to equate “home” with safety. As a child, home had been a place of violent tempers and creeping around; of trying to avoid his father’s eye and, worse, his father’s belt buckle. Now, in his own home, and with his own son asleep upstairs, Lee felt those terrors again, but this time, he was the one with weapon in his hand.
Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. He skipped the seventh step – a habit which moving house hadn’t cured. He was eight years old again, creeping through the house to avoid catching Daddy’s eye, disturbing Daddy’s game, feeling Daddy’s wrath. At the bottom, he stopped, listening for Daddy’s shout: “Get in here,” but it didn’t come. He felt the cold metal in his hand and he was an adult again, defending his wife, his son, and the first place he had ever wanted to call home.
Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. He raised his son’s baseball bat above his head as he reached the bottom step, just as he’d seen his father do so many times with that battered old belt. Lee wasn’t going to be a victim any longer. His father was dead, God rest his flea-bitten soul, and there was no one left who could put Lee in his place. Least of all some junkie looking to pay for the next fix.
How do these different options make you feel? Which do you prefer? Are there other contexts in which another might be better?