There are few real rules to fiction. It’s mostly proclivity, cultural familiarity, bias. But here’s one I feel pretty strongly about…
I held so much promise for the reckless, unhinged, underground novel I just came across. The guy can write, and it is definitely a guy, a masculine guy in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson or Bukowski. He’s doing the angry poet punk thing: off the rails, ready to blow, armed and dangerous.
So, the first scene started off with promise. It became a bit hyperbolic, over the top, even repetitive in its braggadocio, but salvageable. Then he broke the rule.
So, what is this rule?
When you start a story it needs to begin at a place that I care where it goes next. There needs to be something established in that opening sequence that prompts me to continue reading the thing, things like unanswered questions, plots and plans, a looming injustice–something. What it cannot do is flashback to filler before it even sets up the story question, so that there actually IS a story.
But you see it all the time, especially in amateur screenplays and shlock movies. They invariably begin with something gimmicky only to flash back to some mundane character life–but what they started with WASN’T ENOUGH. It didn’t launch the story. Often it’s cuttable. Often the first twenty pages are cuttable. It’s flagged already by page one as bad writing. I don’t care.
The moment you flash back to something you have to at least ask yourself why am I flashing back on page one and a half? Why did I start the story there at all? Will anyone care about that first scene enough to trust me? That first scene should start the story and be pivotal where removing it causes the entire house of cards to collapse. Flash and gimmick aren’t enough. It has to cause a number of effects that reverberate throughout the story world.
If I don’t trust that the initial scene was vital, then I stop reading. If it flashes back to something boring, I stop reading.
I consider this a rule worth remembering.