This opening is written with a curious inverted timeline. The important question is, does it work?
Language: US English
Synopsis: After a head injury, a cop with locked in syndrome discovers an ability to astral project and subsequently possess people in an attempt to do good. As he develops he meets others with similar power and discovers his partner isn’t as clean as he assumed.
Text: Without thinking, she leant over a nearby table and grabbed a glass pitcher of beer from the middle, oblivious to the confused glances of the diners. In moments of great stress, they say time slows down and a clarity appears, and this was what Hoe experienced as she watched the Budweiser leave the pitcher and arc gracefully through the air towards Muscles, then she realized it was probably a step too far. Something that would enrage him beyond sanity. Even before the beer hit the intended target, her hand released the pitcher and she started her run towards the exit.
The ice-cold beer sent a shock through Muscles. It wasn’t so much from the temperature of the liquid, but the fact she dared throw it in the first place. Rage flared, and he immediately decided she needed to be severely chastised for her actions and started after her. His size thirteen boot hit the floor but was facilitated on its way by the Budweiser and pieces of broken glass from the pitcher. Synapses fired rapidly in his brain in a futile attempt to avoid falling. His other leg jerked forward as instructed, but on contact with the wet surface it too lost grip and both legs proceeded to glide into the air while the rest of his body started a downward trajectory, arms flailing.
The bar was called The Junction, and during a recent refurbishment the owners had decided to go all out on the décor and spend a substantial part of their budget on the bar; specifically, the foot rail. They had been advised a simple chrome rail would suffice, but they demanded gravitas; something heavy and meaningful, but not mere chrome. It was decided brass was the answer. A chunky brass rail with solid brass cubes every three foot for the rail to pass through; something you could park a truck on, and it wouldn’t budge. If people perceived quality from something so simple, it implied the whole establishment was in compliance. Each brass block weighed over five hundred pounds and had the letter ‘J’ shown in deep relief on the front. They were among the most expensive components of the bar.
A human skull is made of bone approximately one quarter of an inch thick. It’s designed to protect the brain, so it has to be hard, but it’s not as hard as the unforgiving corner of a solid brass cube.
During his descent, Muscles felt the same feeling of time slowing that Hoe had previously experienced. He figured this could end badly and tried to tuck his head at the last second, but as his skull met the corner of the block, it immediately gave way to the brass, and collapsed in on itself; causing blood and brain to erupt against the bar and the floor either side of his head rendering him instantly dead.
Hoe had been in full flight to escape her inevitable punishment, but, with her senses in overdrive, she had witnessed the air ballet in her peripheral vision and stopped to view the conclusion. She heard the crunch of bone and watched the explosion of wetware. Involuntarily, she walked over for a closer inspection, which resulted in her projectile vomit mingling with the blood and brain. Muscle’s expression had been one of surprise and not anger, just before the vomit obscured it.
The two bodies lay side by side. The valiant warrior who was merely unconscious and the great thug who was definitively dead.
The screams from the ladies in the crowded bar were even louder than last time.
The bartender was dialing nine-one-one.
* * * * *
Three minutes and twelve seconds earlier, Albert—who was the definition of timid—changed.
It was out of character when he jumped from his chair so quickly it toppled. It was even more out of character when he shouted, ‘Hey, asshole, leave her alone.’
‘What are you doing?’ His wife asked in a worried tone, her brow and eyes confirming her surprise at the abrupt change in his demeanor.
Albert was already moving between the tables toward Muscles.
A hush had descended over the other diners and the soft background music was finally discernible.
As his finger prodded the huge chest, it confirmed Muscles was indeed built like a brick outhouse. Unperturbed, Albert started to vent his anger, but at the same time he felt the large hand on the back of his neck. The bar suddenly rushed towards his head as Muscles threw him against the marble top. Albert flopped onto the floor like a wet rag slowly sliding off a counter.
His wife screamed, but Albert didn’t hear.
* * * * *
Five minutes and three seconds earlier, Muscles was standing at the bar nursing a drink. The blonde had just walked in the front door and she immediately recognized the shaven head with the faded blue star tattoo above the ear. Her heart started to beat quicker and she could feel the anger rising as she rushed over and thumped him on the shoulder, causing him to spill his beverage.
‘You shit,’ she yelled, ‘you screwed her.’ She thumped his arm hard to confirm just how pissed off she was. The bar area quietened to watch the floor show.
Muscles casually set his drink on the bar, turned, and looked at his now ex-girlfriend. ‘Control yourself, Hoe,’ he shouted, then for good measure he backhanded her.
In his mind, he told himself it was just to knock some sense into her, but in reality, it hadn’t been the first time. He enjoyed the control. He enjoyed the palpable feeling of shock and revulsion that the rest of the patrons were experiencing. He felt good. Everyone was watching him, and he knew nobody would dare confront him.
She reached up and tried to slap him back, but he swatted her hand away. ‘Stupid Hoe,’ he shouted as he shoved her. A couple of ladies, who were watching from various tables screamed at him, but didn’t move. None of the men seemed inclined to rush to her rescue either.
Editorial comment: If an author tries to do something funky, like the “timeline inversion” in this opening thousand words, it does pique my curiosity as a reader a little. As an editor, I’d be worried that it’s a gimmick, and while you’ve intrigued the reader for a moment with a bit of writerly sleight of hand, how do you go on to maintain the reader’s interest? Bear in mind that an agent or publisher is no ordinary reader, and whatever clever ruse you think you’ve come up with, they’ve probably seen it a dozen times before. So as a gimmick it’s not going to be intrinsically interesting to them. They’ll still be looking for a compelling beginning that promises an intriguing and captivating read. So in my critique of this opening I’m looking at two issues. One; does the inversion work, and does it add anything (depth, nuance?) to the story, and two; what other signs are there of an interesting and rewarding read?
The inversion. Of course for the first paragraph we don’t know that the next section will go back in time three minutes earlier, so we read the scene as a normal linear narrative. It pitches us straight in at the action, a girl throwing beer over a thug sitting at the bar, who, on getting up to chase her, slips and brains himself on the foot-rail support. Loads of questions. Who are the couple? What’s their relationship, if any? What has the thug done to deserve the dousing? This is great writing. We naturally want to read on, because if nothing else, we want to know the answers to these questions. As the scene stretches on, there are a few odd questions that start popping up. Who are the “two bodies” lying side by side on the floor? One is clearly the thug, but who is the “valiant warrior”? On first read through I thought that meant the girl (she had thrown the beer over the thug). A bit confused, I went back and tried to find the moment where she lost consciousness and ended up on the floor, thinking I’d missed it. She doesn’t, she just vomits, so the confusion remains.
The next section starts with the time jump to three minutes earlier. Ah, okay. Now we’re to find out who the valiant warrior is, perhaps? Yes, it turns out to be Arthur. More questions raised. Who is Arthur? What relationship does he have, if any, to the previous two protagonists? Why does he change personality to confront Muscles (it must be significant because we’re told no less than four times that he’s acting out of character)?
But then we’re off in another leap backwards, this time five minutes earlier (than “the previous scene”, or “the very first scene”, we wonder? It turns out, contextually, that it must be five minutes earlier than the first scene). This passage explains the initial confrontation between “Hoe” and “Muscles”. That raises further questions. Who is “Hoe” (presumably Not Her Real Name!) and who is Muscles, and what happened between them, or rather between Muscles and a third party, to cause the conflict?
It’s clever, the backwards time-line structure, but as an editor I wonder if the cleverness isn’t really an end in itself, rather than throwing any particular light on the characters or their conflict. It reads as if you have thought, “I’ve got an interesting way to begin a story. What about if I start at the end of a fight, and work backwards towards the beginning?” Well okay, I’m open-minded enough as an editor to say, “Go for it”, but in this case, I don’t see what it adds to the narrative apart from some confusion. If you actually reverse the three sections, so your opening lines are “She immediately recognized the shaven head with the faded blue star tattoo above the ear”, and the scene then plays out in chronological order, I don’t think it loses anything, and it gains a logical solution to the various narrative problems I’ve described above.
The rest of the opening. There’s nothing much wrong with your writing from a technical perspective. There are a few queries I’d raise as a copyeditor. The sentence structure is a little wonky. The second sentence should probably finish at “Muscles”, and the rest of it amalgamated with the third sentence in some way. There are other tiny issues throughout.
In terms of plot detail I’m not sure that a brass block weighing five hundred pounds every three feet along a foot-rail would be a realistic bar accessory. Each block would be not much less than a cubic foot in dimension (copyeditors have to look this kind of thing up – it’s part of the job description), so I’m thinking that would look peculiar in a bar.
A head injury is not really determined by the mass of the object collided with; it’s to do with the velocity of the impact. So I’m kind of wondering whether blood and brain matter would really spray across the floor if someone just tripped over and face-planted into something solid? They would be very sore, and very unhappy, but I’m not sure their head would shatter like an egg.
Personally, I’m not convinced by the timeline twist. At the end of this thousand words I realise I don’t know who the main protagonist of the story is. I’m not entirely sure that I trust the narrator. Will the next scene/passage be ten minutes earlier, or will it pick up the plot after the thug collides with the footrail? Has the story really started, or is it going to start soon? What’s the relevance of this incident to the book? Have you started where the story begins or have you, as some writers are prone to do, started with a scene that was just very vivid in your imagination? It might work, but the execution would need to be flawless and ultimately I think you’d need a reason to invert the timeline as you’ve done.
You’re very close to an intriguing start, but I personally don’t think you’re quite there yet. I would say that you don’t need to rely on the inverse timeline. You’ve evidently got enough skill so that writing the scene in a normal linear narrative would be compelling enough. That would also throw into sharp relief the rather fundamental question for you of whether this scene is really the start of the story.
Thanks for posting.
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