The use of the pluperfect tense, “I had been…” should be a warning sign that your writing isn’t as active as it might be. This can be a problem in any part of the novel, but at the beginning, it’s particularly pertinent. Here’s a good example.
Language: British English
Synopsis: In an ecological dystopia, dual-heritage Zotish and Native Judit, 15, is chosen to breed a genetically pure Native tribe, living ‘naturally’ in a re-wilded forest. To save her sister, Sannah, 17, must navigate a society where the poor are scum, and there’s no scum worse than Zotish immigrants.
The train screeched as it tore through the underground darkness, tossing the passengers this way and that. A topless man, skin greased with sweat, sat deep in his seat, legs wide, screen balanced on his belly. The sound was on full, and the noise that bounced off the metal walls was unmistakable.
He was watching porn.
The other passengers ignored the lurid grunts, eyes fixed on their own screens as they slumped in the seats, their minds tuned tinnitus-high by caffeine and pixels, bodies pale and flabby from lack of sunlight and underuse.
Dr Rama Coale frowned, fixing his eyes on the blank window. The warm, diesel-dust air was closing in around him. Pollution hung sour over everything. He wasn’t used to this. Why did he take the subway? He should have got a driver. What was he trying to prove? Rama thought of Tish’s laughing face, teasing him for his discomfort, being afraid of the poor. An inexplicable anger hardened his fists until he could punch a hole right through the wall.
But no, his anger wasn’t inexplicable.
It had been a hard day.
Rama had spent five hours in prison. First, waiting in the plastic-chaired holding area, empty except him and an old Zotish woman, doors slamming and inmates’ shouting seeping through the walls.
PUNITECH PRISON CO
Albia’s Most Profitable Correctional Facilities!
VIOLENCE DURING VISTING HOURS
WILL BE PUNISED WITH SOLITARY
He’d stared at that poster for what seemed like a dark-age. The old woman stared at her knees. She muttered something repetitively, fingers moving on a gold chain around her neck.
When the guards came they didn’t even look at him, went straight for the Zotish. Her fingers stopped moving. She spoke, heavily accented. It’s visiting hours. You promised me this time.
Shaking heads. The prison was understaffed. Visits not guaranteed.
The woman slithered off her seat like her skeleton was pulled out. Roughly, the guards pulled her up—she didn’t resist—and bustled her to the exit. Rama was left alone.
When they returned, they escorted him to the interview cell Punitech had provided, polite and deferential. There was no such thing as understaffed for Sherbourne University. Sherbourne University gets you places.
Rama followed them along dripping corridors, hostile faces peering at him through iron bars. Most of them Zotish, but some Generian too, their pale skin sallow under the harsh lights. Rama thought of his mission, and tried to stay calm.
She was there, in that dimly lit cell. The woman he’d returned to the dirt and discomfort of that city for, the woman he’d been waiting to see. The woman who held the key to his future. No, the future of the world.
Rama had been surprised at how attractive she was. She was, what, ten years older than him? Mid-thirties, most definitely, yet she could pass for a teenager. Pretty, striking eyes; that earthy Zotish sensuality. The sounds from the subway man’s screen pulsed into Rama’s mind, and he flicked them away without missing a beat.
Editorial comment: This opening suffers from a common problem, that of rather passive writing, which evidences itself in a myriad of different ways from book to book. In this particular case, extensive use of the pluperfect tense ought to alert you to the fact that you’re writing in one of the least active tenses.
The pluperfect (“Rama had been surprised…”, “He’d stared at that poster…”, “Rama had spent five hours…”), describes an action that has been executed before another action, also in the past, has finished. An example might be, “He had been sitting there for five hours when the door opened”. There’s nothing wrong with it grammatically, let’s be clear, but it’s describing something that has already happened; it’s not something that’s happening right now, to the character. This should really be classed as exposition, then. It’s background information. It’s describing something that happened before—history.
Another submission recently described a scene where a camp of mercenaries was just waking up, the morning after a brutal battle that had left 20% of them dead and the rest suffering from nightmares. Why start at that point? Where’s the drama in waking up the morning after? Why hadn’t the author started with the fight? After all, how much more vivid is it being at the party, than hearing about it from your mates in the cafe the following day?
Here I get the same feeling. All this conflict and emotion, in the scene where Rama goes to the corrupt prison looking for the savior of the human race, is related in pluperfect terms. He had done this, and then had done that, and this had happened, and then this had happened afterwards. It’s all very narrator-ish. If you’ve got a great scene, full of conflict and tension, with high stakes for both the story and the character, then that’s an ideal scene with which to start your book. Why choose to begin with the aftermath?
I can think of three reasons why you’ve started here. You just didn’t think about starting out with the scene where Rama goes to the prison (perhaps that came later), or you had this vivid image of a tense, resentful character on a train where some disgusting low-life was watching porn on a laptop in a nearby seat, and just wanted to start with that scene whatever the story, or you did think about starting with the ‘Rama visiting the prison’ scene, but chickened out, thinking you didn’t have the storytelling chops to pull it off.
Well, my opinion would be that the story appears to start when Rama visits the prison, so that’s where your book ought to start. The fear that you haven’t got the writerly capability to pull that scene off in a compelling way should be blown out of the water by the way you’ve managed to describe the subway(?) car scene, the greasy individual with the laptop, the “diesel-dust”, the other swaying occupants of the carriage, “bodies pale and flabby from lack of sunlight”. You’ve a vivid imagination. Let it rip in the prison. You can always keep the subway car scene for later.
I have to reject this, because I don’t think an agent would wade through four pages of pluperfect “this had happened before this point in the story, and then this had happened, and the reason he was pissed of was because this had happened” waiting for something to happen now. And what won’t appeal to an agent is, realistically, what won’t appeal to a reader. A prospective purchaser’s attention span on Amazon is infinitesimally small, don’t forget. After the third “Rama had done this a while ago…” they might flip to another book which starts “Dirk floored the accelerator and the car leaped towards the cliff edge…” Which is more compelling?
This submission is another good example of a writer, with obvious talent and imagination, not focusing on where to begin their book. That this ends up in rejection is a huge source of writer frustration, which, in a nutshell, is why I thought this site might be useful in the first place.
Thanks for posting.
Awesome feedback, thanks! This is a prologue that I’ve added in the edit since querying, so it’s great to get that feedback on it. You know, I never even considered starting it in the prison, I just had this vignette in my mind of the character on the subway, like a fish out of water, as something that would allow me to do a lot of sly world building while introducing the framework for the plot. It never even occurred to me that the pluperfect was an issue, which is why it’s great to get such good feedback! Thank you so much.