You probably know how to write fiction from your reading. It’s not a conscious activity for you. But there are times when the words refuse to flow naturally. This post should help when such a catastrophe occurs, giving you a template to work from.
-Gerald rode into Winchester with his feet dangling down his horse’s flanks, toes resting lazily on the stirrups. Could he honestly call it a town? The state of the streets made him want to turn his eyes away. Sewage ran as a thick brown slurry down a channel in the centre of the street, raining down from windows overhead. Wretched figures in ripped tunics shambled into his path, raising their grubby hands to beg for coin.-
The simplest way to open a chapter is with one paragraph which sets the scene. Your last chapter could have been set anywhere at any time. Show the reader whose eyes they are looking through, where they are, what they see and how they feel about it.
Your reader wants action, active verbs. Rather than Gerald being in Winchester or the town lying between here and there, he is riding into Winchester.
Now you describe the general state or situation of the setting and character. You want this to flow and you want it to be vivid. Rather than treating them separately, describe both setting and person in tandem.
Gerald is turning his nose up and being haughty because the town is in a sorry state. The use of adjectives such as wretched, nouns like sewage and verbs like shambled continues to show Gerald’s distaste while giving more detail about the town and its occupants.
Not once have we explicitly said that Gerald is haughty or the town is a mess. Instead, we’re supplying individual, intriguing fragments which combine to give the reader whichever picture we want to paint.
-Where had the damned man agreed to meet him? Gerald did not care for murderers and their ilk, but desperate deeds required desperate men to carry them out. For the sum of coin he had offered, the assassin should have put up a gilded statue to guide him on his way. God, have mercy on his soul. He could feel the sweat pricking his scalp.-
At the moment, your reader is flying without fuel in their engine. You needed that opening to set the scene, but you have temporarily deprived the reader of the main plot. Re-capture their attention before they fall away by showing them why the character is there and how they feel about this part of their plot.
Gerald has a rendezvous with a hired assassin and he is on edge about the meeting. That explanation took one sentence, but as with the above, you do not want to be explicit. You can introduce each element of the purpose individually via a series of revelations.
Reveal 1: The meeting is revealed through a question Gerald asks himself. Self-questioning also conveys a sense of doubt.
Reveal 2: You find out he is meeting a murderer through his general opinion of such men. This adds information about his persona, how he views violent types. Ilk says upper class and desperate deeds adds a sense of urgency or importance.
Reveal 3: Gerald’s thoughts on how the murderer could have helped him find the meeting let us know it is murder for hire. There is also a sense that he is indignant. He expects more for his money.
Non-reveal: His short prayer is not relevant to the main plot. It tells us about his faith, but primarily acts as an add-on to the previous reveal. The prayer suggests that his indignant thought is just an expression of his unease.
Summary: It’s a good idea to have a summary, to cap things off and just in case your reader misread the mood. Gerald is sweating, so he is nervous.
-Was that him? Gerald had imagined from his description the man would be taller, but what other common ruffian would dare to lay a hand on his bridle? A square face bristling with black stubble looked up from beneath the hood of a dark cloak.
“Have you brought my coin, lord?” the murderer asked.
Gerald blinked. His throat was dry as parchment and he could not swallow. How dare the man address him first? “I have brought it, but you must show me proof.”
“Proof you can have, but not here.”-
By this point you, the author, are getting nervous as well. It’s been a while since your reader saw some dialogue and there is a chance the prose is drying out before their eyes. Your task is to drag another character in front of the lead and get them talking.
Bring in the character using the same techniques as above, keeping it short. Dialogue should not trouble you because it is so versatile. Prose can come before, after, in the middle. Use it to show how your characters react, feel and what they are thinking.
Gerald is surprised so he blinks. This reaction can be short, snappy. His throat is dry because he is afraid. He responds to fear, like unease, by being indignant.
The dialogue and plot will now go some way towards driving the prose from this point. Activity will occur inside or outside the characters’ heads.
The murderer has to lead Gerald somewhere because he said “not here”. There must be either an exchange of payment and proof, or else a twist which means things do not go as Gerald expects. He will react to each of these events and the murderer will react to his behaviour.
This takes the form of alternating dialogue and description. There will be a sequence of description as Gerald and the murderer go to the next location. Winchester will unravel around them as you pick out sights/sounds/smells to describe, highlight Gerald’s reaction to them and give insight into his thoughts about the assassin or the plot.
Then there will be dialogue when they reach their destination and a discussion, conversation or argument takes place. The same pattern will continue to the chapter’s conclusion.
A chapter dominated by dialogue is common. A chapter dominated by description runs the risk of being dry, something I fall victim to and am very aware of when writing.
-Gerald risked a look back towards the town, now sleeping under a starlit sky. Was that the end of it? Somewhere under that blanket of darkness, a murderer would be counting coins in the back room of a tavern filled with warmth and laughter. The cold crept into Gerald’s tunic and gnawed at his skin. God, forgive him for what he had done. He kicked his heels into the horse’s flanks and cantered away down the track. He did not allow the animal to slow until Winchester was swallowed by the settling night behind him.-
Finish the chapter with a piece of description or dialogue which gives the reader a clear signal that it has ended. You can use a cliffhanger or sudden, important event. This is different from being abrupt, where the micro-story ends in the middle of its flow.
Here Gerald has ridden away into the night. The reader is picturing the darkness which gathers around him, so they know that the events of this chapter have concluded.
Alternatively, it could still be light when he leaves Winchester. In that case the murderer might watch him depart, a wry sneer tugging at the corner of his mouth. Or they could clasp hands to seal the deal, Gerald feeling the lines etched into the other man’s palm and pitying the victim who will soon feel them pressed around their throat.
It could even work if the murder asks “How do you intend to pay, if you brought no coin?” and the chapter ends. What is most important about the ending is that it paves the way for the next chapter.
If the next opens with “I brought a diamond the size of your fist.” then the reader feels cheated. They want Gerald’s inability to pay to be a defining event, explored in the following chapter. Similarly, the reader does not want him to ride off into the night and then return as the next chapter opens because he forgot that he hired a room to stay in Winchester.
Do not swallow all the tasty morsels before ending the chapter. Leave something you can chew on in the next one.
Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?