How to Start a Chapter
It could be argued your first chapter is your most important one for what I assume are obvious reasons. After all, this is how your reader is going to judge your book and decide if they continue reading or toss it onto the midden heap of the DNF pile. Thus, you might be wondering how to start a chapter.
If you’re a writer who’s looking to traditionally publish and seeking an agent or publisher—those first ten pages (give or take) are absolutely crucial to getting their attention amongst the thousands of submissions they receive every month. It’s tough out there, friends.
I can’t stress enough that your first pages need to stand all on their own. Telling someone “but it gets good later” simply won’t cut it.
You need to cram action, character, plot, emotion, and motivation into those first pages or you’re going to lose your reader (or that agent or publisher). And you don’t get a second chance.
Scared yet? Good, you should be.
I kid. I’m here to help you through this. Fear not, it’s not as hard as it seems.
How to start a chapter: start in the right place
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is not starting their story in the “right place.” But what does that mean?
Simply put, your story should start as close to the inciting incident as possible.
Don’t delve into pages of backstory or world building. Don’t give us a ton of details about a bunch of random people. Resist the urge to write pages of exposition explaining the lore and history of your world.
Don’t draw out the setup of your story for too long.
Why not? You haven’t made the reader care enough about any of these things yet to go that deep. You can get to the eleven factions of warrior clans and the seventeen levels of your underworld later. I promise.
Your first chapter should make it absolutely clear who your protagonist is. If theirs isn’t the first thought or the first line of your book, consider if that’s the right way to start. Then you need to get them to the moment that kicks off your story quickly. I don’t want to say your inciting incident needs to happen in your first chapter (it doesn’t necessarily) but you need to be moving towards it with purpose.
How to start an opening chapter: things to avoid
Look, there are a lot of things people will tell you not to do when you’re writing a book. And usually, they’re wrong. There are so many ways to write a story that one person’s best advice is exactly the thing another person will answer when they’re famous and someone asks them, “What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?”
Having said that, there are a few things you might want to avoid when starting your novel:
- Talking about the weather, the sky, or the landscape. This has been done to death and rarely makes for a compelling opening. Also, it’s rarely about your protagonist.
- Having your character wake up. It feels natural to start a story at the beginning of the day. I get it. But a character that gets out of bed and goes to look in the mirror before you then describe their appearance is considered a bit cliché.
- Having your character on an airplane. I don’t know why this happens so much, but this too is also considered a bit cliché. Same goes for a car. I don’t know. Transportation is trite, I guess.
- Starting with a dream sequence. Few things are more irritating to readers than some fantastical scene happening only to be told none of it is real… also, dream sequences are boring (okay, this might be my personal opinion, but I’m the one writing this post so I get to say it.)
Does it mean that these types of beginnings can’t work? Absolutely not. In fact, the book Falling by TJ Newman starts with a dream sequence, someone waking up and a plane flight and the author was paid seven figures at auction for it. Rules, as they say, are sometimes made to be broken.
So yes, they can work, but these types of openings have been seen so many times that there will be readers, agents, and publishers who immediately groan and shove your book off their desk. Metaphorically, of course.
If you go in any of these directions, consider how you can put a spin on it so it doesn’t feel like the same old thing.
But ultimately it’s your book, so do what you want. I’m just putting this out there as something to consider. (I started a book with someone waking up—it’s a Sleeping Beauty retelling so there was really no way around it—and I like to think it’s not a complete disaster.)
So how should you start a chapter?
I’m so glad you asked. One resource I’m going to recommend is the book The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke. This is one of the best books I’ve read on opening pages and really helped me transform my own book openings.
But, that’s a long(ish) book, and this is a short(ish) article, so here are a few ideas to consider using right now. Keep in mind that a good opening probably combines more than one of the ideas below.
Ideally, when you start a chapter, it balances action, character, emotion, setting, dialogue, and exposition in a seamless dance. Finding this perfect balance is why writing a strong first chapter can be tricky but, with practice, it’s absolutely something you can master.
Focus on Action
You’ve probably heard from somewhere that you should drop your character into the action right from the start. This is good advice—but don’t misconstrue what ‘action’ means. This does not have to mean a sword fight or a battle or a chase sequence. Action can be anything ‘active’ that is happening: a job interview, a conversation, a walk through a barren wasteland. All it means is that your character is doing something.
Focus on Emotion
Stories are ultimately about emotions, and nothing draws your readers in quicker than when you can make them feel something. Opening your book with your character experiencing a strong emotion is a good way to do that. Get in their head and show us what’s affecting them.
Focus on Characters
The most important aspect of your story is your characters. Plot is secondary (I will die on this hill). So show us who they are. Maybe they’re funny and sarcastic. Maybe they’re disillusioned and sarcastic. Or maybe they’re vulnerable and sarcastic. (I might have a favorite type of protagonist…) Open your novel with something that shows just how funny/disillusioned/vulnerable/sarcastic they are. Tell a joke. Use dialogue. Make them perform an action. Notice how this can tie into the two points I mentioned above?
Focus on Conflict
What’s got your character so riled up, anyway? Open with a conflict your character is facing. Not only does this increase the stakes immediately, it also gives you the opportunity to work in some emotion, action, and character. See how this works? And a reminder that a conflict can be small—their cat just ran up a tree. Or it can be big—they’re about to face down an army of demons.
Focus on Mystery
Much like the conflict idea above, you can also drop your character into a mystery. Perhaps they’ve woken up somewhere they don’t recognize (oops, but here’s a possible twist on the ‘don’t make them wake up’ suggestion), maybe they’ve just come across a dead body, or maybe they’ve just received a strange letter in the mail. Notice how all these things still include action? Then all you need to do is supplement this with emotion and character and voila.
Focus on Stakes
Ideally, your first chapter has a bit of an upward climb. You open on your actiony, emotional scene and then throw something else in to raise the stakes. While this is something that should happen throughout your novel, ensuring you’re doing this specifically in your first chapter hooks your reader in.
Focus on Motivation
And finally, we need to understand your character and what they want. This ties back to the emotion and your character itself. What is this story going to be about? You don’t need to reveal your entire plot in the first chapter (obviously, that would be ridiculous), but a strong first chapter hints to the reader what’s coming. What your protagonist wants. What their goals are and, ideally, what’s standing in their way. Don't skip this part—this might actually be the most important one on the list, and I promise it's one agents and publishers are going to look for.
Don’t Forget the Ending of Your Chapter
We’ve talked about how to start a first chapter, but what about how to end one? You can read my post on how long your chapter should be here first. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Done? Okay, you don’t have to lie to me about it. Read it after you’re done with this, though.
In that article, I talk about leaving your reader wanting more at the end of every chapter. And there is nowhere that statement is more true than at the end of your first chapter. This is the point of no return. Either your reader is going to keep going or put your book back on the shelf. So end on a high note. Or a low note. Depending on what your story needs.
I also said your inciting incident doesn’t need to happen in the first chapter, but it is a really good place for it to go. What could possibly hook your reader in more than that moment the call to adventure comes? That moment your protagonist understands they’re about to take a step they can never return from? That scene where your main character is dropped into chaos and must figure a way out?
Leave them begging for more
Leave your reader hanging. You want them not only to keep reading your book—you want them to choose your words over their desire to do anything responsible for at least a few hours.
If you actually clicked over to my other post, you’ll have seen this list on more specific ways to end your chapter. But in case you didn’t, here it is anyway (because I’m nice like that):
- End on a cliffhanger
- Leave a question unanswered
- Give your character two choices they must make
- Erect an obstacle for your character
- Force your character to make a decision
- Someone leaves either for now or for good
- A significant internal thought for your character
- A moment of reckoning for your protagonist
- Something big happens, like an explosion or a kiss
- Reveal a secret or a surprise
- Leave your character with a disappointment
- Someone dies
A quick word on opening lines
A killer opening line is a surefire way to hook your reader. Make it dynamic and clever. Make it surprising and astonishing. (As someone who’s read through a slush pile before: please don’t make your first line about the color of the sky. I beg you. Remember, your first line should be focused on your protagonist, not the setting.)
Go to your bookshelf and take a look at the first lines from some of your favorite books. What do you see? Do they hook you in? What makes them stand out?
One of my favorite first lines ever is from the Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller: “They've never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart. And they never will.
”How’s that for evoking about a thousand emotions, thoughts, and questions? That one line literally sets the tone for the entire book.
A final note on how to start a chapter
If you’ve made it this far, you know it takes a lot of work to nail the first chapter of your book. You need to reveal your plot, conflicts, characters, motivations, and just about everything else to make the perfect opening.
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I can’t wait to be hooked by your first chapter!
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