When a reader opens the cover of a book, they are embarking on an adventure the writer has created for them. What should happen at the beginning of that first chapter, and subsequent chapters? Let’s explore the possibilities.
The beginning of the first chapter of a story has specific requirements, different in some ways than subsequent chapters. It’s a big ask. There’s a lot that needs to happen as soon as possible because you want to grab and hold the reader’s attention and make them want to keep turning the page. You’ll want to connect with the reader and this needs to happen ASAP. That opening sentence? As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”
The reader needs to know who the main character is (usually the protagonist) and what they want or need. They need to know where the story takes place, something about the theme (central idea/meaning/message you are conveying), and the tone/feeling the story will convey (how the story will make the reader feel).
You need to connect with the reader and make them want to come along, even though you let them know there will be an antagonist lying in wait somewhere along the way. As if that wasn’t enough, there needs to be a catalyst or incident that propels the story forward. Something that pulls your character out of their “ordinary world” and into the world of your story.
As the story unfolds, chapters will end. You’ll want your reader to NEED to turn the page to see what happens next, so a cliffhanger or unanswered question is a good idea. On the other hand, it might be a place for the reader to catch their breath after all they’ve experienced in the chapter. As the next one begins, there are countless choices the writer has going forward.
Resolve or address the cliffhanger. If your character fell out of a tree, let the reader know if they’re okay or if they’ve landed in the ER. If two characters are having a heated argument, it may be resolved… or not. Your chapter could open with one character on his/her own after the other left. At some point, they’ll have to address the issue, but that can happen later in the story. Build on that isolation and what your character is feeling.
Let time pass. If your chapter ended in the dead of winter, the new chapter can usher in the spring. It’s a good way to move the story forward and avoid shoveling snow and scraping windshields when it has nothing to do with your story. You can also change settings. If your character spent a wild weekend in the city as the previous chapter ended, the new chapter can begin with your character back at work on Monday morning.
Introduce someone new. The beginning of a new chapter might be the perfect place to introduce a new character. They may have ties to one/all/none of the characters the reader has already met, but that’s up to you, the writer, to decide. Are they a long-lost relative that your main character knew and loved? Have they changed into someone dark and dangerous? Have fun with it!
Remind your reader. Take your character back to a significant location, listen to a song that has heartfelt meaning, or re-discover a cherished item they thought was lost. Starting a chapter with a reminder focuses the reader’s attention on what they may have forgotten or thought was a mere description, setting, or object.
Chapter beginnings are an opportunity for the writer to pause and decide in what direction the next chapter will go. In doing so, they set the course for the plot of the story. Chapters are like mini-books–each one should captivate and engage the reader from the very first sentence.