Remember the beginning of Alien when all you saw was the Nostromo floating in space and then a wall of text started crawling up the screen explaining what year it was and what the crew of the Nostromo was doing and how corporations had taken over the Earth and how… No? You don’t remember that? You know why? It wasn’t there. Instead, you as a viewer were allowed to glean all that back story over time on your own and in your own way.
Science fiction has always had a love hate relationship with back story. Early SF writers felt compelled to explain exactly how the human race had reached this particular moment in time before launching into the story. This is called establishing the world and it makes total sense to do it because otherwise your reader is going to be wondering just what the hell is going on rather than following your story. This is true of any type of fiction. Whether it’s the story of gay son coming out to his parents or a mutant son escaping his larval phase and then eating his family, it just seems to be a more obvious problem in science fiction and fantasy because the world you’re establishing is often very different from the real one.
There are two ways to establish back story: Show and Tell. For years SF novels opened with pages of back story that would TELL you everything you needed to know about the world the story was going to take place in. The problem with this method is that it’s highly artificial, it’s boring, and it treats the readers like they have oatmeal for brains. There’s even a hilarious send up of this in Galaxy Quest when one of the aliens, I forget which one, tries to do a back story brain dump onto Tim Allen’s drunk, hung over captain:
“Following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people but then came the Zactor Migration and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land. Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths… ah, the foolishness!”*
When I’m searching for a new book to read, the first thing I do is read the first several pages on the hunt for this kind of a starchy, over dry exposition. If it’s there, the book goes back on the virtual shelf.
So how do you lay in the requisite back story without losing your readers? Why, I’m glad you asked. Here are three ways:
1. Don’t Do It – Or at least realize that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do. If I remember correctly (I don’t have the movie anywhere at hand, which I find surprising given who I am), Alien opens with the Nostromo waking up and then the crew coming out of hyper-sleep. You understand it’s a space ship. You understand they’re the crew and waking up from hyper-sleep is really rough. And gradually we learn who they are to each other. And then, when Brett and Parker start arguing their shares are too small, you realize it’s damn blue collar vessel. It’s a working ship. Eventually, over time, you learn everything you need to know and the parts they don’t tell you your brain fills in on its own which makes it even more real to you.
2. Show Don’t Tell – Suppose Brett were to wake up and stretch and say, “Wow, we’ve been in these Hyper-Sleep tubes, which is what these things are, for seventy-two days, which is a really long time, and that has a draining effect so that you end up feeling kind of hung over. Which I do.” MOVIE RUINED. Get your popcorn and go home. Just SHOW the effects of hyper-sleep. Does it really matter exactly how many years or months the crew was asleep? That depends on your story. If you can honestly answer, “Yes, the fact that they were in hyper-sleep for exactly six months is important because that’s how long it takes the alien to gestate,” then go right ahead and have someone say it’s been six months. But if not, if it’s not critical, cut it. It sounds as unnatural as a man saying, “Hello, Margaret, my wife. We’ve been married for 16 years.” And, yes, I have seen that exact line in more than one script.
3. Fold It In – In Aliens, how do we know that evil corporations run the world? Is it when Carter Burke introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I work for the evil corporations that have taken over the world”? No, because he doesn’t do that. He makes a joke, saying, “I work for the company but other than that I’m an okay guy.” It’s just an inkling but it’s enough for that moment in the film. Later, we’ll see the company hold what looks a lot like an official inquest, something that free people would expect to be run by the government, and at that point we’ll understand everything we need to about the evil corporations.
That’s just three of many ways you can deal with back story without resorting to the Zactor Migration option – which you should treat like the nuclear option. There are many more, but the one thing I want to suggest to up and coming writers is to take six months to a year and seriously study and work at screenwriting. Yes, I said screenwriting. Even if you aren’t interested in becoming a screenwriter, take six months and go all out because screenwriting is the Marine Corps boot camp of writing.
I’m not talking about complex storytelling like the Hero’s Journey, or colliding subplots or the nine act structure. Rather, I’m talking about just learning the nuts and bolts of telling a story visually. In a novel, you can say anything anywhere at any time. “He limps because of a piece of shrapnel that remains in his knee from a terrible war wound that he received when he saw action in Afghanistan.” Okay, yes, that’s a bad sentence and an obvious case of back story, but I’m using it here as an illustration: If you write that line in a screenplay, no one will read it. Why? Because you can’t put that on the screen. You can put action on the screen: He walks with a limp. You can put dialog on the screen: “This? Oh, yeah, a little trouble in Afghanistan.” But if you want to expose that back story, it has to come from the mouth of a character and the moment you start typing a line like this: “Oh, this? My limp? It’s shrapnel from an IED that exploded near my Humvee when I was fighting the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of the United States Army…” What you should hear in your mind is: “…then came the Zactor Migration…”
And you should immediately hit the Big Red Button.
*Thanks to SUBZIN for having this quote. Unbelievably, it was the only place I could find it.