If you want to know how to start a chapter, it’s important to consider “grounding” the reader. I touched on this concept briefly in my post on how to start a book, and now I want to delve deeper into chapter structure. The reader is someone who picks up a book to read a story and have an experience. Since you know your story much better than the reader, it is your job to curate them through the story, to transition them from scene to scene and moment to moment in such a way that they follow you and focus stays on the story…instead of on the transitions and work you’re doing to put it together.
Grounding the Reader in Your Fictive Dream
As soon as a reader gets confused or starts to see the man behind the Oz mask, if you will, meaning how you’ve put your story together or if something you’ve done isn’t working quite right, they get pulled out of the story. Novelist John Gardner is attributed to describing the act of reading as entering “the fictive dream.” Whatever takes you out of this dream — a strange transition, confusion, a glaring error, character inconsistency, implausible plot — is disruptive to the reader’s experience.
A really common way to wake someone up from the fictive dream is to not ground the reader at the beginning of chapters or in times of transition from one scene/plot point to the next. This is why it’s so important to “ground” the reader when you’re looking at how to start a chapter. Whenever a reader reads the first page of a book, the first paragraph of a new chapter, or the transition between two beats, scenes, or moments, they want to know four things.
How to Start a Chapter: Considerations
- Who is involved in this story/chapter/scene?
- When is this (for the beginning of the novel) and when is this relative to the last chapter or scene (for the rest of the novel)?
- Where are we?
- What’s going on?
By grounding the reader, you are answering these questions right off the bat, so that there is no confusion and the reader can dive into the novel, chapter, or next scene without being ripped out of the fictive dream by lingering doubt or uncertainty.
I see lots of chapters start with dialogue that is not attributed to anyone with a dialogue tag. (Check out this for more: Types of Dialogue Tags.) That’s not solid chapter structure because we don’t know who is involved right off the bat. It’s also really important to know how much time has passed since we last saw the action of the story. Does the next chapter/scene pick up right away or does it pick up next Wednesday? That’s important to the reader’s sense of story and pacing. I see a lot of opening paragraphs or scenes that take place in some nebulous setting. Whether it’s the same setting as the previous chapter/scene or a new setting, we have to know it and get a sense of it. If we haven’t seen this place before, we need to get some more meaty description. Finally, we should pick up almost immediately what’s going on. If the last chapter/scene ended with the reader expecting something — like the bully saying, “I’ll see you in five minutes for a beat-down,” we’ll be expecting said beat-down the next time we see the character — then tell us right away if our expectations will be met or if we’re in a different scene altogether.
Chapter Structure: Example of Grounding the Reader
Here’s an example I wrote of an opening paragraph for a chapter that grounds the reader in a way that lets them have their questions answered:
Donny waited until the end of bio period before leaning over to her again. He could almost smell her strawberry shampoo when he got that close. Mr. Stokes was still babbling on about photosynthesis, but it didn’t matter. None of it would matter until Donny did the thing he’d promised himself he’d do.
This obviously continues the story pretty soon after we last left off. We know the characters, the time elapsed (a little bit less than a full class period, we’re guessing), the setting (still bio), a little reiteration of what must’ve happened in the last chapter/scene (the “again” is a clue), and some of what might happen in this chapter/scene (it involves something he’s been planning on doing and the girl, somehow).
You Are the Story’s Curator
What I want to reiterate is that you are the story’s curator. It’s up to you decide how to start a chapter and to make sure your chapter structure guides readers seamlessly from chapter to chapter and scene to scene and knows exactly what’s going on. Once you confuse your reader, you lose them. Our prime real estate locations are also prime opportunities for grounding the reader and creating transitions…and prime possibilities for losing your reader, if you don’t ground them in the fictive dream well enough.
Want to know how to start a chapter in a way that supports the fictive dream? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you develop strong transitions between your scenes and chapters.
30 Replies to “How to Start a Chapter: Ground the Reader”
Excellent. Very helpful, thank you very much.
I’m working on edits for a YA manuscript. I think these questions you’ve posted to help “ground” the reader will be helpful.
Mary, identifying “grounding” is so helpful to me, as is the need to avoid disrupting the “fictive dream.” Thanks.
How do you feel about labeling chapters with dates, as in “December 1950: Chapter Seven” when the time period is very specific to the story being told?
Great post — thanks!! I used to be in debate, and we would argue five different things in a limited amount of time. I always wrote the time I wanted to use for each argument, so that if it was a flimsy argument, I would only spend 30 seconds on it as opposed to the argument where I would win — that I would give a whole three minutes to pound out my points clearly. It’s nice to see that applied to writing.
So question is: how to avoid the obvious? Sometimes I get a little irritate with stories where they pound one detail so hard, I just know it will come up later. But I really adore those stories where they hit it just right that I noticed it, only I had no clue it would come up again later to be super important. So how do you know where to draw the line on that? Any tips?
Thanks for the list of points to hit. Really helpful both for writing and critiquing! (The fictive dream quote makes me think of the movie Inception.)
Thank you! I found this post, and the real estate post, very helpful. You have a talent for making writing concepts clear and easy to understand.
Oh, My! So helpful right this minute!
That list is a really concise way to put it. Thanks! I’ve been trying to make this clear in critiques I give my writing group, but you phrased it so much better than I ever have.
“You are the story’s curator.”
That’s a fantastic way to put it. Thanks for this.
KellieD–the first part of the post also made me think of Inception!
This is a great post! Thank you.
A few more margin notes for me… 🙂
This is exactly the question I had about my WIP. I was wondering about starting some chapters with dialogue and I wasn’t sure if it was reading clear. You’ve answered my concerns and I’ll be revising accordingly. Thanks Mary. As usual, you’re right on time. I look forward to being able to take a course with you at the Learning Annex in the future. I was out of NY when you held the first one. Thanks for all you do to help writers.
Great post! Thanks so much.
I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now, and I wanted to say thanks for all your great advice.
This post really hits the nail on the head. So many times in critique groups writers bring in a chapter and half, or sometimes all, of that chapter’s “big four” haven’t been answered. Then the writer ends up having to explain critical information questions (where are we, etc.) raised by other critiquers. It can be a big time waster.
This post is a fabulous resource for critique groups and could help maximize critiquer’s slot times. I will definitely be passing this around.