How to Start Your Novel: What The Movie TRUE LIES Taught Me

image credit: 20th Century Fox

GIVEAWAY: I am so very excited to announce the Nov. 2012 release of my newest book: CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. It’s a book all about how to build your visibility, brand, network and discoverability so you can better market yourself and your books. I’m giving away 2 copies to random commenters based in the U.S. and Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (UPDATE: C.L. and Staci Troilo won.)

My columns usually discuss the business of writing, but today I’d like to try a thought on writing craft — specifically: a guideline on how to start your novel.

One 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.

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.

PhotobucketThat’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.) Don’t forget to comment below for a chance to win a book! Happy holiday season, all!

GIVEAWAY: I am so very excited to announce the Nov. 2012 release of my newest book: CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. It’s a book all about how to build your visibility, brand, network and discoverability so you can better market yourself and your books. I’m giving away 2 copies to random commenters based in the U.S. and Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (UPDATE: C.L. and Staci Troilo won.)



About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he 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 own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.


  1. says

    I love your illustration of starting the novel from the inside out. This graphic portrayal helped me solidify some things I had known in the abstract. Thank you.

    Your book about platform would be a huge help to me at this point. That’s another issue I’m working through.
    Judith Robl´s last blog post ..From My Back Porch – Part 9

  2. says

    Does it count, Chuck, if the first sentence intrigues rather than has actual action? I write novellas (21 so far) and had comments that the initial works started too slow so I now start with action, if possible. But, instant action doesn’t always work. A recent work about the building of a terrorist act began with a traveler being pulled from a passport check line and whisked into an interrogation room. The interrogation was the initial ‘action’. Intriguing enough? Would that raise a panelist’s hand?
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Throwing (or writing) like a girl

  3. says

    Although I mourn the passing of great meandering epic novels and the lush description that ambled us into the story, your point is well taken.

    Movies have the advantage of visuals and musical cues in addition to story line, to create a mood and draw a viewer in. Novels only have words– they must do all the work. It’s not easy and as an avid reader, I have given up on too many novels that didn’t grab me in the first ten.

    Now, to apply that principle effectively to my own writing!
    Julie´s last blog post ..Blog Swap: Meet Guest Blogger Demetria Foster Gray

  4. says

    Since I’m starting a new novel, your post was right on target. I’d start if I could get the first line written. My mind fixes on one line, and then I immediately reject it. Should that line focus on what she is doing, or what she is thinking, which are two very different things. The doing is on finding a body, the thinking is what is going on in her life, which will gruide the investigation. My gut says start with the body, but in this character driven mystery–the character’s voice is important–but, but…the body is more important.

  5. says

    My husband’s favourite film!
    You are so right, I have struggled with novels that do not instantly grab me, despite the best intentions and despite a childhood spent reading nineteenth century classics (some of them have a very LOOOONG set-up). I’ve discovered some of the best children’s books are good at arousing your interest without too many gimmicks. Roald Dahl , Philip Pullman or Anthony Horowitz are masters at wasting no time and getting the readers intrigued.
    MarinaSofia´s last blog post ..What I Never Was

  6. says

    Thanks for providing us with another book, Chuck.
    I have all of your other ones….excellent tips….very worthwhile investment of my savings dollars…no income a negative, but more reading time and writing time a huge POSITIVE which is what I choose to focus on:o)

  7. says

    Gosh, I LOVED True Lies. Nice point about the inside-out vs. outside-in beginnings.

    Gone are the days of Chekhov where you introduce a gun in Act I and use it by Act III. Now it seems your opening line has to begin with the gun, yet in media res beginnings are becomming passe because we don’t know the characters yet. It’s a fine line to walk.

    I recently attended a conference where they had an Idol-type first page panel, and very few first pages were successful. I learned more from that session than from any of the speakers. I wish everyone had that opportunity.
    Staci Troilo´s last blog post ..How Dr. Seuss Can Improve Your Writing

  8. says

    I understand it, and I don’t feel I should be exempt, but I must admit it makes me sad. Sad that literature should be reduced to the equivalent of pop music, and its vetting the literary version of Name That Tune (Bill, I can name that bestseller in two sentences…). Fun example in spite of my sadness.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..A Gothic Identity Crisis

  9. says

    Movies get to set the scene , introduce the characters with description of what they do and what they look like, and a variety of other things while the opening credits are rolling with music. It’s entertaining and takes care of a whole lot of business.

    Novels don’t get to do that (which I sometimes think is unfortunate) Writers generally have to start with what would be the film’s second scene (or later), where it cuts to the protagonists doing something specific or interacting with specific individuals.

    Then we have to feed in all the stuff that the movie has gotten through before the story even begins.

  10. says

    So, I’m reading about how the beginning of True Lies can help me write better openings and I’m thinking, “What? Really? That’s boring.”

    You fooled me! Not that I mind, because when you explained the inside out process I got to say, “As usual, I was right all along.”


  11. says


    Your posts are always both interesting and useful. More and more I’m understanding how a different medium, like film, can help my writing, since, after all, my story is the film running in my brain’s projector.

    I’ve love to win your new book!


  12. says

    This was an enlightening article. I loved your use of TRUE LIES to illustrate how movies and novels hook their audience using the same technique, but in reverse. Intuitively I already understood the ‘inside-out’ concept to hook readers, but your description was a real ‘light-bulb’ moment, making an abstract concept clear and memorable. I also enjoyed the ‘Literary Idol’ method of judging first pages. I know I’ll be sharing this post with my fellow writers. Thanks!

  13. Pat E. says

    I’ve been wondering how to start my book, it’s a long agonizing trial and error, but a quick, snappy, exciting start is what I’ve been leaning toward.

  14. Joel Sullivan says

    The inside out method of writing makes a lot of sense. I’ve never heard it explained that way before.

  15. says

    Excellent point. It’s as if the writer must select the most intriguing elements of his scene and feed information to the reader after forcing him to starve for a brief period. The same way a horse is trained. Descriptions aren’t a dying writing style, but they are presented in a more boisterous manner.

    I look forward to reading another one of your books. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    Happy Holidays, everyone.

  16. Heather says

    Not all novels are ACTION novels. Anne Tyler’s novels certainly don’t start this way, and I still read them. Your advice only applies to one genre.

    Also, while I’m here, columns shouldn’t start with sales pitches. Maybe end – was that the same commercial I read twice? – but not begin.

    Needs work.

  17. Robin Yaklin says

    Dear Gnome, my garden grows with do-this and do-that weeds. I’ve got a Twitter handle, but don’t know what to do with it. Tried a blog. Oh, gosh on that. LinkedIn on a friend’s suggestion. Etc. and egad what a mess. Help!

    Robin Y
    P.S.: loving the collection of related posts and thanks for a movie suggestion that gives a good example and is fun–double duty, my kind of effort.

  18. Denise Willson says

    Hmm… just thinking out loud here, Chuck… starting with action seems to be the advice-of-the-times, but one needs to walk this line carefully. The reader needs to care about Harry, care he’s in danger. Sometimes we confuse action with tension, which are not the same thing. While I agree with the example, given the genre, this isn’t the answer for every manuscript, or every writer.

    This is the part that intrigues me: “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.”

    Now this, this makes more sense to me. This isn’t action, but tension, tension that begs for answers. Why is this guy holding a gun? Is he suicidal? Is there someone else in the room? This is the stuff of a good opening page…as long as I CARE why he’s suicidal or murderous.

    … a fine line. One I admittidly do not have confidence on. A new book might help. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  19. Cy Price says

    Outside-in vs Inside-out. Great example!

    I’ve read many articles about creating the “hook” but I think this one has really nailed it (at least for me). However, it does feel like I’d be giving “something” important away too soon. Nonetheless, I understand what you’re saying here.

    Thanks for the article.

  20. says

    Like Vaughn and some of the others who commented, I also mourn the passing of certain aspects of book writing excellence that comes from our ‘instant gratification’ age … however, I do see the need to conform to the industry’s new ideals if we desire to sell our books. It’s just sad. I do appreciate the clarity of comparing writing the first page with the opening scene of True Lies – excellent and thank you! I do wonder sometimes, what the next angle will be when ‘instant’ just isn’t ‘instant enough’ …..
    Julie Catherine´s last blog post ..November Happenings & Updates

  21. says

    I will just share this: I took a Craft of the Novel (writing your first draft type of online cours)e from a VERY reputable organization with a published writer for a teacher. i had a fantastic first line that scremed self-confidence and READ THE REST OF THIS TO FIND OUT MORE. But in her critique, she pulled a line from the middle of the first page & said “your novel starts here.” It was the typical boring line of “Protagonist left for X city a few weeks ago.” REALLY? Luckily I went to a writer’s retreat & read it to the class and THAT teacher said “why don’t you use this great sentence for the first line” pointing to my original opening line. Live and learn. Thanks for a great post, I hope I win your book.

  22. says

    Nicely done, Chuck. I appreciate–and will use–the “inside out” way of looking at novel openings. As you may know, I critique novel openings on my blog, Flogging the Quill (over 600 so far), and your insight is key to understanding what ails many of the submissions I receive. I look for stronger openings in submitted chapters, and often find the good stuff on page 2 or 3. Thanks.

  23. says

    I think making a practice of revisioning movie intros as book intros will be a very useful — and fun — exercise that will make it easier for me to get that “book hook” into the first sentence. Thanks for modelling a useful writer’s tool. I am going to play this outside-in/inside-out game with our teenager who is beginning her first novel. I wish you well on the launch of your new book. Congratulations!

  24. Jane Campbell says

    Doesn’t it depend on what the focus of the story is? True Lies isn’t about a Swiss chateau, it’s about a spy and his marriage. In a character-driven story, it makes sense to start with character and work outwards.

    But some stories make their places characters in of themselves, if they’re interesting enough, if they’re gripping. What about a busy marketplace in Morocco; a spaceship landing on a distant alien moon, verdant, lush, and crawling with little blue men; a creepy haunted house — places can be hooks, too, right?

    We still want to see how these special places work their mojo on flesh-and-ink characters, and better to get there sooner rather than later, but that can still be done with an outside-in approach, when appropriate, and paced according to contemporary expectations.

    By the way, here’s a great hook for a blog post: “GIVEAWAY:…”

  25. says

    With respect, some of the commentators here seem to confuse intriguing openings with fast gimmicks. Ain’t the same.

    The opening paragraph must do two things: 1) show off your brilliant style and amazing gift of language, and 2) start at the point where things change forever (or well into that process).

    I’m a veteran of slush piles, workshops, and editing. What I see over and over (and over and over…and over…) — from smart, wonderful writers — is the need to set it up, explain, start at the back story, show the tedium of normal in this universe. When this is pointed out, they can be surprisingly stubborn about it.

    I’m not sure film is the best example, especially when Mr. Sambuchino then says “do the opposite.” Obviously very different mediums — it would take pages of prose to describe five seconds of film. Storytellers must capture interest by words alone. Luckily, we can do that.

  26. says

    Enjoyed this post. Likening a first page to the beginning of a movie is a novel idea and one we should all mull over as we write our first page. I know that I often try to get the background information all in at once, but as you said, readers aren’t hooked by that – they want action or interest. Thank you for reinforcing what I already knew!

  27. says

    I generally find those first page and query panels helpful, but sometimes exasperating. I wonder if you could comment on what seems to be problematic openings for those in the industry but maybe not so much for readers; e.g., I heard an agent say that she thought that anything that starts in a forest is cliche. I wonder if it’s cliche to her because she reads that in so many submissions, but I’m not so sure that I’ve seen that many openings in forests. Same with portals. (Okay, I’ll give you dreams.) I’m asking this as a reader who doesn’t find any problems with these, not as a reader.

  28. Joanna Branson says

    Write a story from the inside out. Now THAT makes sense! And my favorite novels do exactly that- often starting with a line of dialogue in a conversation already in progress, or immediate action which is surprising but makes perfect sense by the end of the first chapter. Inside… out… yes!

  29. says

    I love the movie True Lies, which I think is a pearl of pure entertainment, and if I were looking for lessons in it, I would say it has something to say about not taking ourselves too seriously.

  30. says

    I’m in this very process of re-working my beginning so that it grabs the reader. I no longer tolerate reading books that have no hook on the first page so I don’t want mine to be a put-down, literally. Great advice, well demonstrated. Thanks a bunch.
    corajramos´s last blog post ..After the Pumpkin Pie, Then What?

  31. says

    The first-sentence hook seems more prevalent in short stories than novels. I wonder if it isn’t because the short-form markets have larger slush piles, making it harder for a story to stand out?

    I wondered where a True Lies novel would start, since movies play by different rules. The strong visual image of a knife through the ice works for both novel and movie. For me, the movie really started when Arnold pulls off the wetsuit and reveals the tuxedo. It was the first signal of Arnold playing against his typical blue-collar action hero self (at least a little.) Is the hook allowed to come just a bit later when we’re dealing with established characters?
    Wade Peterson´s last blog post ..Uncool at Any Speed

  32. says

    Such a hot topic right now. It would be great to get my hands on this…and the timing couldn’t be better. I need to build my platform soon…and not just because I’m height challenged!

    Thanks, Chuck.

  33. says

    *fingers crossed for giveaway*

    Everyone also seems to have their own preferences as re the beginning of books. I wonder sometimes whether what will catch an editor’s or agent’s attention needs to be more “hook-y” than what a reader really requires, as they are probably more interested in the general story of the book, whether it’s something they’re familiar with or resonates with them, etc. After all, an editor or agent reading a manuscript might see a synopsis or a pitch, but that’s it, whereas a reader of a published book has the cover, the cover blurb, where a book is shelved or listed online, etc., to give them cues about what kind of book they’re going to be reading. Not to mention they’ve probably already made the investment to purchase the book (or borrowed it from the library or a friend, or whatever) so they’re more likely to read more of the book than an editor or agent will, because they’re under less time pressure.

  34. Lilia Fabry says

    Don’t forget the reveal that Harry is wearing a tuxedo underneath the wetsuit and is about to infiltrate the party in an entirely new way.

  35. Janie Fox says

    Thanks so much for this guidance. Your inside-out technique is perfect. I’ve watched True Lies a gazillion times. As an action movie buff and writer, I’m constantly searching for ways to open a story with great descriptive action.

    I just read the opening of a current best selling novel that began by telling me what the main character sees while looking in a mirror. How this cliched opening intrigues a reader is beyond me.

    I’m look forward to reading your books!

  36. Helen Erb says

    I just finished my novel and learning about creating a platform, so your new book would be a great help to me. Toss my name in the hat for the book giveaway. Thanks.

  37. says

    Things evolve and change because people inevitably evolve and change. Today, the writer has to hook/intrigue/make them drool by the first page.

    Will the reader ever know why a woman wielding a bloody knife had a small lifeless bundle at her feet? Not if she wasn’t found until page 10 and the reader tossed it before page 5.

    Unfortunately, the challenge of the first page hook leaves many writers sweaty, shaken, and thinking, “What in the #&%$ am I doing?” Unless, of course, they have a writing fairy that magically dusts all of their words with greatness. If so, um…do I Google “Magic Writing Fairy” or can I get one on Ebay?

    Congrats on your book!
    Crystal Hopkins´s last blog post ..The Baby Is No Honey Boo Boo

  38. Lucy says

    The first sentence is hard. The beginning is hard, in general, especially when writing an epic fantasy.

    I remember I was playing around with some writing friends online trying to come up with great first few sentences. The best one I remember is “Welcome to Hell. Check in is on the right, and your room is up the stairs next to the flaming poinsetta.”

    I usually write first chapters LAST, or do some serious revising, because many people, when looking for books to buy, read only the first sentences. First sentences are critical.

  39. Diane Watanabe says

    This is something I tell myself every time I start a story. Start in the middle instead of at the beginning. And yet, I still find myself starting at the wrong point. Oh well, practice makes perfect.

    I love reading your posts. Thanks for the reminder.

  40. says

    I am a painter and a writer, so I get to start with the image and then write the story. For example, Robert The Tap Dancing Rooster started with a painting of a rooster who seemed to be dancing. I decided that he had learned to tap, became obsessed with tap dancing, neglected his “crow-at-dawn” duties so often that the hens booted him out of the henhouse. He came to me for a portrait and for career counseling (my previous profession), and now he is on his way to Broadway to be the world’s first tap dancing rooster.

    He is in a book, “The Small Friends’ Chronicles,” which I published at blurb ( Now I have to make a market for him and his friends (and find a less-expensive publishing platform for the second edition.)

  41. says

    Chuck, I had the good fortune of sitting in on the Literary Idol event in Lexington in June. Even though time ran out before my first page made it to the top of the stack, I learned enough from observing your reactions and those of the agents that I changed my novel’s opening. Your explanation here of writing the inside-out versus the outside-in is helpful. Perhaps I should revisit my opening scene again. Thank you for sharing your insight.
    Frances Pearce´s last blog post ..The Cupola House Gardens Revisited

  42. Lillian says

    Great example! I restarted my current novel a day earlier (and the location of the town moved north!) because the beginning scene just didn’t grab the reader’s attention fast enough! Thanks for the insight and I hope I win a copy of your latest book!

  43. says

    The first two pages slush pile happened to me in St. Louis. I learned my lesson on an opening hook immediately. I was so embarrassed at the time, but now that my book is out I’m soooooo glad I took the risk for embarrassment. My hook: “When I grow up, I’m going to marry him….” Much better than what I had offered before the slush pile.

  44. says

    I love your True Lies example. Spot on! Starting a novel was something I struggled with and I’ll apologize now to those agents that I queried before I knew better. After taking several writing classes and attending writing clinics, I scrapped all of my main character’s internal thoughts for something hopefully more attention grabbing.

    Congrats on your book release! I wish you much success.

  45. Seth says

    Excellent advise! Thank you for simplifying your point by relating it to a familiar movie. As a teacher, I appreciate the technique.

  46. says

    Great post! My thriller opens just after the murder. I’d been considering showing the crime itself, and you confirmed my instinct.

    I also love using movies to teach about ‘story’ since most folks have seen the same blockbusters (but not necessarily read the same books.)
    T.D. Hart´s last blog post ..A Great Location to Inspire You…

  47. says

    An excellent point, and nicely explained. I work/dabble in what is likely vastly too many formats to be good for a career — from short stories to comics to books to screenplays to TV show concepts — so it’s always good to be reminded of what’s key for what kind of writing.

  48. says

    Love this post! I have put down so many books, no matter the subject, due to the first paragraph. People often think I’m too critical when I say “if I can’t get through the first 10 pages, I’m definitely not reading the book.” Glad to know I’m not alone.

    Thanks Chuck!
    Sherry Lawler´s last blog post ..Kevin Metz

  49. says

    Thanks for showing us how to start a book versus how a movie starts.

    Can’t wait to get a copy of Create Your Writer’s Platform. I need help getting a newsletter together and getting more followers.

    Thanks in advance,

    P.S. Did you ever make it to a Van Halen concert?

  50. Melissa Roske says

    Your column came at the perfect time for me, Chuck: I recently finished a middle-grade novel and am working on the follow-up. I will now go back and make sure that my opening paragraph sparkles like the Hope diamond! (Oh, and I hope I win your fabulous new book!)

  51. JJ Bang says

    “Despite the fact that the importance of starting strong appears to be well known by most aspiring writers…” Writing exercise: say this in fewer words.

  52. says

    This is challenging when you want to develop a character’s sort of ordinary existence before a massive change occurs … but I have instinctively known that I need more action to start. Thanks.

  53. says

    It was dark and bitter cold as I sat in front of the monitor, thankful for the aroma and warmth of the coffee. I couldn’t believe it – a godsend! I would tell them all to go to hell – this was the answer I had been looking for. I was saved. No more 12 hour shifts on my feet with barely time to choke down a sandwich, no more grueling hours, and best of all, an end to dealing with those insipid University people who never “get” anything about real life. Create Your Writer Platform was about to change my life. Yes, yes, yes, thank you Chuck!

  54. Lisa says

    It’s very true that the beginning of the novel – the first line, the first paragraph – are so very important. I’m learning a lot about cutting unnecessary words as I’m going through the revision of my first draft – I have a lot of words to cut! But it’s quite interesting to me how all the cutting still leaves the story on the page – and although I mourn the loss of some of my descriptions, I can see how they are not really necessary.


  55. says

    Hey Chuck, I love the advice:
    “A movie can go outside-in. A novel should go inside-out.”
    I’m going to have to pass it along to all my writer friends. Thanks!
    Good luck with Create Your Writer Platform!

  56. says

    Thanks for the post. TV shows and movies are great examples to learn from. They have to grab the audience fast to keep them from channel surfing and keep the tension going to hold viewers through all the commercial interruptions.

  57. says

    Good point. We can learn from the fast starts common in movies, but they have to be different for books. Screenplays, too, actually — someone in a theater is going to give the movies time to get going, but a busy industry exec doesn’t want to read 5 pages of quiet opening credit background scenes.

  58. says

    Excellent article! Thank you so much for the advice. It makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting to think about how many of us might intuit the “inside-out” and “outside-in” structural approaches (I’ve written both novels and screenplays, even a few adaptations, and they’re definitely two different beasts) while not being consciously aware of why we take said approaches. I hadn’t really given it much thought before now, but you’re definitely right on the mark.

  59. says

    Your blog post reminds me of how whenever I begin a novel, the entire story plays in my head and I imagine it as a movie. Que the dramatic background music.

    I even have the movie preview planned.

  60. A M Sligar says

    Okaaay, another writerly trick that will have me watching movies for style instead of story; which I am already beginning to so much that last week I had to rewatch one to see what it was about.

  61. Ashley Cook says

    Annnnnd linked to my Evernote. A great reference and wonderful points to consider. Thanks for sharing. Not to mention the “True Lies ” is my favorite Action /Comedy so I was hooked from the beginning.

  62. Marjorie Wertz says

    Hi Chuck,

    I’ve always read that you begin writing a book not at the beginning but where some sort of action is taking place. The one example of a submission with the nervous guy who goes to the window holding a gun … I would have started by describing the feeling of the gun in my hands.
    Your new book sounds great! Thanks. Marjorie

  63. says

    Your point about hooking the reader is so important, and not just in our world of 140 characters (although I have wondered if social media might be the perfect training ground for such).

    But getting that early hook down can fall away if the writer is distracted by the “big picture” plot. Something I know I struggle with at times. I see the ending, the place to where I want to get characters, I can see healthy portions of the journey, and thus I lose sight of the all-important “get there first” step.

    Thank you, Mr. S.
    Marie Parsons´s last blog post ..Vengeance Is….(Working title)

  64. says

    Ok, new at this “smart” phone thumbtyping and going mobile (or I guess continuing while mobile). Chuck’s tweet had me at free and I’ve always fancied a platform of my own.

  65. Nathan Elberg says

    A revered medieval Jewish scholar questioned why the Bible started with the creation, rather than many chapters later, already into the Moses narrative.
    So discussing with what to start a book is a long-established tradition.

  66. says

    I want to receive your book to become a better writer….! We share the same passion…’Writing’… !! :) So I am really hoping that you send me a copy of your book!! All the best to you….!
    Preeti´s last blog post ..Each day…

  67. says

    I do miss the old days of setting the story up but, alas, these aren’t the old days. Today’s readers want action/tension from the start. Thanks. The idea of a novel going inside to out makes sense.
    Bruce Luck´s last blog post ..Mr. S

  68. says

    Thanks for the advice. I like the inside-out explanation instead of “start with action.” I’ve seen too many movies and read too many books that jump on this advice, creating something that feels stilted instead of exciting. Starting “inside” suggests starting with emotion, something that may stir up a sense of curiousity or relatability in us, and is usually more subtle than using exploding bombs in the first line. If we can tap into the reader’s emotions right off the bat, maybe we have a chance. And True Lies rocks! :-)

  69. Paula Richey says

    Thank you for this illustration! It really demonstrates the advice to “begin with a hook” in a new and memorable way.
    I’m thinking that even when you have the advantage of images (such as when writing graphic novels), you still need to start with a hook. After all, nobody picking up a book, illustrated or not, has just paid $10 to sit in a dark room and not be distracted from your story.

  70. says

    That’s a really great way of putting it, and I hadn’t thought about that before. Beginnings are something I always struggle with, and for some reason I also feel the need to push back the action of the story as long as possible, perhaps in an attempt to build the tension. I’ll have to keep the inside-out idea in mind as I work on my future projects :) Great post, great advice- thanks!

  71. says

    Chuck thank you for this post and for your book! As a writer who previously only found it necessary to only concentrate on creating material, I’m learning that it is becoming increasingly important to have a platform, to build an audience and emerge from the solitary ‘writer cocoon’ that so many of us so easily fall into. That said I can admit I have no idea how to go about successfully creating a platform and though I’ve done research and have been able to get some valuable information from differing sources, having a book with all of that information organized, tested and presented in a user friendly format is priceless!
    Samantha´s last blog post ..Pages 21 – 27

  72. says

    Such good points. Too many people imagine their book will become a movie even as they start to write it. And of course, that may happen, but the likelihood is small. I keep telling my critique groups – grab my on page 1 or you lose me. This is hard for people to grasp.

    My idea is to just write – when I figure out where the beginning really is, I can lose the rest. But this keeps me from getting stuck too soon trying to create the perfect start. I trust that it will be there.

  73. says

    I’m hard at work creating my platform. Unfortunately, I was recently too tired, yet too eager to work on my website and rendered it un-viewable. The experts are trying to figure out what I did. I could some overall guidance and would love to have your book.

    Lyndie Blevins

  74. Woodrow Wilkins says

    Good example, Chuck. I remember that movie and loved the opening. Inside out. I think I can make use of that. Thank you.

  75. says

    Love the inside-out reference for that all-important first page. I think we look at that page so much, it’s hard to be as objective as we need to be. Great insights for someone just working my way through my platform.

  76. Briana Stewart says

    Great concept. First pages have always been my favorite to write (whether I can do it with any kind of success is a different issue all together) and this is a fun new angle to come at it from. Thanks!

  77. Colleen Robbins says

    I’m sharing your inside to out / True Lies analogy at my next writer’s club meeting. Too many of the younger writers DO write like a movie opening. Thanks for a great way to explain the difference. Also, please enter me in your giveaway for _Create a Writer’s Platform_. Thanks!

  78. T.A. Dieringer says

    The Agent was used to pain, used to the numbing cold pain that only a swim through Icy-waters will cause. His concentration was on his target above, he thrust the cold, blue-steal into the ice. It started to crack. He ignored the cramps, the shakes. His adrenalin rush kicked in at the thought of sinking his cold, blue-steal-blade deep into the hot-flesh of his targets neck, the crack in the ice widened…

  79. says

    Great post! I like beginnings that put you in the driver’s seat or somebody’s head … “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” (How did he break his arm? How did he break it in such a weird place? The child-like grammar, the rhythmic Southern syntax. Classic.)

  80. Kisha Vale says

    When I write I always concentrate on that first sentence. I want to be able to intrigue the writer right from the very beginning in order to keep them reading. When the first sentence allows the reader to be so intrigued in order to ask questions, for example “Well, what is she running from?” and so on…that is what I aim to achieve.

  81. says

    This is very true, especially now. It used to be that I would read until page 50 and then if it still didn’t grab my interest, than I would leave it and start another book. Now I find that if the story doesn’t grab me right away, from page one, I put the book down and keep looking.

  82. says

    ooooh I didnt realize you have another book out! Thank you for the chance to win! It looks awesome!! Hope to win.

    Thank you for breaking this down. All such helpful reminders.

  83. C.L. says

    Thanks for an informative post on something that can be so seductive to writers.

    And I’d love to be entered for a copy of your book. :)

  84. Tylor Sidener says

    Very timely content since new authors need all the help they can get to learn to market on their own.

  85. says

    You know, I had never really thought about it that way before, but you’re absolutely right! Simple but very illuminating truth. I admit that, under the influence of movies, I have often taken the outside-in approach…

    Thanks for the insight!

  86. Kathleen August says

    Chuck Sambuchino’s posts are like having your own personal writing mentor.

    Why weren’t my teachers and professors this good?!

  87. S. Bond says

    Gasping desperately for each small breath, every second more agonizing than the first as my throat relentlessly continued to clamp tightly shut. My body now trembling as fear and terror engulfed my very being. “I can overcome this” I kept reminding myself. Fighting to stay focused was becoming increasingly more difficult. My extremities now shaking even more ferociously, I could not give up or it would be over for me. I knew if I could just get my hands on it I would at least have a chance. With every fiber of my being, in my desperation and despair I knew I had to continue to fight to the end. I need to just get my hands tightly gripped around Chuck Sambuchino´s new book” Create Your Writer Platform.” Then I will have the tools I need to to assist me in my life long dream of becoming a brilliant and recognized writer!
    Hoping I can get a copy soon!

  88. S. Bond says

    4 Responses to 6 Reasons to Check Out My New Book, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM (Plus a Giveaway Contest)

    Unfortunately, majority of responders, including myself,
    seem to have replied to you to your contest offer in the wrong place. Here instead of on the other page. Hoping you will take this into consideration.

    • says

      Not sure what you mean. THIS page (Writer Unboxed) is the correct page to enter, so you probably did enter A-OK. I picked the 2 winners last night. But fear not. I have a contest with every one of my monthly posts!

  89. says

    Your example from “True Lies” is perfect. So many novels by beginners (and many short stories, as well) start by trying to paint an “establishing shot.” Your example does a good job of explaining how it could be done differently.

    There are a lot of poets who make similar missteps. Often, in poetry workshops I’ve attended, poems read better when the first stanza was removed.
    Alyce Wilson´s last blog post ..2012 Holiday Bazaar

  90. Teena Marie says

    Thank you for the writing tips. I am writing short stories and your article is very helpful. I would love a chance to read your new book.

  91. Mina wagner says

    In other words,” the hook”. Hook them and then have the luxury of delaying their curiosity with descriptions. Bravo!

  92. Lara says

    What a great post. Thanks! And now that I think about it, you are so right. Plus I love “True Lies” as well. :)

  93. says

    Late to the party but your counterpoint of novel to film opening is well worth my consideration. Something has been wrong with my opening and I think it has more to do with my describing the film in my head rather than being a writer. I have an opening line that is buried, but its position also harkens a transition: the story is told from the point of view of a dead character, dying in the opening paragraphs leading to the opening line that begins the flashback – bookending the flashback with a restatement of the opening line.

    Thus, outside the opening to closing line, the beginning explains the fate. Yes, it sounds cool. Yes, I understand what I am trying to do. BUT I am uncomfortable with the wait, finding myself constantly whittling down the opening but being unwilling to whittle it down to nothing.

    A conundrum for sure.

  94. trish cosey says

    I almost didn’t read this article because nobody can tell another person how to start their novel. At least all of the advice I’ve ever read is too generic to be helpful. But this is different. It’s actually amazingly helpful because it explains both how and why–with a great example! Thank you, Chuck!

  95. says

    So you had me totally sold and I was going to buy your book.

    I clicked on the book cover and it seems to be a link to a picture on someone else’s site?

    I clicked the links and they are all circular references bringing me back to your article.

    The problem is I am a writer and I already identified I need a mind blowing opening.

    I noticed you speak about the same thing.

    I thought “this guy is on the money, what else has he got” so I clicked.

    By tomorrow in this ADHD fueled world I probably will have forgotten all about it – or at least I will be worried that someone who is going to teach me about marketing my book can’t put a really obvious link to the actual book in the text of their blog?

    Enlighten me!

    All given in the spirit of providing useful feedback…

    Kind regards…
    Mark Ty-Wharton´s last blog post ..About The Podcast

  96. Anita says

    Thank YOU for that big tip. With so many books on the shelf, you only have a few sentences or words to pull the reader in. Thanks again.

  97. Rachelle Glover says

    Thank you so much for this article. I am aspiring to be a writer and the information above was extremely helpful. I would love the chance to read and learn more from your books. If you choose me I will be forever grateful.

  98. sheila pope says

    I agree with your comments regarding making a story interesting. I tell my college students their word choices can make an essay become bland or spicy! I prefer spice in my required reading. Thanks for confirming my beliefs.

  99. Alok lamsal says

    It is true that achoring the reader at the initials is attractive. People today rarely have time to sit and think about the description in your book that you want to present in a more literaturical way. This even works in movies. This is more political way of pursuading people.

  100. says

    So I am forcibly being made to lie down. This is good I am a writer, mostly children’s puppetry but I have had my share of collaboration and adult theater produced. I completely agree and love how accessible you make this information. One of my jobs when I can stand up is working with children in jail.

    So if your first line does not grab me I will not continue. These kids have taught me that. I completely disagree with the only thriller camp. Try “watching the metal as it descends into the chaos makes my heart hunger for the statis quo” as your opening line on your next non fiction book about knitting….I dare you. Bet more folks would read it.

    Thanks so much for this article.
    devo´s last blog post ..Twitter you little scamp

  101. says

    “A movie can go outside-in. A novel should go inside-out.” Fantastic Chuck, that’s the best succinct explanation I’ve seen so far. And I love the implied camera adjustment from pan to focus, or visa versa. I’ve seen this work, while adapting my 2010NaNoWriMo WIP for the screen during the following Script Frenzy month. Keeping both approaches in mind, and comparing the results seems to help me make each stronger. Oh, and love the literary idol idea, what a concept.

  102. Tracie lee says

    Just bought the writer platform book off of the Writers Digest website. Looking forward to diving in and seeing how it compares to Guerrilla Marketing for writers.

  103. says

    While I agree with you that a book has to grab attention from the first page, paragraph or sentence, all too many books grow weaker as you get deeper in the story.

    As for giving too much description in the first couple of pages … I recently started a book where the first 30 pages described how angry a man was. Eventually I thought “Alright already, he’s angry, I get it”. The author … Stephen King in Duma Key.

    If we’re supposed to learn from authors like that I say “No thank you.”

  104. Christine Moore says

    Hello Chuck,
    I’m not sure of the appropriate way to gracefully approach the real question at hand. I find your expression easy and to the point . Therefore I would greatly appreciate a book. I assure you it would have a good home. Further I promise to actually read it. In the mean time I will continue to peruse your online information. Thank you , Christine Moore

  105. Rebecca Anderson says

    I love that example of a slow start and the contrasting example of starting from the inside out. I tried to begin my novel in the midst of action, but this gave me more insight to the character’s own development happening. Thank you for helping me clean up the writing before getting help with the query and synopsis. This was just what was needed.