Did you know that 81% of Americans have thought about publishing a book? How come most of them don’t? Perhaps you still haven’t started the first chapter of your book and find that staring at that blank page is an ordeal? Personally, I’ve found that once I know some useful techniques, the words flow much easier; so here are my top tips on how to start a chapter.
Tip 1: Set the Scene
Let the reader know where the action is happening. You can go from big to small or the other way around. For example, you can start by describing a town, a house, or even a whole galaxy, and then zoom in on the smaller details of where the action is taking place.
To do the opposite, describe the details of a place in order to form a whole image in the reader’s mind. The dripping of a coffee machine, the clacking of a waitress’s shoes, and the smell of a waffle might conjure up the image of a breakfast joint in the reader’s mind. For this to work, you have to make sure the details you chose are representative of the location and time period. Providing strong sensory detail works great with this technique.
You can think about setting the scene on a larger scale by providing a new piece of info about the world at the beginning of each chapter.
Tip 2: Start Where the Action Is
Try to avoid exposition at the beginning of your chapter (especially if it’s the first chapter). Follow the good old “show, don’t tell” rule that you’ve probably heard many times.
If you feel like the reader needs to know a lot of information to understand what’s happening, try to weave it into the action, or write it out first until you reach the action, then think about how you can switch the order.
Before you get carried away, remember that what makes a good action scene is not the action itself, but rather the characters involved and the consequences of said action. For example, if it’s a fight, we need to care about who is going to win and what will happen when they do.
You can take this literally and start your chapter with a verb. Try to avoid generic verbs (walk, jump, etc…). Instead, use something that is more specific and interesting (Stroll, leap, etc..). You can choose verbs that are reminiscent of your setting for an added bonus.
Action grabs the reader like a hook and makes them want to know more. Exposition? Not so much.
Tip 3: Consider the Theme
You need to think about what you’re trying to communicate in this chapter. As Robert Mckee describes it in “Story”, what is the value you’re trying to convey? It doesn’t need to be a moralistic value, but simply something that can be positively or negatively charged (e.g. love/hate, freedom/slavery, hope/despair).
Once you have a value (or a few), these can help you move the story forward. If your last chapter ended on a positive value, the new chapter would benefit from starting with the negative counterpart of said value.
Likewise, you can take a more traditional approach to themes. The idea is to use that theme to craft the opening of your chapter.
Tip 4: Change the Point of View
If your point of view (POV) character makes you feel stuck for any reason, consider switching the POV to another character that may be doing something more interesting.
You also can demonstrate the different POVs of characters viewing the same event. Delve deep into how the same action is perceived differently and how it affects their life. This opens the door for interesting, new possibilities for your story.
Tip 5: Write What You Feel Like at the Moment
If you don’t know how to start but you already know where you’re going, start with any scene you know will be included in the story.
Write the part you’re most excited about, or whatever part you feel like writing for now. You don’t have to write in the same order the book will be in.
Once you have some momentum, you’ll be more willing to work on the more tedious parts. You’ll also have a clearer picture of what needs to happen before the part that you wrote. Sometimes you don’t need to add anything at all! The point is that once you have some material already, you can find a well-chosen starting point.
If you’re the type of writer that likes to plan their stories, simply refer back to your outline and choose whichever part seems more interesting.
Tip 6: Start with a Strong Emotion
Emotions lead to action, which leads to conflict. It also helps the reader relate to your character and understand how they interact with the world around them (including places, objects, events, or other characters).
Instead of simply describing where the character is or what is happening to them, get into the character’s mind and think about how this makes them feel.
Feelings motivate your character to take action, which is what drives the plot forward. When their feelings and actions clash with other entities, you get conflict.
It’s worth noting that the reader takes on the emotions of your POV character. As a result, if the character feels strongly about something, so shall the reader.
Tip 7: Play with Time
Flashbacks get a bad rep, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If something interesting happened in your character’s past, you can share it in flashback form.
Make sure that your flashback is relevant to the plot occurring in the present day, in the sense that it helps move your narrative forward.
Of course, if the reader is barely interested in the present day, playing with the timeline will make them lose interest even more. Make sure you have a solid foundation for the present-day story before trying anything of this sort.
Interestingly, if the chapter starts with a flashback, the end of the chapter is a good enough signal to end the flashback in the reader’s mind. So you can begin a new chapter in the present day again.
Tip 8: Show Character
Begin the chapter by introducing a significant character detail, especially if you’re going to use that information in the course of the same chapter.
Does your princess character take down a villain with hand-to-hand combat? The beginning of your chapter is a good place to mention that she studied martial arts.
In addition to avoiding the reader’s potential confusion, people just love to know about characters. The beginning of your chapter is the best way to let that carefully crafted personality shine.
Your reader can tolerate a lot of things, but they won’t keep reading if they don’t care about the characters. Elaborating on your character’s plot-relevant personality traits will keep your readers engaged.
Tip 9: Introduce a New Character
A new character may be all you need to take the plot in a new direction. You could create a new character entirely or give more spotlight to an existing minor character.
In any case, the newly introduced character should help you show a new side of the protagonist. Maybe they represent a case study of what the protagonist would be like if they didn’t complete their character arc, or maybe they simply mirror a hidden aspect of the protagonist’s personality.
Of course, if this is the first chapter, you’ll most likely begin by introducing your main character.
Tip 10: Killer Dialogue
Dialogue in storytelling is not meant to be realistic. Rather, it’s meant to show the personality and emotions of your character. It’s also a great way to establish how characters interact with each other. Characters benefit greatly from having their unique voice, as this can remind the reader of their background.
Furthermore, dialogue can also tell you a lot about the setting. By using specific slang or dialects, you can communicate information about where the character came from.
Another thing: dialogue should always be in service to the plot. If it doesn’t advance or resolve the conflict in some way, then maybe it shouldn’t be said.
Bonus: How NOT to Start a Chapter
Much like there are good practices on how to start a chapter, there are some common pitfalls that you may want to avoid.
Long, tiring explanations will bore the reader immensely if there is no action, emotion, or character development. Why should we care?
If you really need to explain something, weave it into the story or save it for later.
It’s tempting to think of a chapter in the same way you would think of a typical day: it starts when you wake up and ends when you go to sleep.
However, most stories don’t work if they’re simply a reproduction of daily life. Try to write about the snapshots or highlights, the small events that make up a whole lifetime.
Treat each chapter as a short story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Consider the theme, the setting, the actions, and your character’s sensory and emotional states. Start with whichever takes priority out of these, in the sense that the reader needs to know about it first.
If you still feel stuck at every new chapter, don’t think about chapters at all. Write continuously until you finish the first draft, then you can go back and divide what you’ve written into chapters (and make changes as needed). Remember: good books are not written, they are rewritten.
What did you think of these tips? Have you tried some of them already? Let me know how it turned out in the comments, and don’t forget to share if you found it useful.
Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash
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