10 Ways to Get Your Chapter On

WritersdontcryTheendFirst paragraphs should always be gripping. Not just of the first page of the first chapter of the first book in a series—the first paragraph of every chapter. They should tempt you to read on, even though it’s past your bedtime. Even though you have to get up early for that meeting/class/cat-wrangling boot camp you signed on for. Even though you just know that if you get to the end of that chapter, you’re going to have to read the next one, too.

But even if that chapter start was the most memorablist, most awesomist chapter start in known creation—and you totally finished the whole book that first night on the strength of that one chapter start—that doesn’t mean every chapter should start that way. Because really? That would be boring, for both the reader and the writer. Especially when there are so many incredibly intriguing, utterly unique, and perfectly practical chapter starts out there just waiting to be plunked onto chapters of their very own.

So, just next time you’re feeling ruttish and looking to start with something a little different, here’s a list of ten of the most common chapter starts out there, along with some of the pros and cons of each. Go ahead and play! It’s just one paragraph, and you never know what you might discover to be the perfect fit.

Narrative Distance:
Medium or Tight

Pros: It’s common wisdom that pulse-pounding action scenes are a good way to grab your reader by the eyelashes and glue them firmly to your book. And when done right, it’s like the epitome of “show don’t tell”—showing us the conflict, the world, and what the characters are like without a single infodump.

Cons: Contrary to popular belief, action—on paper, as in a sequence of active, blood-and-guts words--is not inherently interesting. It can, in fact, even be boring. And it most certainly runs the risk of being disorienting, especially when you have a tight focus. So it’s important to make sure both that your reader knows what’s at stake, and that the scene itself is a creative and arresting display of action and character.

Narrative Distance:

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Posted by: jesminnahar | Thursday January 31, 2013 at 4:31 AM

Brom: You're welcome! I think one of the most important tasks of a writer is to make their book hard to put down. And you've put your finger on some amazing first paragraphs :).

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday January 15, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Thanks for this article. I've always been aware of how important the first paragraph of a book is - that's usually how I decide whether to buy it or not. But I've never thought about the writer making similar efforts with the first paragraph of each subsequent chapter - though, now that you mention it, I know I've read books that have done this kind of thing well. Makes it hard to read over lunch, since I'll find myself done eating and unwilling to stop reading....

I tried to think of examples of strong openings. One of my favorites is Roger Zelazny's "Nine Princes in Amber," where the central character wakes up with amnesia, and we learn what's going on right along with him.

Another that sticks in my mind is one I've come across recently: N.K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms." I decided to look at it because you've recommended it, and then I was hooked by that first paragraph: "I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore." After that, I had to find out more.

And I thought "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss had an effective opening. (Got me to read it, anyway.) "It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts." I think what's effective about that is that it leaves you wondering, okay, what are the three parts? (I am reminded here of an article on suspense that Lee Child wrote for the Draft series in the New York Times.)

Posted by: Brom | Monday January 14, 2013 at 7:29 AM

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