Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients

On the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey offers a recurring piece called Flog a Pro. Rhamey identifies six key ingredients that the opening page of a novel must feature: story questions, tension (in the reader, not the character), voice, clarity, scene-setting, and character.

Here he breaks down the opening page of the runaway best-seller Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

While it’s not a requirement to have all six ingredients, Rhamey writes, an author has a better chance of hooking a reader if many of these elements are present.

I am in the midst of refining the beginning pages of my work-in-progress and this effort got me thinking about effective beginnings. In researching this topic, I found a lot of advice from agents and editors about what not to do in the opening page of a novel:

–Start too slowly

–Dump a lot of backstory about the main character

–Include too much exposition

–Introduce the story with a dream sequence

–Begin with slam-bang action, mayhem, maybe even a few deaths. Action without context will only confuse the reader.

Here are more types of bad beginnings from agent Chuck Sambuchino:
Chuck Sambuchino

Rhamey’s list is a solid starting point, but it needs elaboration. There’s one more essential ingredient and it relates to one of his ingredients, character. One inviolate rule about effective opening scenes is the writer must make the reader care about the main character. What does that mean? To me, it means the writer must create an emotional connection between the reader and the character. This is by far the most challenging aspect of crafting an effective beginning.

I found a lot of great advice about opening scenes and I want to share it here:

This post is a fantastic mashup called the 21 best tips for writing your opening scene

Here are more tips from the Editor’s Blog. Here’s a post on how to hook your reader.

And some tips on opening sentences from the blog Fuel Your Writing.

Will Greenway offers eight rules.

Chuck Wendig, 25 things to know about an opening chapter is irreverent, funny and true.

To these many words of wisdom I add one more and this I cannot stress enough: spend whatever time is necessary to make the first scene sing. If you are not spending more time on the opening scene than on the rest of your manuscript, you’re not trying hard enough.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients

  1. Patrick J. Lee

    Great compilation, thanks Chris. The pressure on the opening pages has been much increased since the advent of the free sample on Amazon. But I like to remember what William Goldman wrote about the life of a screenwriter in “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. He described how every movie producer takes home a pile of scripts to read each weekend and usually skims just the first few pages of each. Screenwriters often disparage producers for this cursory examination of their precious hard work. However, as Goldman describes the producer as he starts on each screenplay… “and do you know what he wants at that moment? — he wants to love it.”

    Every time a producer opens a script he is hoping this is the one that grabs him. Because his livelihood depends on finding the script that does. And because he can now stop reading all the ordinary ones.

    I think the same applies to readers sampling the opening pages of your novel: they want to love it. They’re actively looking for something to read. They’re ready to press the buy now button on the right book. It’s a privilege for authors that such an opportunity exists.

    I try to review my opening pages against many of the recommendations you highlight in your post, but beware of smart devices. Rather lay before the reader evidence of how your mind works, how your view of the world is slanted slightly differently than everyone else’s. Show them a voice they want to live with for 300 pages. Show them empathy. Show them that everything is not as it seems. That’s pretty easy, right?

    • Patrick, thanks for your comment. I like what you say about showing the reader a voice they will want to live with for 300 pages. And empathy with the character is huge. If the reader doesn’t feel anything towards the character, he will not read on, especially with free samples.

  2. Thanks for sharing Chuck’s post among all these great resources! Ray asks such good questions; Flog a Pro is always an interesting read.

    Best of luck with your revisions!

    • Thanks, Heather. Good luck to you to (if you’re in the midst of revisions or working on an opening scene). Thanks for stopping by.

    • Heather,
      Sorry for not responding sooner. I have been on the road travelling for my day job. Thank you for your comment. I always find Flog a Pro to be interesting and I like seeing the poll results.

  3. Tina Goodman

    I enjoyed the first page of Gone Girl, even though it took a flogging and could have started where Rhamey suggested. I loved the voice of the husband; I felt like he was talking to me and saying something unique.
    The openings with a dream sequence work okay in movies like Pee Wee Herman’s films, YA, horror, comedy, artsy… but not novels.
    And I really dislike written stories that start with action. Starting things off with action scenes are also acceptable in films. I think Raiders of the Lost Arc started with action, didn’t it?
    I’m going to check out those links you posted now.

    • Tina,
      Sorry for not responding sooner. I have been on the road travelling for my day job. I agree with you on dream sequences and action scenes. Action without context only confuses the reader. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Jim Snell

    Chris-
    I think you’re onto something.
    I’ve read several of Ray’s “flogging” posts, but I usually don’t agree with the general consensus on his blog – which, strangely enough, usually mirrors his own thoughts about each submission (or flogee?).
    Yeah, I get that he’s really focused on how agents will react to a first page of a submitted novel – for the most part. But I think his checklist of a half-dozen things to cram into the first 17 lines of a novel isn’t necessarily really the way to go. And I think his reaction to Gone Girl’s opening shows part of the problem. He’s created his own criteria – obviously, there is no one answer for how to start a novel, or everyone would do it that way. But in judging strictly by his own set of rules for the first page, he misses the bigger picture. When I read Gone Girl, I wasn’t too sure about the opening. It’s a freaky way to open a story, with the husband musing about the look and shape of his wife’s head – and then the idea of pawing through her brain to figure out what’s in there. But, guess what. That’s exactly what the whole damn book’s about. The set up about how the husband is a bit weird, of course. But the book that follows is about what is *really* in Amy’s brain. Once you look at the beginning after reading the book, you get that – yeah – she had you right there in the first paragraph. Subtle, almost subliminal, and very nearly perfect.
    Plus, what you added to Ray’s list – characters that engage you (that’s what I think you’re onto, btw) – is right there too. I mean, what married person hasn’t wondered what the heck their spouse is thinking about, what’s going on in their head?
    As a former journalist too, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to start stories – how to get that first sentence just right so it draws readers in. But different stories are, big shock, different. There are thousands of ways to begin stories. Heck, there might be a thousand ways to start any one story.
    But I think you’re closer to the answer than Ray is. I think you have to have characters that engage the reader (and that’s the same for movies/tv). Recently, Syfy started a new series called Dominion. I watched the first episode, wanting to like it. By the end, I decided it wasn’t really for me. Why? Just didn’t care about any of the characters.
    So how to start a story?
    Make it compelling, and have engaging characters your readers want to spend time with. And when I figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.
    (Now going read those links you gave, ’cause they look good.)

    • Jim, thanks for your comments. I agree it is difficult for the writer to cover all six ingredients on Ray’s checklist in the opening page of a novel, but the list provides a sound guide to the types of elements that should be there. The opening to Gone girl was unusual to say the least, but it provide insight and foreshadowing of what was about to take place. There is no magic formula, but more often than not, I read drafts that get it wrong. I suppose that is why they are drafts. Thanks for your comments.

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