How to write chapters: Create a compelling Chapter 3

How to write chapters - writing chapter 3 | Now Novel

Understanding how to write chapters that develop your story is key to writing a focused, purposeful book. We’ve written about how to structure a chapter generally, writing good opening paragraphs and pages, and developing Chapter One’s intrigue in your second chapter. Writing a good third chapter is equally important. Your early chapters hook readers and build interest you can sustain. Read ideas and tips to write the best third chapter you can, along with examples from books that show effective story development:

What should a third chapter do?

While there are no exact ‘shoulds’, there are different functions great authors’ third chapters often fulfill. When we examine these functions, they help us understand how we can make our own third chapters more effective. [The sixth week of our Kickstart your Novel course is devoted to writing an effective third chapter.]

Some common functions of third chapters:

  1. Filling in characters’ histories and backstories. Once you’ve introduced the main setting or scenario of your story, your third chapter might share how your characters came to this point in their lives. For example, in Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez leaps back in time to when Dr Juvenal Urbino (who dies in the first chapter) was a 28-year-old in love.
  2. Creating new tensions or challenges. Often third chapters describe characters’ new challenges and trials. Margaret Atwood does this well in the third chapter of her novel The Blind Assassin, where a character must handle the discomfort of handing out a university award left in honour of her late sister who took her own life.
  3. Switching to a new POV. Switching to another character’s point of view is another way to develop Chapter 3. In David Mitchell’s fantasy/sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, a character who is sent letters in the previous chapter becomes the POV character.
  4. Developing further setbacks or complications. What could happen to derail your character’s plans or start new chains of events?

Some of the core ways you can build or sustain intrigue and interest in Chapter 3 are by changing one of the ‘5 W’s’ – who, what, why, where and when.

Let’s explore each of these ways you could develop your third chapter further:

1. Share relevant details from main characters’ histories

If the beginning chapters of your story throw your reader into action, Chapter 3 is a good opportunity to go back to origins. You could show the formative experiences that made your characters who they are today.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez does this expertly in Love in the Time of Cholera. The first two chapters describe the death of Dr Juvenal Urbino. Marquez tells of the arrival of Urbino’s widow’s long-lost lover, Florentino Ariza. Florentino proclaims his undying love to the widow, Fermina Daza, at the funeral, to her anger.

Chapter 3 opens by hurtling back to the early history of this love triangle, detailing the early days of Urbino and Fermina Daza’s love:

‘At the age of twenty-eight, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been the most desirable of bachelors. He had returned from a long stay in Paris, where he had completed advanced studies in medicine and surgery, and from the time he set foot on solid ground he gave overwhelming indications that he had not wasted a minute of his time.’ (p. 105)

Marquez develops the deceased doctor’s character in chapter 3, showing him as a desirable man of action. This character history is relevant to the story so far, showing:

  • The kind of man the Dr’s widow, Fermina Daza, fell in love with and married: A confident, respected man of learning and action
  • How the Dr’s personality and achievements contrast with Florentino’s own. Florentino, loving Fermina throughout the years of her marriage, is by contrast more neurotic, a dreamer, a romantic, less a man of practicality and science. He is an impractical lover and idealist. Marquez shows how different he is to the man Fermina chose, between chapters 2 and 3

Thus Marquez develops a secondary character to show the complexity of love. He shows how the light, practical kind of love and the obsessive, all-consuming kind both have their problems, and comforts, too.

Indeed, further on in the first page of Chapter 3 Marquez writes of the young Dr Urbino’s choice of Fermina:

‘He liked to say that this love was the result of a clinical error. He himself could not believe that it had happened, least of all at that time in his life when all his reserves of passion were concentrated on the destiny of his city…’ (p. 105)

Thus the third chapter deepens the complexity of Marquez’s characters, showing us the crucial ways they differ from each other.

Writing chapters - Jane Smiley quote for writers | Now Novel

2. Create new tensions or challenges

After you’ve introduced your story scenario in chapters one and two, your third chapter is an opportunity to create new tensions. What could go wrong, or simply test main characters’ courage or affect their emotions?

Margaret Atwood creates an effective third chapter in The Blind Assassin that does exactly this.

In the first two chapters of the book we learn that the main character Iris’ sister killed herself by driving off a bridge. This is of course already an extremely difficult situation. Yet in the third chapter, Atwood explores the aftershocks, how Iris has to deal with further trouble:

Atwood’s third chapter opens as Iris narrates:

‘This morning I woke with a feeling of dread. I was unable at first to place it, but then I remembered. Today was the day of the ceremony.’ (p. 37)

From this mysterious opening (we wonder what ‘ceremony’ Iris is talking about) we learn she’s attending a graduation ceremony. Iris’ sister-in-law Winifred has set up a literary prize in her late sister’s name. Over these early chapters we learn Iris and Winifred have a difficult relationship, due to Winifred’s manipulative, ‘social climber’ personality.

As Iris sits at the award-giving, she narrates this tension further:

‘Then the Alumni Association man cleared his throat and gave out a pious spiel about Winifred Griffen Prior, saint on earth. How everyone fibs when it’s a question of money […] She knew my presence would be requested; she wanted me writhing in the town’s harsh gaze while her own munificence was lauded.’ (p. 41)

Atwood thus uses the events unfolding surrounding Iris’ sister’s death to show the tensions and hostilities in her main character’s other familial relationships. Family betrayals and hostilities play a big part in Laura’s path, as Atwood later reveals. Thus these tensions are relevant to the preceding, and continuing, story. We see how (from Iris’ viewpoint) the sister-in-law uses the painful situation to make herself look generous. We see how callous this feels to Iris, who is called to speak publicly about her sister at a difficult time.

The third chapter thus develops existing hostilities and tensions, slowly unpacking more of the issues underlying Laura’s choice.

Another way to write an interesting third chapter is to switch to a new viewpoint:

3. Switch to a new viewpoint character

After chapters one and two, you’ll likely have introduced your story’s main players. This is a good opportunity to bring in a new character, one who develops your premise further or takes your story to new, intriguing settings.

David Mitchell handles a switch like this well in his epic adventure, Cloud Atlas.

In the second chapter of the book, a young music composer, Robert Frobisher, writes letters to a mysterious friend, addressed by his surname as ‘Dear Sexsmith.’

Frobisher describes his life living with an elderly, respected composer who is going blind, for whom he notates music. The next chapter opens with a switch to Sexsmith’s point of view. It opens thus:

‘Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony and estimates his body’s velocity when it hits the sidewalk and lays his dilemmas to rest. A telephone rings in the unlit room. Sixsmith dares not answer.’ (p. 89)

Immediately, Mitchell has taken the character from being the secondary recipient of letters to a main character. What’s more, he’s seemingly in a tense, dangerous situation. Sixsmith not daring to answer the phone, coupled with his thinking about whether he would die if he were to jump, suggests he’s in grave personal danger.

This switch in pace and focus creates immediate suspense, filling us with questions. Who really is Sixsmith? Why is his life so full of tension? How does this relate to the chapter that came before?

When changing viewpoint character from chapter two to three, ask:

  • How is this character relevant to the preceding chapters? What new perspective or understanding does their viewpoint contribute? In the case of Cloud Atlas, we only learn much later how Sixsmith, Frobisher and others are linked. Yet the link is there.
  • Is there enough continuity for the reader to carry on in the story without being completely confused? You could keep the same setting, or else make reference to a shared scene or event (for example two different characters witness the same accident)

How to write chapters - book chapter quote Karin Slaughter | Now Novel

4. Develop further setbacks or complications

In learning how to write a third chapter, you notice how many third chapters involve setbacks or complications. Closing some doors for your characters means others can open. In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt opens her third chapter with her main character Theo’s fears from the previous chapter: He’s just been suspended from school:

‘I like to think of myself as a perceptive person (as I suppose we all do) and in setting all this down, it’s tempting to pencil a shadow gliding in overhead. But I was blind and deaf to the future; my single, crushing, worry was the meeting at school.’ (p. 14)

Yet by the end of the third chapter we have foreshadowing that there is worse to come. (A bomb blast at a museum that claims his mother’s life.):

“Oh, drat!cried my mother. She fumbled in her bag for her umbrella – which was scarcely big enough for one person, let alone two.
And then it came down, cold sweeps of rain … there was something festive and happy about the two of us, hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella, quick quick quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it.’

Thus one of the main tensions in Chapter 3, Theo’s fear and frustration surrounding school, is interrupted by a bigger setback – the loss of his mother in a blast at the museum.

Your characters’ setbacks might not be anything as life-altering or devastating as this. Yet the third chapter is a good point to introduce new hurdles that either defer earlier ones or dwarf them by comparison.

Exploring characters’ backstories that explain their choices or dilemmas, creating new tensions, setbacks or complications, and changing POV are just some of the ways you can keep your story intriguing and full of enticing unknowns.

Need help developing a great third chapter? Enroll in Kickstart your Novel, a six-week course including detailed feedback on your first three chapters and help creating a plan to finish.

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