Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We’ve all read advice about the first chapter—how and where to begin a story; what makes for strong openings, depending on the genre; what not to include in the first paragraph or page of chapter one; what to include in a novel’s opening.
We understand that a good opening chapter sets the tone and introduces lead characters and gets the plot rolling.
We know almost as much about the final chapter, the final paragraph, and the final words. About how to finish a story so that it’s complete and satisfying and induces the reader to want more.
Yet, where’s the advice for chapter two?
What do we do to move from that compelling first chapter—the one that’s seen more rewrites than all other pages combined and multiplied by 10—and into the meat of the story?
We certainly want to continue the tone we’ve established. And we want to draw the reader in. But are there practical ways of doing that? Are there tricks or practices that work to move us from introduction to story path?
Sure there are.
Where should a second chapter start?
1. At the time and place of the ending of chapter one—but with a twist. Michael opens the door at the end of chapter one expecting his ex. He was fortified with a drive-thru burger, a couple of beers, and two hours of playing the memories of their less than stellar marriage through his mind. But chapter two begins with the door opening to . . . Michael’s ten-years-dead brother. The father who left him at the ballpark when he was 12 and never returned. The slacker who stole away his wife with his five-million-in-sales company. The call girl he’d hired last weekend in Vegas.
2. With the introduction of a new character, a new scene, an unrelated thread. Don’t give the reader what he expects. Do keep him entertained. It’s okay to turn your back on what happened in the last chapter. Really. It is. You’ll get back to it. (If you doubt this can be done well, read a political or techno-thriller. The best ones weave a half dozen story threads, loosely at first, and draw them tighter as the story progresses. A powerful technique to keep readers interested and guessing.) But for now, give us a chapter two that’s just as compelling as chapter one. Don’t worry about connections between the two chapters and events. You have plenty of time to fill in the blanks later.
3. With that flashback that you really wanted to use to open chapter one. If you have to have one—and do you?—use it in chapter two to slow the tension-inducing action you introduced at the end of the first chapter. (And to keep it away from that opening chapter. First chapters are for the now of stories. The before stuff can come after that first introduction to your characters and plot.)
If you do introduce back story or flashback, keep it in sync with the genre and feel of the story. Flashback can be exciting—if your story’s a suspense, paint the flashback with suspense. If you’re writing romance, don’t give us straightforward facts in a flashback or recite events as if you’re writing a report. Give us emotion.
4. With dialogue. Go from the inner thought of your lead character at the end of the first chapter to dialogue. Let the reader hear someone’s voice. Overheard crosstalk on a cell phone? Complaints from the lead character’s mother or boss or lover or client? The main character himself, mumbling as he’s running through the rain to put up the cover on his vintage convertible, the one taking on water as if Noah hadn’t finished his construction on time?
5. With the unexpected. You don’t want your readers feeling too comfortable. You definitely don’t want them predicting every word of dialogue and every action. Yes, events need to fit, as if they’re inevitable. But you don’t want them guessed or known ahead of time. A tough trick, I’ll admit. But one way to go for the unpredictable is to imagine wild events happening when that door opens in chapter two. Maybe a herd of cows is moseying down the street. Perhaps the quite beautiful leader of the local Girl Scout troop—in her daughter’s short and tight uniform—stands on the other side of the door, looking to borrow a cup of sugar. Perhaps aliens are landing on the lawn, a Publisher’s Clearinghouse van has pulled up, a neighbor kid is body surfing down the power lines, or a sonic boom and noxious fumes knock out our lead when he opens the door.
Let your imagination run wild. You may find yourself with a secondary character who’s key to the plot. You may find yourself with a new and better plot. You may add depth to a thin story, finding a thread you can layer in throughout the tale.
And if you couldn’t have imagined that crazy plot twist, you know your readers won’t have. And they’ll be surprised and even more involved in the story.
Start your second chapter with spice or delight or fun. Write action. Write dialogue. Slow the pace or speed the pace. Make chapter two even more interesting than chapter one.
After the invitation of chapter one, draw the reader deeper into your fiction. Give him a reason to stay.