After writing an amazing first chaper in your novel, is it okay to switch gears in chapter two? What’s allowed and what’s not allowed? Will agents freak out, for example, if you switch from present tense to past tense? Or slow the story down with a flashback?
Joe posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Dear Mr. Ingermanson,
I’m writing a novel in first person, present tense. It starts off with a bang, an exciting chapter. That chapter ends with the main character (who is in a terrible spot), hiding in a room, where memories start coming back to him of how he got there.
For the next two and a half chapters, he recalls the events that led up to that point, but it’s written past tense. Near the end of the fourth chapter his reminiscing ends, with him coming back full circle to where chapter one ended. And the story continues from there, kicking back into present tense for rest of the story.
Can I do this? Is this acceptable? If not, what would you recommend?
It all seems pretty clear when I read through it, but I”m concerned that agents (or readers, for that matter) might have an issue with it. What do you say?
Thanks so much for your help.
Randy sez: My general rule is that you can do anything you want in your novel, as long as it works.
So the real issue is whether this works, which is hard to answer without actually seeing Joe’s chapters.
Starting Fast Is Good
But I’m going to make a guess, based on the clues in Joe’s question. I may guess wrong, but that’s the nature of the beast when you don’t have complete information.
Joe’s novel starts out with a bang. That’s good, if he’s writing an adventure novel or thriller or something similar. That first chapter is a promise to the reader of what will come in the rest of the novel.
It sounds like the next two and a half chapters are not a bang. It appears that they’re a flashback, and a very long flashback. That can be okay, as long as the flashback is as exciting as the first chapter.
But it can be a problem if the flashback isn’t exciting.
Why? What’s the problem?
The First Chapter is a Promise
The problem is that a slow flashback wouldn’t be delivering on the promise made in chapter one.
Chapter one of your story tells your reader that your novel is a certain kind of book. It’s a promise that all or most of your chapters are going to be “just like the first one, only different.”
It sounds like Joe’s flashback in chapter two breaks that promise. And so does chapter three and most of chapter four.
But when you break a promise to the reader that early in the book, and for that long, you’re very likely to lose a lot of readers.
Present Tense and Past Tense
Let’s be clear that there’s no real problem with switching from present tense to past tense and back again. Many readers won’t even notice. Readers that notice won’t really care, as long as the story engages them.
The only problem is in making a radical change in the pace of the story so early in the book, before the reader has committed to the story. (Later in the book, if you want to briefly change the pace to give the reader a breather, you’re probably on safe ground.)
As for how agents will respond to this, they’ll be tuned in to how readers will like it. If agents think this kind of transition is going to lose readers, they’ll probably reject the manuscript, or at least ask the author to fix it.
Of course, if Joe’s chapter two is as exciting as his chapter one, then there’s no problem, and everything’s gravy.
Chapter Two is Crucial
I’ll repeat myself. I don’t know for sure that Joe’s manuscript makes an abrupt change of pace in chapter two. I have only partial information, and that’s what I’m going on.
There are no rules in fiction, but there are rules of thumb.
And one of the big rules of thumb is to make a promise in chapter one, and then deliver on that promise throughout the rest of your story.
So chapter two is crucial. And once you get chapter two right, chapter three is crucial. And once you get chapter three right … I think you see the pattern.
Got a Question for My Blog?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.
Cole // Cole Smith Writes says
Great article, Randy. Seems like many of my favorite authors break the rules, but they’re really just spring-boarding off the rules. Once they’ve mastered structure, they can play around with it quite a bit. But there’s no short cut, is there? Thanks for the interesting discussion!