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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.

Action
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.

Dialogue
Narrative Distance:
Medium

Pros: An inciting line of dialogue can be a very strong statement, and an awesome way to both set the mood and to pique the reader’s interest. It has many of the benefits of starting with action, while enabling greater complexity of expression. It’s great for humor, tension, and drama.

Cons: Do not try this with small talk. And it’s very hard with baseless (but not base-having) wit—and congenial conversations you expect to go on for quite some time. In fact, I wouldn’t try it with anything but arguments (unless, of course, the dialogue is merely serving as window dressing for some other kind of chapter start)—as arguments come equipped with tension, social drama, the potential for action and serious fallout, and still leave plenty of room for humor. Of course, that argument can be a funny one, that sets a humorous tone—or a dead-serious one that shows the depths of the hero’s despair. Totally up to you!

Direct Thought
Narrative Distance:
Tight

Pros: Direct thoughts generally occur in super-tight narrative distances, so that immediately tells us that the character is either having a hyper intense & focused moment, restraining themselves verbally, or completely lost in thought. It works well for humor, self-aware moments, and emotional scenes.

Cons: Thoughts and emotions are heady stuff; a little bit goes a long way, and a lot can get out of hand super fast. You don’t generally want to throw in direct thought when you’re in anything but a tight narrative distance, as that can be jarring, and you have to be careful when using it for humor that you’re not letting the desire for wittiness trump the needs of the character. Additionally, you want to make sure you’re adding flavor and insight with the direct thought—and not just telling rather than going to the trouble to show.

Description
Narrative Distance: Any

Pros: Description is a classic way to set the scene. When done well, it is unbelievably immersive, letting you step right into that world before the characters even start talking. And the very best descriptions can set a mood faster than candlelight and fine beverages.

Cons: Description is classic, all right. Sometimes? Too classic. Those trees! That sky! And oh, what a sun! Be careful, when using description to start a scene, not to describe things just because you think you ought to—only describe things that add to the reader’s experience. It certainly doesn’t have to have anything to do with fashion or weather! In fact, if the choice is unusual, that can make an interesting statement all its own.

Transitional Summary
Narrative Distance: Far

Pros: Novels that don’t necessarily want to record every waking instance of their characters’ lives tend to speed up time a little in between climactic scenes. But you can’t always just skip huge swathes of time without giving the reader some clue as to what transpired. This is the place for transitional summaries. A transitional summary uses the narrative voice to tell the readers where the characters are, in terms of time and plot, along with a cursory summary of what the reader missed—and it is a classic introduction technique. It is generally written in the narrator’s voice, and can set almost any tone the writer could wish for.

Cons: If you’re skipping stuff? I’m going to assume it’s not that important. I mean think about it: how many times do you read a book and come away raving about the awesome transitional scenes? When it comes down to it, it just can’t really carry intensity.

Mirroring
Narrative Distance:
Medium

Pros: Mirroring the end of the previous chapter in the beginning of the next--with different characters, or else a drastically different time--can be funny, poignant, or even just a good way to draw a connection that could help your readers better understand the themes of your book.

Cons: Like anything that can be funny, you want to make sure it’s not funny at the wrong time. Like the epic battle at the end, for example. Total loss of tension, right there. It also stands out, no matter what it’s used for, so you want to make sure you don’t do it too often.

Philosophical/Historical/Geographical/Biological Waxings
Narrative Distance: Far

Pros: Waxings, philosophical or otherwise, can operate as extended metaphors (lending deeper understanding to the situation at hand), emotional touchstones, character insights, or even just worldbuilding with a side of foreshadowing. More importantly, they can give the world a tremendous sense of gravitas and realism.

Cons: It’s bad form to wax on for too long, if the waxing isn’t what the book is actually about. No matter how well-written, philosophical, historical, geographical, and biological thoughts are only so gripping when the alternative is a drama- and action-filled fantasy novel.

Flashbacks or Dream Sequences
Narrative Distance: Medium or Tight

Pros: Flashbacks and dream sequences are ridiculously tempting to many authors just due to the sheer number of things they accomplish. They provide a chance to infodump, give a character backstory, allow the reader greater empathy with an otherwise unlikeable character, and give insight into the character’s current situation. They’re an excuse to play with your writing style (and subject matter) in fun and innovative ways, and can set a mood like nobody’s business. A good dream sequence or flashback, usually centered on something of great emotional and symbolic importance to the character, is riveting.

Cons: Due to their ridiculously tempting nature, they are, tragically, a trifle overused. And, of course, by their nature, they can also be a bit confusing. So try to only use them when they trump more traditional methods of passing said information along—and when you do, make sure you polish that scene to a fine sheen.

Tight Focus on a Symbol
Narrative Distance:
Medium or Tight

Pros: While I’m a big fan of saying it straight, sometimes, the most poignant way to make your point is obliquely. Generally, you’ll find this kind of chapter start when putting the subject bluntly wouldn’t give it enough emotional weight, or would require too many words (and in doing so bury the point). And sometimes, it’s also when the hero themselves doesn’t understand where their headspace is, or when you want to foreshadow something the hero doesn’t know.

Cons: Symbolic beginnings, like garlic, can come off very strong. Occasionally, strong is just what you want—for example, when the character is supposed to come to some sort of understanding through the symbolic reference, or when hunting vampires (re: garlic). However, other times, keep it brief and subtle, so as to avoid ruining the effect.

Waking Up
Narrative Distance: Any

Pros: Most everyone has woken up before . . . It’s universally applicable! Seriously, though, it’s actually excellent when it’s actually applicable—meaning, when the waking up is in some way unusual, like after a period of missing time, or after being knocked out. Also, it gives the character an excuse to think about everything they otherwise wouldn’t, and in doing so provide a pretty clear picture of things for the reader.

Cons: It’s kind of cliché, especially for first chapters, so proceed with extreme caution. And if you find yourself knocking your character out all the time, just to change chapters? It may be time to work on those transition-writing skills.

*

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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 :).

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.)

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