Let’s talk about beginnings in time travel novels! If there’s one comment I get more than any other, it’s that everyone is always telling me to start the time travel sooner! It’s like a broken record when it comes to critiques from school, editors, and contests. I recently got feedback on my opening chapter to The Schoolhouse Disappearance from a contest I entered. I received some great feedback, but amongst the comments (from four judges) were two suggestions that I start the time travel sooner! I should expect it by now, but I thought I’d finally written an opening that worked. After all, my main character travels through time on page four…any earlier and I’d be starting the novel in the past. How much earlier can I start it? This has been an issue for me since I first started writing time travel—something I’ve worked to fix!
Sometimes the best way to learn is to study what’s already been done, so I started reading all the time travel books I could find. I discovered three things. One—there are not a lot of time travel books out there. Two—it’s hard to find a well plotted time travel. Three—not a single time travel book that I read started the time travel in the first chapter. In fact, most of them didn’t start the time travel until the third or fourth chapter. In one book I read, it didn’t happen until a quarter of the way into the novel!
I admit, the time travels I read picked up once the time travel started, but they all had slow beginnings. However, most of those beginnings set up what was to come, and without that set up the books would never have worked. That said, some creative replotting and these books could have been much stronger.
I know how important a good beginning is, but I believe that the rules we apply to beginnings for novels need to be altered for time travel. The first two novels in my time travel series have my main character time traveling before the end of the first chapter, and everyone is still telling me to start sooner. I don’t (in most cases) think this is possible. The story needs to be set up to some degree before the time travel can be introduced. I do believe that the time travel should happen in the first chapter; the second chapter at the latest (in most cases). I also believe it is possible to do—despite all the novels out there that don’t do it. It takes practice and some creativity, but it is doable. The first and second books in my series start the time travel by the end of the first chapter—it took many, many revisions to get them there. In fact, in the first drafts of both novels the time travel didn’t start until the third chapter.
When it comes to “rules” in writing, my mantra is: the rules are more like guidelines. That said, I think the writing world could benefit from some “guidelines” for time travel beginnings. I truly believe that the success of a time travel lies in the opening chapters. I think that part of why there are so few time travel novels published is because so many editors and agents fail to get past the first couple chapters. A time travel, just like any other novel, must hook the reader. The conventional rules of openings should be followed, but there is an extra element to consider that other novels lack—the time travel itself. Other questions need to be considered when writing the beginning of a time travel novel. What makes a good time travel beginning? What elements need to be in the opening chapter? When, exactly, should the time travel begin?
People are comfortable with how historical, mystery, contemporary, romance, science fiction and fantasy novels should be written, but time travel is in a league of its own. Ask a writer, agent, or editor what makes a good time travel, and I’ll bet the responses would be vague and varied. Answering these questions and establishing guidelines will help editors and writers better evaluate time travel and not ask for the impossible. We need to quantify what makes for a good time travel beginning before there’s any hope of finding consistently well written and entertaining time travel novels being published.