Thursday February 22
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Where Should a Second Chapter Start?

October 12, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 12, 2010

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.


Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

21 Responses to “Where Should a Second Chapter Start?”

  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Wow. Some great ideas, Beth. So much is spent on first chapters we tend to forget about how important chapter two is grabbing the reader.

    This came at the right time for me,


  2. Beth, I really liked this. One of the things I’ve disliked about first chapter contests is how often the shiny polish of the initial chapter leads to a “more of the same” feel in the second one. This post offers some practical ideas on how to mix it up, including tips on how we can include those wonderful flashbacks we’ve written. Nicely done.

  3. Pat Bertram says:

    Good suggestions. I like the first one — let the reader think one thing is going to happen, and give them something else.

    I just realized what a drawback it is for writers who don’t also read. They have no way of telling what a reader will expect, though writers who read novels have a very good idea.

  4. I really like to change POVs from Chapter One to Chapter Two. Not always, but I often start in the heroines POV in Ch1 and switch to the heroes in Ch2. They always see things from different perspectives. Different components of the plot affect them in different ways.

    Great post!

  5. Beth says:

    Sia, that must mean you’re working on a chapter two. Yeah for you!

  6. Beth says:

    James, I find a lot of flashbacks in manuscripts I edit. Yes, that info can be used. And it works so much better outside chapter one.

  7. Beth says:

    Pat, I don’t know how any writer doesn’t read. If you’re not familiar with your tools and what those tools can accomplish, how do you know when you’ve created something? At least something of value?

  8. Beth says:

    Olivia, can I use that change of POV and viewpoint character as my number 6? I don’t know how I overlooked that one—a wonderful way to jump into chapter two.

  9. Kat Sheridan says:

    Oh, what wonderful advice! I like to switch scenes or characters completely. I especially like to end one chapter with someone hanging by their fingernails over the edge of a volcano, and then switch to one of my (many) other plotlines. I’m evil that way. MWAHAHA!

  10. Beth says:

    Kat, keep hanging them over the edge. Your readers will love it.

  11. Vivian A says:

    Beth this is fantastic! I’ve wondered this for what seems like eons, and here you’ve made it seem so simple. I think I need to print this off for the wall. Perfect! Just what I needed to know.

  12. Beth says:

    Vivian, glad you find it useful. Remember to include Olivia’s suggestion—change point of view.

  13. Girl Friday says:

    Great article! So much emphasis is put on the first chapter that I think some people forget to make the 2nd as enticing.

  14. Girl Friday, we do hear much about that first chapter, don’t we? Here’s to compelling second chapters and exciting middles to go with our marvelous first chapters. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Glad I found something of use right now! 😀 Currently stuck on my second chapter, this should certainly help me out. Thanks! (I realize this comment is a bit late… 😉 Only just found it, though. Nice blog!)

  16. Ferrin, one great thing about this blog is that the information doesn’t really go out of date. I’m glad you found something that worked for you. Stop by any time.

  17. Thanks Beth, I’m writing the next great African novel and I find your articles very insightful. I really like the idea of changing POV.