Chapter Beginnings: How to Keep Hooking Your Reader, Beginning to End
By Gen Gavel
The Trouble with Suspense
Have you ever read a novel in which every chapter ends with a cliffhanger? The first several had you fascinated, gripped. You turned the pages readily. You stayed up too late. But then you started to want more.
Perhaps you started to ask, When will these characters slow down and start to think? Or, Are these people even real? They never get tired. Or simply, What is keeping me engaged, the story or the suspense?
Like many television series, especially in their later seasons, a lot of books rely heavily on suspense to keep the reader reading. The chapters end with a question, we read on to find the answer, but the answer is only moderately satisfying, so we consider putting the book down, but then… But then, just at the end of that chapter, the ground opens up, chaos ensues, and you’ve got another burning question.
We all recognize this as a trick, and whether or not we still enjoy the story is dependent on several factors, not the least of which is simply how willing we are to be entertained.
More Than Entertaining
But you want your book to be more than entertaining. You want it to have a permanent place on your reader’s bookshelf, and, more importantly, you want it to have a permanent place in her heart. You want her to be altered by the story you’ve poured your own heart into. And that cannot be accomplished with cheap tricks.
The Importance of Many Beginnings
Yes, beginnings with an s. You need to hook your reader repeatedly.
She is smart. Your reader isn’t here just for a thrill. She wants to see the characters satisfied, to see them grow.
With all her heart, she wants to be invested in your story, but she’s busy. She puts the book down frequently, and that’s not your fault. But here’s the key: when she picks it back up, what will she read? The next chapter beginning. Not the previous cliffhanger, if there was one.
Sure, your story questions have intrigued her — the main character is healing from a broken collar bone, he has a broken heart, he doesn’t think he’ll make it. But your reader has a million other things on her mind, and she’s struggling to focus. In her few minutes of free time, though, she scans those next first words.
She remembers. That’s right, the cave at night. The fire.
You write about the sparks rising to the stars. You remind her of the smell of charred boar skin. The newcomer is there. She’s touching his arm, his good arm. The hole in his heart aches but the company is good.
“It’s time,” the woman says. And he knows that it is, but he would rather die than face his demons.
Just like that, your reader loves him again. Look at him, she sighs. He always just takes the next step. That is courage, she muses.
Suddenly the big monsters on her schedule today get a little smaller. She reads another page. There’s an obstacle, of course, and the poor dude cries. She might cry too.
Life is hard. But she loves how you’ve woven comforts into your tale, too. She will be brave today, and she will seek to be the comfort for others. After all, we’re all in this together.
See, she is enriched, not just entertained.
So, How Is This Done?
You already have a gripping story arc. Your characters are relatable. Your cliffhangers are carefully placed and always significant to the theme and purpose. Good job.
All you need now is to use your chapter openings wisely. This is about hooking your reader, not leaving her hanging. Draw her in by appealing to three basic human experiences.
1. The Reader’s Quest
2. The Reader’s Suffering
3. The Reader’s Senses
In other words, make it human, time and again. Make your reader feel seen, then curl your finger, wink, and beckon her back into your world.
The Reader’s Quest
You don’t know what your reader is really looking for, but you do know the basic desires of humanity: to love, to be loved, and to succeed. So, your chapter openings need to have at least a reminder that you are attentive to those things.
Mention the heartache. Introduce memories of a first love or a lost parent, or even redefine success for your character in light of recent events. Use this as an opportunity to develop your character’s emotional needs.
This may or may not be something he or she is aware of. It usually won’t directly relate to the external mission, but it will bond your reader to your characters. That is what you want.
The Reader’s Suffering
Similar to their quest, the suffering of your reader might be very simple and may be intricately related to your character's quest.
A lost love creates the desire for love (quest) and, obviously, pain (suffering). However, human suffering diverges from our quests when there is nothing to be done about it. This is more of a “life stinks” type of suffering.
The broken collar bone has nothing to do with the desire to be loved. It simply hurts. So, make the opening lines of every chapter human by bowing to the fact that life is a pain in the rear. This works in humor, sci-fi, action, and pure entertainment type novels as well, not just YA angst. Trust me.
The Reader’s Five Senses
This is the most common recommendation that I’ve read for writing scene beginnings. It applies to writing chapter beginnings as well. Set (or reset) the stage by appealing to at least two of the five senses.
Try to start with the visual, followed by feelings and/or sounds, then, if fitting, tastes and/or smells. This order is most like our everyday experiences.
If you were writing for dogs, you would start with smell, but humans are generally sight-led, so start there. You can absolutely mix up the order of the remaining four.
Just by the rule of thumb, pain and breezes will be observed before aromas, etc.
Of course, if your character is waking up from a coma, perhaps sounds would come before sights. Likewise, if he has his face buried in his hands, he might be startled by a smell. You get the idea.
Love Your Reader; Write to Her Heart
These three nods to the humanity of your reader, even when only one line each, will grab her by the heart and avail her (or him!) of your fabulous tale. Because... a spacecraft teetering on the brink of a stony abyss, reminding the protagonist of the day he knew his marriage was about to dive into dark waters, is a more gripping scene than all the landmines blowing up at once under the feet of a cast of robots.
Gen Gavel — Editor, Havok Publishing
Lover of meaningful stories and powerful connections, Gen writes and edits with one goal: to draw people together by the power of fiction. She has had several short stories published online and in print, has co-edited a teen authors anthology, and enjoys editing flash fiction for Havok Publishing as well as full novels for her private clients.