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How Do I Start a
Chapter in My Novel?

First impressions count. A chapter can be packed full of drama, plot twists and emotional intensity – and still fail. Why?

Because the author hasn’t got the beginning right. The start of the chapter is bland and fails to draw the reader in. Rather than reading on as intended, they decide to put the television on or go and do a spot of gardening.

Beginnings are crucial, then, and in this section we’ll look at how to make the most of them.


Don’t start a chapter too soon

One of the most common mistakes novelists make is starting the chapter (or a scene within a chapter) too soon. The role of the chapter opening is to hook the reader and make them desperate to read on. There has to be something that is going to excite or intrigue them, and an implicit promise that there will be more of the same if they read on.

Let’s take the example below:


Detective Inspector Fletcher walked into the office. The chief was sitting behind his large mahogany desk, reading the case file. Without looking up he motioned for Fletcher to sit.

‘Coffee?’ he asked.

‘Yes, please,’ Fletcher said.

The chief called in Miss Perkins and asked her to get the coffee.

‘Milk and sugar?’ she asked Fletcher.

‘White with one sugar, please.’

‘I won’t be a moment,’ said Miss Perkins, walking back out of the office.

The chief put the file down and looked straight at Fletcher. ‘There’s a mole on the team.’


There is (eventually) a dramatic opening here that is likely to arouse the interest of readers and make them want to read on. The problem is that we have to read through eight lines of triviality to get there – and your reader might not make the effort. The aim of a novel isn’t to portray reality; it’s to portray a heightened reality.

Let’s see what happens when we just cut to the chase.

The chief put the file down and looked straight at Fletcher. ‘There’s a mole on the team.’

That’s better! We’ve now got the chapter off to a rip-roaring start, with all sorts of questions going through the reader’s mind. Why is the chief so sure there’s a mole? Has he told anyone else? Does he suspect Fletcher? The reader is intrigued and likely to want to read on to get some answers.

The writer might argue that the seemingly trivial opening lines in the first version served two important purposes. They established that the scene was taking place in the chief’s office, and that he has a large mahogany desk, hinting at his rather pompous personality (not for him a standard issue police desk).

These are valid comments – but it’s perfectly possible to get these points across more succinctly in a way that adds to, rather than detracts from, the tension.


The chief put the file down and looked straight at Fletcher. ‘There’s a mole on the team.’

Fletcher abandoned his plan to take a sip of coffee and placed the cup back down on the chief’s large mahogany desk.

The references to the coffee and the mahogany desk now serve a dramatic purpose – highlighting how Fletcher has been unnerved by what his boss said.

Of course, it might be that Miss Perkins is going to emerge as a key character later in the novel. The writer was keen to introduce her in a low-key way so that the shock would be all the greater when the truth was revealed.

In this case, a more nuanced approach is called for – one that again disguises her true role in the novel, but still does enough to add a little interest to the opening:


Miss Perkins placed Fletcher’s coffee on the large mahogany desk, smiling at him for just a moment longer than he had been expecting on her way out of the office.

The chief put the file down and looked straight at Fletcher. ‘There’s a mole on the team.’


In this version Miss Perkins suddenly becomes rather more interesting. She’s no longer just there to make the coffee but is a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and feelings. We have subtly flagged up the fact that there is more to her than there might seem, and added an extra dimension to the scene.


Watch out for repetition in chapter openings

As we’ve seen, the reference to the chief’s mahogany desk gives us an insight into his character. Little touches like this can be a subtle way of adding depth to a character without actually spelling things out in the text.

It’s important, though, not to overdo it. Starting a chapter in a novel by using a character's furniture as a way of revealing something about their personality can be very effective. Starting a number of chapters in this way (either with the same character or different ones) soon begins to feel repetitive and formulaic.

Always be on the lookout for a way of showing something about someone’s character – but use a number of different ways rather than sticking to one.


Opening a chapter in your novel: Conclusion

Always put yourself in the mind of the reader. Would the way you’ve opened the chapter make you want to read on some more – or put the bedside lamp out and call it a night?

Of course, readers will be approaching the new chapter in a much more positive frame of mind if you’ve ended the previous one in an effective manner.


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