How to start a chapter: 25 writers’ lessons

How to start a chapter: 25 writers’ lessons

Start of a new chapter | Now Novel

Knowing how to start a chapter well is key to keeping your reader engaged. We examined 25 authors’ transitions from first to second chapters. These revealed several ways to write strong chapter openings and transitions:

1. Zoom closer into the action

Often authors start a chapter by moving from one ‘scale’ to a smaller one.

Authors as different as Sir Terry Pratchett and Arundhati Roy show how we can go from a grand to a small scale of reference (or vice versa) between chapters.

Sir Terry Pratchett, in the first book in his Discworld series (The Colour of Magic), starts his prologue with astronomers’ ideas about the galaxy (example 15 below).

The next chapter begins with a more ‘zoomed in’ setting, the city of Ankh-Morpork. We thus move from broad, cosmic world building to the interesting details of a single city.

Similarly, Arundhati Roy begins with broader (historical) points of reference in her novel The God of Small Things. While the first chapter talks about colonial history and ‘Love Laws’, she moves from this broader, historical focus to the intimate lives of her story’s central characters in Chapter 2.

Roy’s ‘zooming in’ second chapter beginning is interesting. She describes choosing a day to start telling the story as being ‘for practical purposes’. This suggests that intimate ideas such as family dynamics and relationships are hard to pluck out from the larger patterns of history, culture and society.

The two very different examples of second chapter beginnings (examples 15 and 25 below) show how a change of scale (of time or place) can juxtapose interesting insights. A change like this at the start of a chapter may also lead your readers from broader ‘world’ exposition to specific situational details.

2. Start chapters with emotion

You’ll notice many of the examples below transition from first to second chapters when characters are in a place of high emotion. A character dreams of his late mother’s face (example 7). A sister’s complex feelings about her sister’s suicide contrasts with the stark, matter-of-fact coroner’s report and newspaper report (example 2).

An emotional situation for a character is a good starting point for a chapter because emotion drives action. What does a fearful character do to protect themselves? What does an angry character do to right their situation? How does a widow react when a suitor from 50 years ago rocks up at her late husband’s funeral? (example 1)

Situations that have a strong emotional core help us to understand characters’ desires, fears and motivations. We learn more about characters as they react to momentous events in their lives.

The start of a chapter is a good time to introduce these situations as you rouse readers’ curiosity about where they may lead.

[Get feedback on your first three chapters and story plan on Now Novel’s 6-week coached writing course, Kickstart your Novel].

Writing first chapters - Jane Smiley quote | Now Novel

3. Try a change of viewpoint

When you’re starting a chapter after your first, a shift in viewpoint may provide an element of surprise. Or it could offer a different take on a situation shared between characters.

Consider, for example, how the self-focused monologue of the Italian dictator Mussolini’s narration in Chapter 2 contrasts starkly with the doctor’s struggle with a household goat in example 6 by Louis de Bernierès.

This shift in viewpoint between chapters is surprising, even disorienting at first (yet the clarity of both narrative voices keeps us engaged).

The openings of chapters in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (example 18), by contrast, give us a tapestry-like effect, weaving together various family members’ voices and perspectives.

The way Kingsolver alternates between the voices of Orleanna Price and her daughters gives us the pleasure of experiencing each viewpoint’s quite different outlook on their missionary lives. The focus of the story shifts, from Leah Price’s dark-humoured cynicism to her sister Rachel’s princess-like, less self-aware account. Each new chapter brings a refreshing shift in perspective.

4. Play with narrative time-frame

Another common tactic the examples below show regarding how to start a chapter is changing narrative time-frame.

For example, in Tartt’s example (7), Theo’s dream of his mother in Chapter 1, in present-time narration, switches to him describing past times before her death. He wonders about how different life would have been had she not died young.

As Canadian author Anne Michaels writes at the start of Chapter 2 in her novel Fugitive Pieces, ‘The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened.’ Many chapter beginnings lead us into these shadow pasts, as Theo does when he wonders about life’s left-turns, or when Kazuo Ishiguro’s character Etsuko imagines the Nakagawa district of Nagasaki and the emotions returning to it used to produce (example 10).

Returning to past events – such as the way Florentino has thought about Fermina every day for over 50 years since first wooing her (example 1) -helps us to understand where characters come from and where they’re going.

5. Reveal significant character details

The start of a chapter is a good point to reveal significant characterization that will impact the course of the story.

For example, early in Dostoevsky’s unsettling Crime and Punishment (example 9), we begin to see Raskolnikov’s anxious, self-isolating state. It’s partly due to this state that Raskolnikov is able to talk himself into murdering a pawnbroker, the act that is his undoing.

Beginning a chapter with ‘showing’ character detail can simply make them more colorful and vivid. But it can also help to explain further actions.

For example, Hazel’s description of Augustus’ reckless, ‘jolting’ driving at the beginning of Chapter 2 in The Fault in Our Stars suggests his spontaneous nature (example 20).

This sense of wild spontaneity further explains their later trip to Amsterdam in pursuit of answers from the author of one of Hazel’s favourite books.

How to start a chapter and end one - Sidney Sheldon quote | Now Novel

6. Develop or extend ideas, themes and imagery

How do you start a new chapter? One interesting approach in some of the examples below is to extend an idea or image from the previous chapter.

Take, for example, Neal Stephenson’s 2019 novel Fall or, Dodge in Hell. The first chapter ends with the narrator/protagonist thinking about his grandmother losing her mind and her descent into senility.

The opening of the next chapter hints at mind ‘loss’ (or rather, migration) of another kind – in a futuristic turn, the protagonist Richard is going to have his brain uploaded to ‘the cloud’.

Thus the idea of memory as something movable, capable of being lost (like data on a hard drive) is extended from one chapter to the next, and from biological to digital ideas.

Extending an idea or image from one chapter to the next is a great way to create cohesion. This echoing between sections creates a sense of how your characters’ thoughts, ideas, and experiences fit together.

Anthony Doerr’s story opening (example 21) is a less complicated version of this idea. Doerr extends the military imagery of the first chapter (propaganda pamphlets raining from the sky, mortars being loaded) to the second (bombers crossing the Channel by night). Together, the images create a consistent wartime setting.

7. Introduce new characters or develop existing ones

When you think about how to start a chapter from a characterization standpoint, there are two main options. You could develop an existing character, or you could introduce a new one.

E. Annie Proulx ends her first chapter (example 8) with her protagonist Quoyle’s directionless state (describing him as being like a spinning coin that could fall either way).

Chapter 2 introduces Petal Bear, who later becomes the mother to his children. Thus the character introduction also develops Quoyle, suggesting he finds some sense of direction through this new, winking encounter.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy character development (example 16) employs a classic trope of fantasy – a student beginning their apprenticeship to an older mage. However, Le Guin keeps this trope interesting by making this moment give Ged new insights into the workings of power, as he realizes it will take time to develop.

How to start new chapters - infographic | Now Novel

25 examples of chapter beginnings and transitions between chapters

Read the examples we analyzed to gather the insights above:

1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Context: A man who wooed a woman 51 years before shows up unexpectedly at her late husband’s wake, to her shock.

Chapter 1 ends:

Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.

Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p. 51

Chapter 2 begins:

Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago.

Marquez, p. 53

2. Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Context: The sister of the protagonist Iris, Laura, has committed suicide by driving her car off a bridge. Iris thinks about how their nanny used to calm them down when they were kids and ask them ‘where it hurts’. Chapter 2 begins with a newspaper excerpt reporting Laura’s death.

Chapter 1 ends:

But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.

Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000), p. 4

Chapter 2 begins:

A coroner’s inquest has returned a verdict of accidental death in last week’s St. Clair Ave. fatality.

Atwood, p. 5

3. Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon

Context: Morrison moves from describing a tableau in the home of Ruth and Macon dead to a typical Sunday excursion with their daughters.

Chapter 1 ends:

They simply stopped singing and Reba went on paring her toenails, Hagar threaded and unthreaded her hair, and Pilate swayed like a willow over her stirring. .

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1978), p. 30

Chapter 2 begins:

Only Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians were genuinely happy when the big Packard rolled evenly and silently out of the driveway.

Morrison, p. 31

4. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children

Context: The narrator Saleem passes moves describing events surrounding his birth and his grandfather’s experiences as a doctor in Chapter 1 to describing his present-day caretaker (and eventual fiancée), Padma.

Chapter 1 ends:

‘The poor child! she has a terrible, a too dreadful stomach-ache.’

‘In that case,’ Doctor Aziz said with some restraint, ‘will she show me her stomach please.’

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1981), p. 23

Chapter 2 begins:

Padma – our plump Padma – is sulking magnificently.

Rushdie, p. 24

5. David Mitchell – Number9dream

Context: 19-year-old Eiji Miyake is searching for a father he has never met and feeling alienated in the city of Tokyo. After his visit to a prison-like commercial building in Chapter 1, Eiji describes a strange dream-like action – ‘sawing the head off a thunder god’.

Chapter 1 ends:

I want to turn into a nuclear warhead and incinerate this dung-heap city from the surface of the world.

David Mitchell, Number9dream (2001), p. 40

Chapter 2 begins:

Sawing the head off a thunder god with a rusty hacksaw is not easy when you are eleven years old.

Mitchell, p. 43

6. Louis de Bernierès – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Context: A Greek doctor Iannis living on the island of Cephallonia is annoyed by the household’s goat eating his writing. Chapter 2 moves to the viewpoint of the Italian dictator Mussolini, as his troops are sent shortly after to the doctor’s island.

Chapter 1 ends:

Only an island as lackadaisical as this would allow itself to be infested by such troupes of casual and impertinent goats.

Louis de Bernierès, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), p. 9

Chapter 2 begins:

Come here. Yes, you. Come here. Now tell me something; which is my best profile, right or left?

De Bernierès , p. 10

7. Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Context: The protagonist dreams of his late mother in Chapter 1, then thinks back to the time before her death in Chapter 2.

Chapter 1 ends:

And as much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t turn around, that to look at her directly was to violate the laws of her world and mine; she had come to me the only way she could, and our eyes met in the glass for a long still moment; but just as she seemed about to speak – with what seemed a combination of amusement, affection, exasperation – a vapor rolled between us and I woke up.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (2013), p. 7

Chapter 2 begins:

Things would have turned out better if she had lived.

Tartt, p. 7

8. E. Annie Proulx – The Shipping News

Context: In Chapter 1, Proulx describes her protagonist Quoyle’s directionless state, leading into his first encounter with the future mother of his children in Chapter 2.

Chapter 1 ends:

A spinning coin, still balanced on its rim, may fall in either direction.

E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993), p. 11

Chapter 2 begins:

Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him.

Proulx, p. 12

9. Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment

Context: In Chapter 1, we meet Rodion Raskolnikov and learn that he is a penniless student spiraling into increasing withdrawal from society.

Chapter 1 ends:

There was another man in the room who looked somewhat like a retired government clerk. He was sitting apart, now and then sipping from his pot and looking round at the company. He, too, appeared to be in some agitation.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866), p. 8

Chapter 2 begins:

Raskolnikov was not used to crowds, and, as we said before, he avoided society of every sort, more especially of late.

Dostoevsky, p. 9

10. Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

Context: A middle-aged Japanese woman Etsuko, living in England after her daughter’s suicide, remembers her life in Nagasaki around the time of the bomb.

Chapter 1 ends:

It was not until one morning some weeks later that I heard Mariko mention again a woman who had approached her.

Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, (1982), p. 22

Chapter 2 begins:

In those days, returning to the Nakagawa district still provoked in me mixed emotions of sadness and pleasure.

Ishiguro, p. 23

11. Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient

Context: A man burned beyond recognition during the Italian Campaign in World War II and a Canadian nurse are brought together in an Italian monastery serving as a makeshift wartime hospital.

Chapter 1 ends:

She wets her hands and combs water into her hair till it is completely wet. This cools her and she likes it when she goes outside and the breezes hit her, erasing the thunder.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, (1992), p. 23

Chapter 2 begins:

The man with the bandaged hands had been in the military hospital in Rome for more than four months when by accident he heard about the burned patient and the nurse, heard her name.

Ondaatje, p. 27

12. Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces

Context: A Greek scientist and scholar comes across a 7-year-old Jewish boy hiding in the woods in the time of Nazi Germany and takes him under his wing.

Chapter 1 ends:

On the island of Zakynthos, Athos – scientist, scholar, middling master of languages – performed his most astounding feat. From out of his trousers he plucked the seven-year-old refugee Jakob Beer.

Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, (1996), p. 14

Chapter 2 begins:

The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened.

Michaels, p. 17

13. Colum Mccann – Let the Great World Spin

Context: The narrative moves from the spectacle of a tightrope walk between the newly built Twin Towers in 1974 to the viewpoint of an Irish priest working in the Bronx in New York.

Chapter 1 ends:

The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before. [line break] Out he went.

Colum Mccann, Let the Great World Spin, (2009), p. 7

Chapter 2 begins:

One of the many things my brother, Corrigan, and I loved about our mother was that she was a fine musician.

Mccann, p. 11

14. Cormac McCarthy – The Road

Context: A father and son struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. Chapter 1 finishes with the father’s advice to his son to be careful about the images he allows to fill his mind. The second chapter starts with the father’s recollections.

Chapter 1 ends:

You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, (2006), p. 10

Chapter 2 begins:

There was a lake a mile from his uncle’s farm where he and his uncle used to go in the fall for firewood. .

McCarthy, p. 11

15. Terry Pratchett – The Colour of Magic

Context: Pratchett introduces his Discworld fantasy universe, first through the telescopes of astronomers and then at smaller scale.

Chapter 1 ends:

Thus it was that a young cosmochelonian of the Steady Gait faction, testing a new telescope […] was on this eventful evening the first outsider to see the smoke rise hubward from the burning of the oldest city in the world. [line break] Later that night he became so engrossed in his studies he completely forgot about it. Nevertheless, he was the first.

There were others….

Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic, (1983), p. 12

Chapter 2 begins:

Fire roared throught he bifurcated city of Ankh-Morpork.

Pratchett, p. 15

16. Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea

Context: Ged, the protagonist, has begun his apprenticeship to become a mage.

Chapter 1 ends:

Then he set off with his new master through the steep slanting forests of the mountain isle, through the leaves and shadows of bright autumn.

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, (1968), p. 17

Chapter 2 begins:

Ged had thought that as the prentice of a great mage he would enter at once into the mystery and mastery of power.

Le Guin, p. 18

17. Neal Stephenson – Fall or, Dodge in Hell

Context: A man who will have his mind uploaded to ‘the cloud’ thinks back to his own family’s history to do with the mind.

Chapter 1 ends:

As a boy he had been oblivious to the existence of this thing called senility until an older cousin had clued him in to it during a family reunion and supplied a brief (and in retrospect hilariously imprecise) rundown of its symptoms while casting significant glances at Grandma. After that, young Richard had overcompensated for his earlier naivete by becoming hypervigilant to its onset in family members of even modest decrepitude.

Neal Stephenson, Fall or, Dodge in Hell, (2019), p. 21

Chapter 2 begins:

The doctor’s staff had been very firm on the point that, following the procedure, he would be unfit to drive because of the powerful drugs they were going to give him – that he would, for all practical purposes, be an ambulatory basket case, and that they wouldn’t even begin the procedure unless he had a designated minder who would sign him out afterward and take responsibility for keeping him away from heavy machinery.

Stephenson, p. 22

18. Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible

Context: A US missionary family from Georgia relocates to the Belgian colony in the Congo in Central Africa in 1959. The mother of the family narrates the first chapter and her daughter Leah the second.

Chapter 1 ends:

We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, (1998), p. 11

Chapter 2 begins:

We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.

Kingsolver, p. 15

19. Zadie Smith – White Teeth

Context: We learn about the first meeting of the British man Archie Jones and his much younger British-Jamaican wife, Clara.

Chapter 1 ends:

She let off another long whistle and a rueful laugh, and, unless he was really going nuts, Archie saw that come hither look; identical to Daria’s; tinged with a kind of sadness, disappointment, like she didn’t have a great deal of other options. Clara was nineteen. Archibald was forty-seven.

Six weeks later they were married.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth, (2000), p. 27

Chapter 2 begins:

But Archie did not pluck Clara Bowden from a vacuum. And it’s about time people told the truth about beautiful women. They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots.

Smith, p. 27

20. John Green – The Fault in our Stars

Context: Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters meet in a support group for young cancer patients and survivors.

Chapter 1 ends:

I turned to the car. Tapped the window. It rolled down. “I’m going to a movie with Augustus Waters,” I said. “Please record the next several episodes of the ANTM marathon for me.”

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, (2012), p. 17

Chapter 2 begins:

Augustus Waters drove horrifically. Whether stopping or starting, everything happened with a tremendous JOLT.

Green, p. 18

21. Anthony Doerr – All the Light we Cannot See

Context: We begin with the World War II backdrop that frames Doerr’s wartime story. First the backdrop to agitprop leaflets falling from the sky, then a description of bombers moving by night.

Chapter 1 ends:

On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light we Cannot See, (2014), p. 9

Chapter 2 begins:

They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama.

Doerr, p. 10

22. Louise Penny – Still Life

Context: We see the end of a Thanksgiving dinner in the town of Three Pines, followed by a detective receiving a call to investigate a murder there.

Chapter 1 ends:

Clara watched Jane make her way along the winding path through the woods that joined their two homes. Long after Jane had disappeared from view her flashlight could be seen, a bright white light, like Diogenes. Only when Clara heard the eager barking of Jane’s dog Lucy did she gently close her door. Jane was home. Safe.

Louise Penny, Still Life, (1990), p. 17

Chapter 2 begins:

Armand Gamache got the call Thanksgiving Sunday just as he was leaving his Montreal apartment. His wife Reine-Marie was already in the car and the only reason he wasn’t on the way to his grand-niece’s christening was because he suddenly needed to use the facilities.

Penny, p. 18

23. Stephen King – Dreamcatcher: A Novel

Context: The first section is a collection of fictional newspaper clippings detailing strange sightings. Then in the next chapter we learn information about a group of friends.

Chapter 1 ends:

MYSTERY LIGHTS ONCE AGAIN REPORTED IN JEFFERSON TRACT Kineo Town Manager: “I Don’t Know What They Are, but They Keep Coming Back” .

Stephen King, Dreamcatcher: A Novel, (2001), p. 13

Chapter 2 begins:

It became their motto, and Jonesy couldn’t for the life of him remember which of them started saying it first.

King, p. 18

24. Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes were Watching God

Context: The protagonist Janie sits down with her friend Phoeby to tell her about her experiences growing up and in marriage.

Chapter 1 ends:

Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, (1937), p. 10

Chapter 2 begins:

Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.

Hurston, p. 11

25. Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

Context: The death of a visiting cousin from England causes the narrator to reflect on the social and historical crosscurrents in the town of Kerala.

Chapter 1 ends:

It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag.

That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, (1997), p. 33

Chapter 2 begins:

However, for practical purposes, in a hopelessly practical world … it was a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent). It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while.

Roy, p. 35

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