Writing Tips: How to Start a Chapter

Okay, y’all, I’m back at ya today with a fresh writing-focused blog post! And I know it’s been a while… because I’ve been trying to tailor my blog more towards readers as well. However, I still want to give you all a quick writing tip or two every once in a while, too, because, hey, a lot of readers are writers as well!

And so… today, we are going to be focusing on how to start a new chapter–and this includes chapter one(s)!

Because this is probably the most frequently asked question I get from fellow writers, and even from some readers as well–how in the world do you start filling an empty page?

Now, let me tell you–starting to write on any empty page is a scary thing, and even experienced writers get a little nervous when staring at a blank document. Or, at least, I do. However… I’m going to share my top tip for starting a fresh chapter with you, and this tip honestly makes it so much easier to get in the writing groove right from the start!

So, here it is, folks…

Start Every Chapter “En Media Res”

Yes, that is latin, and no, you don’t have to speak a dead language to know what it means.

“En media res” essentially translates to something like “in the middle of things” in English. And, in even simpler terms, that translates to something like “just start your next chapter in the middle of an interesting situation.” And, no, I am not a certified latin translator, but I hope you can still take my word on this.

I actually followed this tip for years before I even knew it was, I guess, a thing. Like, way back to my days on retro Wattpad (shout-out to the Wattpad users of circa 2011!), I made sure to start every chapter of every thing I wrote in the middle of an interesting situation. Like, let’s think about it… would you rather read a chapter that takes three to twenty-hundred paragraphs to make things interesting or a chapter that starts being interesting right from the very first sentence? I don’t know about you, but I’d take that shorter, super intriguing chapter over anything else every day.

Now, while it does help to know that “en media res” is a thing, it helps a ton more to know how to actually use it. And, don’t worry, I got your back on this!

Start Your Next Chapter in the Middle of Dialogue

So, probably my #1 tip of all time for beginning writers that literally don’t know where to start is this: just start with a line of dialogue.

Honestly, this is the simplest thing you can do, and, while it always feels like we need to complicate things, we don’t. Really–keep it simple, and keep it as easy as possible on yourself. Otherwise, you will go crazy. And your story will suffer.

Now, it obviously depends on your storyline, characters, scene, and every other element of your story to determine what dialogue you can and should use at the beginning of your first/next chapter; however, I’d advise you to keep it short and sweet. Don’t start your chapter with a five-paragraph monologue–try to keep it contained to just a sentence or two.

I also don’t really know how to explain this further without using an example, so let’s use an example!

Pretend you know nothing about the story I’m writing. Now, pretend this is the first line of my first chapter:

“She should have been dead a long time ago.”

Catch your attention at all? Yeah, I hope so. That’s because it’s a short and sweet (event though death isn’t technically “sweet” but… oh well…) piece of dialogue. It also helps that’s super interesting, which is what we want for the first line of a first chapter.

Now, the first line of your second, third, forth, etc. chapters don’t necessarily have to be as eye-catching. That’s because, of course, you already have your readers’ attention from the first chapter. Or, at least, hopefully you do.

So, your subsequent chapters can start with even simpler dialogue, if you want. Here are some basic examples that put right in the middle of things:

“Hey, what did you get for question fifteen?”

“I’m not going.”

“It’s not a contest, you know!”

Now, are these lines of dialogue nearly as intriguing as that first example up above? Perhaps not. But, hey, you just need something semi-intriguing to start your second or twenty-second chapter off with, and then you can write on.

Start Your Next Chapter in the Middle of Action

If you can start off your next chapter with a line of dialogue, do it. If you don’t think dialogue is going to work, though, or if you feel like you’ve started way too many chapters off with dialogue, then try starting with a line of action instead.

Now, starting off a chapter with action can be a little more difficult than starting with dialogue. Dialogue is, in my opinion, really hard to make completely uninteresting. However… action lines can get a little messy every once in a while.

When I say “start your chapter in the middle of a line of action,” I mean start your chapter with a line that describes a character physically doing something. Again, if you are starting your first chapter, try your very best to make it a super-duper action-packed line. However, your subsequent chapters can be a little “less” interesting.

And, again, let’s learn by example, shall we?

Pretend, again, that you know nothing about my story, and this is the first line of my first chapter:

Her body hit the pavement. Hard.

Yeah, I guess I’m on some morbid roll today with these examples… but, listen, isn’t that an interesting line? It’s also pretty short, which, again, I would prefer to something longer than can start to get boring after the fiftieth word in the sentence. You can, of course, make your first lines longer as needed, though–just try to avoid sentences that seem to go on and on and on forever because, you know, we’re trying to catch the attention of our readers quickly here!

Some other examples for your next few chapter could be things like…

He picked up the book and flipped to page 223.

I stepped down the aisle, holding my bouquet of fresh-cut roses against my chest.

She walked across the stage and picked the microphone off of its stand.

Start Your Next Chapter in the Middle of Thought

I’m kind of leaving this last “en media res” option last because… well, it’s probably my least favorite. So, if you can, I’d recommend using a line of dialogue or action to start your chapters with before you resort to this: starting your chapters with a line of thought. Which, of course, means starting your chapter with the inner thought/dialogue of a main character.

Now, remember this golden rule when it comes to using thought in your story at all: do not state “she/he/they/I/we thought.” For example: ‘It’s too far, he thought.’ No, don’t do that. Readers can infer that ‘he thought’ part, and it’s a waste of page space to state it. Sorry, but just don’t do it, please.

And, another tip–you don’t have to italicize thoughts either. You can, but I would recommend not to. It’s just kind of an elementary-grade tactic, and I think books and stories look a lot more professional without doing that.

But, anyway, housekeeping tips aside… let’s go through some examples.

Pretend, again, you know nothing about my story, and this is the first line of the first chapter you see:

There’s no way she’s surviving that.

Again, a little bit of morbidity to it, but you get the point. Thoughts are hard to make interesting, but you have to try your best!

Some other examples of thought-based first-liners include…

I’m not going to make it.

She looked pretty good, but not good enough.

Did they honestly think I wasn’t going to blow them away? Ha. Peasants.

You can also think of thoughts in writing as just a different type of dialogue, that is, dialogue without quotation marks. Though that may seem confusing at first, just remember that thoughts are inner dialogue, after all, and they should be written as such. Kind of like when we talk to ourselves, but just in writing. And we all do it, no shame.

It should also be noted that thoughts can come from either a character or the narrator, even in a third-person point-of-view. For example, that second example up above (She looked pretty good, but not good enough.) could be used in a third-person POV story where the narrator is giving this thought to readers. Maybe a judgmental narrator, but hey, it’s a different way of writing!

Well, that’s all I have for y’all today. I really hope this post helps you navigate past that blank page anxiety we all get when we’re moving on from chapter to chapter… and I hope it actually helps you start your next chapter, whatever that chapter may be!

Let me know in the comments below whether you’ve used “en media res” before… or if this is a brand new concept to you! You can also feel free to let me know if there are any other writing-based tips and tricks you’d like me to share in future posts.

Until next time, homedogs…


One thought on “Writing Tips: How to Start a Chapter

  1. Pingback: Monthly Wrap-Up That Is ~Unapologetically Tardy~ – A Christian Kid's Journal

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