Writers often don’t pay quite enough attention to how they start their chapters.
Starting a new chapter is kind of like starting a new mini-novel. Some time has likely elapsed since the end of the previous chapter, and we might also be shifting to a new physical location. We’re starting somewhat fresh, and it’s useful to help the reader get their bearings.
But even aside from just establishing where we are with good physical description and how much time has elapsed, there are four magic elements that are incredibly useful to deploy at the start of every chapter to help orient the reader within the story.
If you make sure these four elements are present at the start of every chapter you almost can’t help but write a good one.
The protagonist’s mindset
Don’t just start a chapter and send a character on their way. Help us understand what’s on their mind and where their head is at.
What mood are they in? How were they left feeling after the last chapter?
The protagonist’s mood will help contextualize the rest of the scene and provide fuel for what motivates them next.
There are two main ways to show a protagonist’s mindset:
- Physical gestures. You can show them doing things that can evoke their mood, but whatever you do, steer clear of generic gestures like sighing and eye rolls and hearts beating wildly. Particularly at the start of chapters it’s helpful to be more specific to evoke the mood with precision and show more individuality.
- Showing their thought processes. Don’t just diagnose the character’s mood in an abstract way like saying “Nathan woke up frustrated.” Show it. Reveal the precise things that are frustrating him by delving into your protagonist’s thought processes.
Once you’ve set the mood, it’s a natural transition to…
The protagonist’s motivation
What is motivating your protagonist in this moment? What do they want to do next?
Motivation is everything in a novel, and it’s crucial to keep orienting the reader around what your protagonist wants to do, both for the novel as a whole and within every individual scene. Readers really internalize this motivation, it’s the basis for good mysteries, and we’ll want to read on to see if the protagonist is going to get the thing they want.
Sometimes a character’s motivation is implicit (if they’re being lowered into a vat of boiling oil we’ll presume they want to escape), but other times you need to make it explicit.
A character’s motivation is so important that I even weave it into my chapter outlines. I really believe this is a crucial building block for every chapter.
The protagonist’s plan
So the protagonist is in a mood. They have a motivation. Now: what’s the plan? What are they actually going to do about what’s motivating them?
Establishing a plan is another way of orienting the reader and giving them an anchor point for where the protagonist wants to go.
These plans will almost never come to fruition in the way the protagonist desires. But it’s still helpful to see these plans so we can orient around what the character wants and how they go about devising them. We learn so much about a character by the way they articulate their hopes and dreams.
Seeing some of these hopes before the protagonist gets going on their way will make it more satisfying if they end up succeeding, and more poignant if they fail.
The “stakes” are another way of establishing why what the protagonist wants is important to them, and they boil down to two questions:
- What does the protagonist think will happen if they succeed?
- What do they fear will happen if they fail?
As you establish the stakes, try to crystalize them and make them very tangible. Don’t stop at the level of “fearing failure” or something abstract. Zero in on the specific mental images the protagonist is imagining as their best and worst case scenarios.
If you articulate hopes and fears, the reader will understand why what’s happening matters to the protagonist and will feel more invested in the outcome.
What comes next
After you’ve established these four elements, it’s so important that the protagonist actively tries to go after their plan. Then they inevitably encounter obstacles and have to navigate and work and expend effort to get the things they want.
But with these four elements in place, the reader will feel well-oriented within the scene and will care much more about whether the protagonist will succeed or fail.
Do you have any tips or tricks for starting chapters? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Artus Wolffort – The Four Elements