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.
The smell of the rain wafted in on the breeze and Brumus, who was
draped across lying against Tess’s  midsection side, kicked as he snored, chasing some squirrel that had the nerve to scamper through his dream.
[paragraph added] Tess was already awake. Had been lying there in the dark for what seemed like hours.
Normally, such canine contact was a prerequisite for Tess to sleep soundly. But not on this night. Despite Brumus’s contributions, she was not sleeping soundly at the moment, nor had she for the previous ninety minutes, since she and her burly dog first climbed into bed. Her disquiet was a result of being  It was hard to sleep when you were torn between longing and guilt. , both of which cropped up in her after the demonstration she’d seen of the awesome power that resided
[paragraph added] That . . . thing in the closet at Java Jack’s.
This thing in the closet, w Whatever it was, wherever it came from, it offered the power to change her past. , a And thus … her present, and her future. She could go back in time and make everything with Gil work out. She imagined herself as the wife of a professional athlete, living in some obscenely lavish home.  that was protected from the regular people by gates, be they iron gates or economic gates. This longing for the good life triggered a trace of guilt, but the lion’s share of the guilt that gnawed at her like a shark feeding on the bloated corpse of a dead whale,  was about something bigger. She could justify the desire to be a member of high society as something that was a fairly common human failing, what she could not abide, was her mind’s insistence on thinking about what this power could do for her while poor Mr. Jobe walked around town every day with that lingering horror haunting his consciousness.
[paragraph added] But she couldn’t. How could she change history just to make her own life more comfortable?
But doing it for Jobe . . .
Despite the age
chasm of difference between their ages, for some reason, she and Jobe had connected from the very beginning. She was one of the few people in town who treated him with dignity. Most people could only see the former mental patient wandering the street and either avoided him or ridiculed him. Of course, neither his time spent in a mental facility, nor his penchant for having conversations with himself, or … who mever he thought he was talking to , did much to help discourage such mistreatment. She had actually talked to him, over coffee and danish, and heard his story.
And that’s what kept her
Tonight toss eding and turn eding — well, as much as she could was possible with an eighty-six-pound pit bull sleeping on against her waist. Every time she tried to close her eyes, she saw the faces of Jobe’s wife and two dead children in the , photographs of whom she’d seen hunted up in the library , in newspaper accounts of
[paragraph added] She’d been alive when the massacre
. The murders happened, though when she was very too young to remember. , and so she hadn’t seen the original media coverage. But in one particularly dark afternoon, over mugs of Peruvian at Java Jack’s, deep conversation with Jobe had , he’d opened up to her about what it had been like for him. and told her what happened that night. That conversation was what piqued her interest and led her to the library to find out more. Though they filled in many of the details, it turned out that the newspaper accounts paled in comparison to what Nathan  told her on the night that the two of them stayed after she closed Java Jack’s and talked over Peruvian coffee deep into the night.
It was in dead of night on
the early morning hours of Saturday, June 6, 1987. , Jobe explained. He had come home at the end of his five to two shift to find the side door of his little three bedroom working class bungalow ajar. He would later recall remember that a little the very last vestiges of driveway dust still lingered in the air, and w . When he got out of the car, he noticed rocks from the driveway on the lawn.
“I was meticulous about my lawn,” he told Tess
said in his a quiet, raspy voice. as he wiped away a tear, “ tThose rocks didn’t belong … just didn’t belong.”
The police later connected the dust and
, the rocks ,. he’d connected the dots immediately. Someone , he determined, had just pulled away, and fast.
[paragraph added] At the time, he went inside, the open side door frighening him. And
His eyes went to the house and the instant he saw the door ajar, his stomach clenched. Despite something in him crying out, begging him not to go inside, he did. Iin the ensuing decades thirty-seven years, he’d been trying to un-see what he saw there inside. 
[paragraph added] The living room
front of the house was undisturbed and quiet, eerily quiet. If not for the open door , and the coppery smell , and the imaginary pliers twisting his stomach from the inside, there would have been no sign that anything was amiss.
But as he moved down the hall and his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the blood came into focus. Five crimson streaks ran down the wall, from one bedroom to the next to the next.
As Nathan told his story, the chill scuttled up Tess’s body like an unholy clutch of frigid tarantulas, out of the center circle of Dante’s Hell. Dear God, she thought as he recounted the scene. She was right there in that hall with him. 
The blood, aAll that blood ,.” he said as if He forced the words out as if they were made of sandpaper , he gulped hard, and went on with the story.
Brett’s room was the first on the right.
, h He was lying in his bed, the one with the Cincinnati Reds bedspread ,. it was tThe same shade of red as the warm blood , splashed onto the headboard and wall , and pooled around Brett’s head. The boy’s His eyes were wide open. and fixed on the ceiling. The yawning, jagged gash across the eleven-year old’s  So was his neck was, down to the bone. It might have been called ‘ear to ear’ had the boy’s his son’ts right ear still been there. That however, had been cleanly severed.
[paragraph added] Jobe retched, and with tears pouring down his face,
started calling out for his wife and his younger son as he staggered from Brett’s room. [paragraph removed] “Vera! Vera! Brady! Vera … say something ,!” he begged as he staggered further down the hall, leaning against the bloody wall. But no one answered. Jobe fell into eEight-year-old Brady’s room was next. Brady was a grisly little duplicate of Brett, from the wide open vacant eyes, to the gaping throat wound, all the way down to his missing little right ear. Except that Brady The child’s body twitched a twitch that had nothing to do with life. It was just a result of a final random nerve signal, 
[paragraph added] Jobe’s stomach rebelled
bucked, and surrendered its contents upward. Despite his best efforts to turn his head, it splashed onto the bed. And Brady. … and his dead son.
[paragraph added] He
lurched stumbled from the room on liquid knees and leaned against the door jamb with his cheek pressed to the wall outside Brady’s room. Between what the things he’d just seen, the smell of his own vomit, and the heinous stench coming from the bedroom he’d shared with Vera, he was having trouble staying conscious his head spun and his stomach threatened to erupt again. The very last thing he wanted to do , was to go into that last bedroom. But he clung to the hope Though he knew that some last abomination waited for him, the infinitesimal possibility that Vera might still be alive demanded that he continue.
in the master bedroom at the end of the hall and she was on the floor. She’d apparently heard something in the night that made her get up and put on her robe. The monster had met her just inside the bedroom door.
[paragraph added] The smell
in this room was stronger, so strong that it made Nathan’s eyes burn. His wife lay on her back, arms and legs splayed wide apart. Her robe was spread open beneath her, her nightgown was pulled up, and her panties were pulled down. The number and ferocity of the stab wounds that littered her chest and abdomen was so profound that, later that morning, the sight made the coroner , who had several years experience  retch and sprint from the room when she saw them. Vera no longer had her right ear either.
[paragraph added] Those were the
These images that never left comprised the ghastly graffiti that was indelibly imprinted on every wall, in every room, inside the mind of Nathan Jobe‘s mind.
[paragraph added] Or Tess’s, now.
I can’t blame you for losing your grip on sanity! Tess thought with her hand trembling and coffee spilling from her mug, as she listened to Nathan that night. And now, tossing and turning in bed, sShe closed her eyes, reached down, and scratched Brumus on his head. [italics removed]  Jesus! She couldn’t live with the images for more than a few days, and Jobe had lived with them for decades. [italics removed] How the Hell does did he ever find any peace?
Well, she knew a way. And s
She knew what she had to do.
1. I couldn’t picture the dog sleeping comfortable draped across her midsection. I thought leaning against her side was easier to picture and less problematic.
2. Note that you’re describing her from the outside, clinically, with little emotional distance. Describe her using the words she would use at the time. Also, keep the interior monologue in her voice.
3. Why does the thought of living the good life trigger guilt in her?
4. If she’s lying awake in the middle of the night, would she invest the effort in coming up with the labored whale metaphor? Keep it simple and let her thoughts flow.
5. I wasn’t sure at first how Nathan and Jobe were related. If she thinks of him as Jobe, she should do so throughout. People don’t usually change the way they address someone in their heads. At the end, you could get away with her addressing him as “Nathan Jobe” because she’s thinking of him in a more formal sense. The bit of extra formality is actually a sign she’s made her decision.
6. I normally recommend against breaking the moment — if you’re in a flashback, stay there until you’re done. But the emotional center of this scene lies with Tess and her understanding of Jobe’s grief. Pulling back to show her understanding of what your narrating is appropriate.
7. But here, breaking through with Tess’s commentary actually undermines the moment. Given what you’re describing, your readers will feel what Tess felt without her having to comment on it. And that emotional connection will bring them closer to her. Besides, that tarantula metaphor is pretty strained.
8. This moment will have more impact if you keep the language simple. Let the events speak for themselves.
9. The mention of random nerve signals is far too clinical.
10. You don’t need either italics or thinker attributions (“she thought”) for your interior monologue. Keep it in third person, past tense, and your readers will know who is thinking.
I’d love your take on the passage. And on the whole idea of breaking the rules and whether or not there should be rules in the first place.
And also, Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you all next year.
By Dave King
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