It’s a given in most writing circles that you should never open your novel with a scene in which little happens, especially if that scene involves a flashback. This is normally good advice, but this morning’s passage is an example of when good advice should be ignored.
As always, it’s hard to be certain without reading the entire manuscript, but given that Tess is thinking about going back in time and changing history for the sake of her friend, it’s safe to guess this is what the story is about. Decisions that momentous don’t drive subplots. So even though the only action in this passage is that Tess lies in bed with her dog against her legs, has a flashback, and makes a decision, that decision is where the story starts.
This doesn’t mean the passage couldn’t be more effective. The voice, for instance, is detached, with precise descriptions of Tess’s state of mind that don’t really convey how she feels – “cropped up in her?” The language tends toward polysyllabic Latinate words – “canine contact was a prerequisite,” “infinitesimal possibility” – that makes even the interior monologue more formal than it should be. As I’ve written before, paying attention to the roots of the words you use can transform the feel of your prose.
One thing I didn’t correct was the vagueness about the time-travel mechanism. At this point, the key elements of the scene are all emotional – Jobe’s longstanding horror and grief, Tess’s compassion and fear. Going into detail about just what’s in the closet at the Java Jack’s would distract. I think readers are willing to let time travel remain a mystery for the moment.
The most important rule of writing is that there are no rules. But when you need to go against what is normally good advice – no flashbacks in hooks, open with action – then you have to get everything else right. If your opening relies on powerful emotions rather than dramatic events to draw readers in, then you need to use every tool at your disposal to make those emotions as clear and compelling as possible. [Read more…]