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?
8 thoughts on “Creating a Dynamite Four-Sentence Opening Paragraph”
You make a very good point about the fact that the reader may have set the book aside for a few days and needs a mini-refresher. Excellent food for thought. Thanks, Gordon.
Thank you for your advice. You are right — people may put down the book for a day or two, and then feel lost when they start again – forcing them to re-read the previous chapter. I will now go through each chapter opening in my current book.
Re the third point, I hate beginning a chapter where the writer assumes I know who “he” or “she” is. Like you said, it may have been days since I read the previous chapter, and I need a name or a descriptor such as “the barber” or “the CEO” before I understand what follows.
Good advice. I tend to be obsessive about the first few sentences in the book, but don’t put that much thought into crafting the opening of each chapter. Now I will. Thanks.
As always great advice from nice people who want to share their successes. Thank you.
Good advice. We’d like to think our readers simply can’t put our books down, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. I’ll be paying more attention to my chapter openings! Thanks!
It’s pretty obvious that the main point that people got out of this post is that readers do put books down. We have to remember when we start a chapter that we’re picking some of the readers up cold, and they need a little reminder.
Thanks for the responses.
Good thoughts, Gordon. I might gently suggest, however, that sometimes dialogue can do the trick, too. I think of each chapter opening as a hook unto itself–which is basically what you’re suggesting here. If you have the right line of dialogue, that can be the hook, although certainly the points you mention should come into play quickly thereafter so you don’t loose readers.
As for putting books down . . . I’m pretty bad about that. Due to time constraints, I’ve been known to put down a book and pick it up not days but WEEKS later. To be honest, no amount of reminding really helps with that. :-p But at least it can’t hurt!
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