Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 11, 2013

How to Start Your Novel

By Chuck Sambuchino

medium_2429133381One of the most common reasons why agents and editors stop reading sample pages is simply that the story starts too slow. Gone are the days when a book could “get good on page 12.” We also can no longer compare our writing to classic works or even books written 30 years ago that started slow and found marketplace success.

Today’s novels — especially debut novels — must grab readers from the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence.

Despite the fact that the importance of starting strong appears to be well known by most aspiring writers, people still have a hard time with it.

I was freelance editing a client’s first 15 pages last year and was dismayed to see that all 15 pages simply described a mystical woman walking across the desert heading for task at a faraway location. There was no question that the writer had talent — this was good, descriptive writing. But it was also boring as hell. 15 pages of essentially nothing happening.

That is kind of an extreme example, sure, but this problem — starting too slow — also exists in smaller, more subtle forms.

This past summer, I sat with two literary agents on a “Literary Idol” panel at a writers’ conference where people read their first page and we would raise our hands when we would “stop reading” the submission, as if we were considering a real page one in the slush pile. I specifically remember two participants and the agents’ similar feedback to both.

One story started out with a man stewing in his apartment about something. At the end of the (fairly boring) first page, there was a great, jarring line about how the man set down his gun on the windowsill — a gun that we did not know he was holding. The two panel agents both told the writer that this mention of the gun should be the book’s first line.

The second memorable submission had the same issue. A fantastic potential first line — something like “I was forced to grow up at such an early age that I have no true memories of my childhood” — was pushed too far down in the text.

These great opening lines were buried — all because of the simple fact that writers simply do not start their book with the best, carefully chosen words and hook us in immediately.

Then it hit me: Holy cow. Maybe examining the start of James Cameron’s TRUE LIES could help writers understand a simple fix to their problem. I discussed my thoughts then and there on the panel, and want to share them with you here.

(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

How TRUE LIES Figures Into All This

This is how the 1994 film TRUE LIES begins (I’ll be a bit broad):

It’s dark. We see tall dark trees at night. So it’s not just dark — it’s nighttime, outdoors. More specifically: an empty wintery landscape. White snow everywhere. In the distance is the only real thing to see: a big mansion — a grand chateau with warm yellow lights seen from a distance through the windows. The moonlight reflects off the white surface (snow) everywhere.

Closer to the mansion now: There is an iron gate that seems to run alongside a river or lake. That water is frozen over. Patrolling the snowy grounds near this gate are guards — but a closer look reveals that the guards have machine guns, and some of them walk with snarling guard dogs. Away from the guards along the ice, the frozen top of the water cracks in a tiny spot as a very big knife cuts through the ice from below. From the tiny hole in the ice pops the head of a secret agent in black scuba gear.

This is how the movies get to start a story. This is not how a novel should get started. A movie can go outside-in. A novel should go inside-out.

If this story were a novel and you wanted to get the audience’s attention, what would your first line or two be? I’d guess something like, “Harry’s knife cut through the ice from below. His eyeline ascended above the frozen water, and he could make out guard dogs in the distance even before the fog in his scuba mask cleared…”

From there, once the audience is hooked, slowly move outward, engineering the beats of the movie in reverse. The whole start to your novel could look like this:

  1. Harry’s knife cuts through the ice / intrigue.
  2. Harry secretly emerges from the freezing water / danger.
  3. Mention of the guard dogs / more danger.
  4. Mention of the men with automatic weapons / more danger.
  5. Mention of the chateau (Harry’s desired destination).
  6. Mention of the nighttime.
  7. Mention of the snow, the reflection, the darkness, the beauty of an European countryside in the winter, etc. Perhaps here you would even mention that the location is actually Switzerland.

That’s how you take an opening and make it go inside-out. If you begin your novel with 2 paragraphs describing the trees and night and moonlight, then spend another 2 paragraphs describing the chateau and the yellow light and the winterscape, then the reading editor or agent will never even get to the semi-good part (the guys with guns) let alone the true “hook” line about the man/agent cutting through the frozen river on a secret mission.

I hope that my watching of James Cameron’s movies a million times over through high school & college has helped you somewhat. (Sidenote: ALIENS is awesome. It holds up so well.)

(I talk about a writers’ conference in this column. If you are interested in conferences, check out Writer’s Digest’s recurring events.)

This post is Part 6 of Chuck's debut series here at WITS: Take Your Writing By Storm.

Part 5 was How To Support An Author's New Book: 11 Ideas for You. Please return at 1 pm ET for his stellar new post here at WITS: Advice For Writers From Literary Agents.

About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: Jonno Witts via photopin cc

23 comments on “How to Start Your Novel”

  1. wow...I need to finish my book and contact you for services 😉 I know it needs revisions--have 170pp--but your advice is amazing!

  2. You often only have one chance to grab a reader, so do it early and do it right. We want bang on the first page, but the story must be strong.

    Writers must be concerned with tone. After excitement, calm it down and let readers catch their breath, but keep it interesting as you build towards more excitement.

    Being a screenwriter, my first ten pages might be all a producer will read, so it has to be tight. Novels are the same.

  3. Great advice. I've followed these types of suggestions and now have agents telling me things happen to fast, they want to get to know the character before they're put into the situation that (to me) is the start of the story. How do you balance this?

  4. At one of our local RWA chapter meetings, we had the opportunity for a round-table critique of our first five pages by a published author. My pages did not (thank goodness) bleed red ink.

    However, I clearly remember her circling a dialog cue in the middle of the first page. She said, "This is where you hooked me." I moved the essence of that cue to my first sentence.

    If I weren't above shenanigans knew you better, I'd be creatively sneaky and post my new first sentence here for a freebie critique.

    Instead, I'll play fair and hop over to your site to investigate editing services.

  5. Great post. I struggled with the beginning of my novel, but this article gave me a vision of how to make it better. Thanks so much for explaining, so uniquely, what a gripping beginning should look like.

    Comment on my blog for a chance to win a Kindle Fire HD.

  6. Loved the article very informative, the example you used about the True Lies movie was genius makes the concept easier to understand.
    Oh and Aliens is simply awesome thank god somebody else is with me on that, my friends don't get my fascination with it.

  7. Such a great example of the difference between movie's opening scenes and a book's. Any advice for non fiction novels? I am currently rewriting for the third time a book about the curse of traveling and would love some guidance. Thanks

  8. Interesting information here. I will file it away for when I am working on my novel. For now, though, how would this apply to a memoir? I'm having trouble getting started. I have thousands and thousands of words, but no real start. How do I find the start that will hook a potential agent/publisher/buyer?

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