I began my writing career in drama, and when I start a new chapter of a novel, the first thing that comes to mind is the dialogue. Bad idea. When you come into the middle of a conversation, you always feel like you’re missing something, and I suspect my readers react the same way. So I went looking for a metaphor that would help me write an effective opening paragraph for every chapter. And to do that, I had to figure out what readers want at the beginning of a chapter.
And then I had a thought; starting a chapter is like entering a new room we have never been in before. What do readers want to know about that unknown room?
1. Where Did We Come From – Transition
The first thing they need to be reminded of is where they were before, and how this place relates to that last place: a quick connection to the last chapter. After all, they may have put the book down three or four days ago.
Well, that’s pretty simple. Remind them where or when the character was at the end of the last chapter.
“The following morning…” is about all you need. “The house across the road…” does the same job.
However, it’s better to remember where their feelings were, too, and give an idea of where they might be going in this chapter.
“The following morning, life looked better.”
And that’s all it takes.
2. What Does It Look Like – Setting
The next thing they want to know is where and when. If we enter a new room, we always look around for a moment, taking in the décor, looking for hints as to what we might expect in this room. At that moment, when readers actually want to know, the author can slip in a sentence of setting description without anyone even noticing the pause in the action.
“The morning sun poured through the billowing curtains; all the fear was gone, and the bright waters, calmed by a gentle breeze, glowed with…” and you can wax poetic about both the look and the feeling of the scene for about half a sentence more before the reader starts wondering the next bit, which is…
3. Who Is There – Character
Readers want to know who is in the scene from the start, and if it’s someone new, now’s the time to give a quick description. Don’t forget to include an emotional reaction to this person. Make sure it’s something that will be important later in the story.
“When my host brought a fancy porcelain cup of tea to my room, I looked for the dark creases that had created such a ferocious scowl in the candlelight and wondered if they could be laugh lines.”
4. Why Is This Chapter Here – Objective
Once they know all the details, we get to something more important. Why is this chapter in the book? Basically, why should they keep reading? This is the teaser that pulls them into the scene and sets them up for what’s going to happen next.
“It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I might get through this ordeal in one piece.”
5. The Intangibles – Tone and Emotion
Remember, readers are expecting that this chapter will take them through an emotional experience. Give them a hint as to where they will go emotionally as well. Emotion doesn’t get an extra sentence; your writing should glow with it.
And there you have it. A four-sentence paragraph that gets all sorts of information across and at the same time entices the reader to read on.
The Bottom Line
And, just to show you I’m not a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy, between getting the idea for this post and writing it, I went to the book I’m working on and read every chapter opening. I rewrote several of them, actually following my own advice. Well, mostly.
Will wonders never cease?