Deciding how and where to begin a chapter is an important part of writing a novel – but it can be daunting. As a writer, it’s your job to begin each new chapter in a way that grabs the reader’s attention, leaving them with no choice but to carry on reading because they must find out what happens next. So, whether you’ve just started writing your novel or are in the editing stages, here are five compelling ways to begin a chapter.
1. Start with action
A tried and tested technique for hooking a reader is starting a chapter in the middle of the action. This can be a traditional action sequence, like a dramatic chase or fight scene, but you aren’t limited to this type of action; it can be anything that will take the reader by the hand and lead them into the story. Take Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton as an example. The movement of the opening paragraph immediately draws the reader in and refuses to let go:
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best.
The journey of the protagonist from prisoners’ hold to courtroom grips the reader, leading them through each twist and turn of the character’s movements while at the same time setting the scene of the busy courtroom. Crucially, this opening also raises a gripping question – what is this character on trial for? – and builds the reader’s intrigue with every step, finally answering the question in the second paragraph, by which point the reader is already hooked.
2. Switch up your setting
The beginning of each new chapter is an opportunity to pique your reader’s interest. One way to do this is by starting the chapter in an intriguing new location. Not only can this breathe fresh life into your story and stop it from feeling too static, but it can also be a subtle way to emphasise a shift in mood or tone.
If you end the preceding chapter on a cliffhanger, cutting to a new location can also tease out suspense, compelling your reader to keep turning the pages in order to return to the previous location (although hopefully your subsequent scene will be every bit as gripping).
Some settings can be unusual and gripping in their own right, particularly if they stir your reader’s curiosity. Perhaps the new setting raises questions such as ‘what is the character doing here?’ or ‘why is the character reacting to the setting in this way?’. A setting that is unremarkable to one character might stir a powerful reaction or memory in another character. Andrew Miller uses this technique in the thirteenth chapter of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, when an incongruous pine-like scent triggers memories for the viewpoint character, Lacroix:
They were on a hill above the sea. The hill was shaped like a sugar-loaf and had a trench, fifteen feet long, cut into the sea-facing slope. It was mid-morning and the day was already hot, the sun beating a scent out of the land. Pine? But it couldn’t be pine. There were no pine trees, few trees of any kind, none at all on the hill. Lacroix wondered if he was remembering Portugal, the month after they landed, when he began to understand what the south and southern heat might mean. He had not expected to meet it again on the islands.
3. Play with the timeline
Non-linear narratives can be a great way to keep your reader on their feet and offer a fresh, interesting angle. In Where the Crawdads Sing, for example, Delia Owens jumps back and forth between the 1950s and 1960s, alternating between pivotal moments in the protagonist Kya’s childhood and adulthood. Jumping between these different periods in the protagonist’s life adds extra layers of complexity to the character.
Using strategically-placed flashbacks, you can reveal the key events that have shaped your character’s personality – their fears, hopes, strengths and weaknesses – as well as exploring how these events affect their actions in the present.
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4. Start with dialogue
Another great way to give a chapter a snappy, gripping opening is with dialogue. Pat Barker shows this technique in Chapter 21 of The Silence of the Girls:
‘No, no, and again, no!’
As he spun round to confront Nestor, Agamemnon’s sleeve caught a jug of wine, which toppled over, sending a dark red flood across the table. I crept up and began dabbing ineffectually, only to be waved away impatiently. Wine dripped steadily over the edge of the table and formed a red puddle on the floor while the silence that had followed Agamemnon’s outburst lengthened and congealed
Then, speaking with great precision, Agamemnon said, ‘I am not going to crawl on my hands and knees to that shitting bastard.’
‘So send somebody else,’ Nestor said. ‘Let them crawl. He won’t expect you to go yourself.
‘Oh, I think you underestimate his arrogance.’
Here, Barker hooks the reader with her use of dialogue, which drops the reader right into the middle of a conversation. It’s not immediately clear exactly who the characters are talking about or what their issue is, but the dramatic conversation compels the reader to keep turning the pages to uncover the entire picture behind Agamemnon’s impassioned outburst.
5. Change the point of view
If you’re writing a novel with multiple points of view, switching from one character’s perspective to another can be a great way to renew your reader’s interest. Just as changing the setting can introduce a shift in mood or tone, so too can changing your point of view character (the eyes through which your scene is being shown). For example, after spending some time in the perspective of a downtrodden character with a bleak world view, you might choose to switch to a POV character with a lighter, more humorous perspective to offer your reader some relief.
Alternatively, perhaps your new POV character knows something your previous POV character doesn’t, therefore solving a mystery for your reader. Or maybe the opposite is true and you want to make use of dramatic irony, which is where your reader knows something your viewpoint character doesn’t – the character’s lack of knowledge can create a deliciously palpable sense of tension. Or perhaps you simply want to tease out suspense after ending your previous chapter, which featured a different POV character, on a cliffhanger.
Now it’s time to try out these techniques for yourself. You may find that one or two of them suit your genre or writing style better than the others. It’s okay to vary it or stick with what you like – so long as you keep your readers excited about the chapters ahead.
Catriona Mactaggart is a guest contributor to The History Quill. Catriona is a freelance journalist and writer with an MA in Classics and English Literature from the University of Glasgow. She is fascinated by the classical world, especially the lives of women during that time, and is currently working on a series set in Ancient Greece.