Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Chapters - Beginnings and Ending that Work

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Her novels range from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her new British series. She lives with her family in West Virginia. Learn more at www.RoseannaMWhite.com 

 ~*~

Stephanie has blogged before about the importance of arriving late and leaving early in a scene or chapter of your novel. This is awesome advice, and a turn of phrase that has certainly stuck with me. But sometimes we know where to begin or end and still fumble a bit on how.



We've all been there: we're reading a book, totally caught up. We're chanting one more chapter in our heads. The action is going swimmingly, we turn another page, and....wha??? That was a chapter ending? But it didn't sound like it. It took us totally off guard. We flip back, reread that last line, and while we can kinda see where it's a hook, it still just didn't sound right.

Or that time when we pick a book up again after not having time to read for a few days, and it's one of those times when we did actually stop at a chapter break (I have this lovely habit of getting hooked by the end-of-chapter hook, so flipping the page and reading the first bit of the next chapter...and then putting my bookmark in at a random paragraph...). We start reading and can't for the life of us remember what was going on, and the opening paragraphs don't tell us much. Or maybe time has passed in the story, and we have no clue how much. Or where we are now.

Beginning and ending chapters isn't just about hooking the reader--they're also about grounding them. And this, I've found, helps me with that how.

I've done things my own way for pretty much ever, and I didn't honestly know if that way was okay until my editor drew my attention to it. It was during the edits for Circle of Spies, my final Culper Ring Series book that came out last April. This was the part she drew my attention to--the previous chapter had ended with my hero and heroine in a train car, headed into Western Maryland's mountains:


     With the mountains came darkness, more from the moaning clouds than the descent of the sun. Thunder had been rolling for the past twenty minutes, and flashes of lightning danced around the hilltops.



     Marietta scooted closer and closer to his side, which Slade accepted with nary a complaint. He may only have another hour with her, so he would savor every moment.



When I wrote this, I wasn't really thinking too much about it. But my editor raved about this chapter opening, saying that authors seem to spend so much time crafting that perfect end-of-chapter hook, but they rarely pay attention to how they start a chapter.

A good point, but one I think a lot of writers ignore at first because they're so determined to show-not-tell that they don't want to fall for even a moment into narration. Sometimes, though, it's necessary. Here's another example, from Susan Meissner's Shape of Mercy (an absolutely breath-taking book, if you haven't read it!):


     I was alone in Abigail's house when I completed the diary. It was early Sunday, between two and three in the morning. I had finished reading the diary well before then, but my mind refused to be a dictation machine and simply decipher and type. I read, digested, pondered, and then typed.
     It was the only way to get through it.
     I read the final three words a dozen times before committing them to the digitized image.
     I am ready.
     I am ready.
     Ready for what?


Now, the style of this book involves having these diary entries in the text. The last chapter ended with said diary entry, with those three words. This new chapter, if we avoided all telling, could have just begun with "Ready for what?"

Instead, Susan takes a few paragraphs to ground us. To put us back into the character's head, draw us out of the diary entry, and give us a glimpse of her emotions as she put those words onto the page. She's still following Stephanie's "arrive late" advice--we don't go all the way back to her transcribing the entry. We're instead put in the scene after she's finished, then brought up to date on those emotions. This is one of those times when telling is brilliant, and used correctly.

This sort of chapter opening isn't always called for. If you're in a high action scene and you end the previous chapter with a high action hook, then you can just keep plunging on. But if you're:

  • Changing locations
  • Skipping time
  • Switching POVs

then it might be an occasion to break out your narration skills and flex those prose muscles. Use imagery. Paint a word picture. You're still showing us what happened, but you're doing it from a bit of a distance before swooping down into the character's thoughts of that minute. This can be an incredibly effective tool. To use it, those paragraphs need to establish:

  • Where we are
  • When we are
  • Whose head we're in

Meissner's book is in first person, so aside from the diary entries, it's always the same POV. That's easy. =) But she quickly establishes the (1) where: Abigail's house and (2) when: two or three in the morning.

In the example from Circle of Spies, I did switch POVs, so I cover (1) where: the mountains, (2) when: at least twenty minutes after the last chapter ended, toward evening, and (3) who: Slade's POV.

Simple guidelines, but they can make a big difference in your writing...and give you some time to use those word-images that might be too much when the action's pulsing strong later in a scene.

Now, chapter endings get a lot of discussion. Because they're important--that's what keeps a reader reading, so it's important to keep them interested. But there are different ways to implement this. Another of my editors made mention of my chapter endings in The Lost Heiress (coming September), liking how sometimes I end with a question, but sometimes it's with a truth to ponder. Chapter 2 ends like this:


     But the servant looked to him. “Excusez-moi, Lord Harlow. Forgive me for bringing such news, my lord, but—your father. There has been an accident on the mountain road.”

     His fingers went lax within Brook’s tightened grip. Clouds gathered before his eyes. “What kind of accident?”

This is a rather typical hook, one that makes the reader ask, "What happened to his father? What's he going to do about it? How is this going to affect the path he just started out on?"

But that's doesn't always work for a chapter ending. Sometimes the tension doesn't come from the action...sometimes it comes from the inner journey. Chapter 3 ends like this:


     The crinkling of paper drew her eyes open again, and Deirdre saw a bank note dangling before her.

     Eyes wide, she looked past the note and to him. “Why is it more than we agreed?”

     “Incentive.” He reached over the pew back and slid it into the handbag she’d set at her side.
     There was nothing she could do but say thank you. Even though she knew the devil never made a gift without demanding something in return.
It isn't an action hook--we don't wonder what happens in the very next moment. The scene is finished, and it will come as no surprise when the next chapter opens a week later, in a different POV. But it does make us ask what this character is going to do in the future, and what the consequences will be. And it hammers home that the man she's meeting with isn't a nice guy, and that she fears him, even as she does his bidding. This is, in fact, our first introduction to one of the villains of the story, and he's clearly set up as such.

I tend toward this type of hook more than some authors do...and have even occasionally seen reviewers mention it (back before I stopped reading my reviews). One reader mentioned that (I'm paraphrasing) I don't end my chapters with everything up in the air, like so many suspense books do [insert Roseanna groaning, "Oh, I'm doing it wrong! Why did my editors not make me work on that?"]...and that she appreciated that, because sometimes those feel so contrived, like they just randomly end a chapter in the middle of an action scene, when the next chapter begins with the very next sentence in said scene. [Insert Roseanna going, "Oh. That's okay then."]

The takeaway? There's more than one way to provide a hook. Yes, it can be to leave that chapter so early that readers literally have to keep reading or the heroine is still leaping through air and hasn't even hit the floor yet. That works.

But not every book has exploding cars that send us leaping. For stories that don't, we can still end a chapter with tension and a question--or a truth--even if our next chapter skips an hour or a day or a week or a year. This is also an effective hook. One that makes the reader ask what's going to happen next, but doesn't leave the chapter unfinished.

A few tips for crafting these hooks:
  • End with a literal question, i.e. "What kind of accident?" or "He said what?"
  • End with a statement that harkens to something from the scene. From The Shape of Mercy, we get "Abigail lied to me." and "That night I dreamed I was eating yellow peas." Not action-hooks, but readers will identify that something has shifted for the character, and it's vital.
  • End with a truth the character is just realizing, i.e. "One small hint to make her wonder at all the blank spaces."
  • End with action that grabs the attention and prepares the reader for a POV shift, i.e. "The unmistakable sound of breaking china came from the other side of the room, breaking the mood as surely as it had the plate." The next chapter opens with the character who broke the plate and shattered the mood.

Which one you choose depends on the point you are in the book--and it can also be helpful to remember that tension can come not only from something shifting or changing or going wrong for your main character, but with something going right for a villain. All of these things propel the story forward and make the reader want to keep reading--and that's what it's all about, not making sure they fit a specific formula.

Has a chapter ending or beginning jumped out at you recently as being great, either from your book or one you're reading? Share in the comments!

41 comments:

  1. Personally I love the way that Rick Riordan starts and ends chapters. In his Heroes of Olympus series, which shifts between up to seven POVs, he keeps each voice distinct and makes it clear from the first sentence whose head we're in now.
    From the House of Hades:

    "'I love harassment!' Akmon agreed. 'Where are we going?'
    Leo grinned. 'Ever heard of New York?'

    Percy had taken his girlfriend on some romantic walks before. This wasn't one of them."

    I used to, and occasionally still do, use something similar in my books. I prefer ending chapters on cliffhangers, and starting with either dialogue, a sarcastic line or two, or something startling. It might mean telling, it must get mean showing. Anyway, thanks for the post! Really enjoyed it.

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    1. I haven't read Percy Jackson yet, though I bought the series for my niece, and my daughter just started it. Might have to borrow them!

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    2. Yes, you should! They're fantastic and I honestly can't recommend them enough. Fun reads, great character development, a modern take on mythology, and how can you not want to read a book with a chapter entitled, 'I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher'?

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    3. LOL. Awesome chapter title indeed. =D

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  2. This is extremely helpful! Thank you Roseanna :)
    I feel an urge to go through my WIP and spend some more time thinking about my chapters. You're right, getting chapter endings correct is something drilled into our heads. It's important to remember beginnings too.

    Deborah

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  3. Good to have you again, Mrs. White! I try to vary my chapter endings. My books are more action-y types and I don't want every chapter to end with, as you say, an exploding car. :) Here are a couple of my endings:

    “Yours is not the justice I serve!” She snaps the whip taut and twigs shoot from it, binding themselves to the ceiling, supports, and machinery. A thick web of vines now stands between us and the trio. “Run.” Idina whispers.
    Fear wraps around my heart.
    I bolt for the loading docks.
    ~~
    “I can’t tell you anything else.” She looks down at the whip, which bounces on her hip as she walks. Ready for anything. “I’ve already spilled more beans than your dad wanted me to.”
    “Okay.” I’ll just have to wait for more answers.

    I've found I actually enjoy varying the endings between action-y and more quiet ones. When I'm writing, it's sometimes nice to have a lull in the action where I, and the reader, can "regroup" in a way.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I like writing chapter endings, but it's the beginnings that I have trouble with! It seems easy sometimes to end off with something action-packed or suspenseful or, as Linea said, quiet and stable, but starting off the next chapter is what I have trouble with sometimes. Particularly if it's the start of a brand new day, because you don't want every other chapter to begin with, "The sun lifted above the mountains, and everyone got up and had breakfast before saddling their horses."

    This is the ending to one of the first chapters of my story, right after the characters have just been dropped into another world and they're starting to panic.

    Suddenly a figure stepped out of a corner-- somehow they had not seen him. He looked kind, compassionate, and slightly weary. He appeared to be an ordinary, middle-aged oriental man, but his skin was very, very pale. "Welcome," he said with a smile. "I am Shinkuu."


    Two chapters later, a very important character is about to arrive. Right before the chapter ends, everyone hears a knock at the door or hoofbeats outside, or something (I haven't quite decided yet), and one man grins and says, "That'll be him there." The next chapter starts with the new character's arrival. I happen to like that ending/beginning, because it gives this character (who I really love) a bit of an entrance and (hopefully!) makes the reader eager to meet him.

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    1. Beginnings can definitely be tricky--which is where Stephanie's "arrive late" advise can be so helpful. Pick a point in your scene already past the breakfast and saddling, and start when they're galloping across the hills. ;-)

      An intro to a newly arriving character can be a great way to end/begin!

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  5. Oooh, love this. You have such great advice!


    Also, I have a question for you all.
    My book is being brainstormed right now, and I'm having trouble with naming characters. I'm a huge named nerd, so I have a plethora of interesting, unique, and creative names written down, but they don't seem to fit my main character. She's a bit of a science nerd (a bit is an understatement), she has a younger sister, she's interested in time travel, she's almost completely evil, and she meets her younger self in another dimension. l was thinking a kinda unique, quirky, science-y name, but still not unheard of.
    I really like Rayne/Rain for her, and Lili for her sister, but not sure. Any ideas?

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    1. Also, I have name ideas like Halia, Jayda, and Willa.

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    2. I do like Rayne. Have your tried searching names by meaning? That can turn up some interesting ones from other languages!

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    3. Thanks! I'm thinking I'll name her that. Yep, but most of the names I've gotten have been a bit too out there. I tried searching "science names", "time names", "Cute quirky baby names", etc.

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    4. I love the name Rayne--have thought about naming a character of mine something similar. And I had a character named Lily years ago, so I also like that one. Have you tried mythology? Greek and Roman myths have a lot of interesting names that aren't overly weird. I'm currently using Atlanta (named for Atalanta, a mythical huntress), Orion, and possibly Atlas or Jupiter, not decided yet. Star and constellation names (Vega, Spica, Altair, Auriga, Cygnus, Aquila, etc.) are cool too, and since most are Latin and Greek, they sound kind of science-y. So maybe just try looking at a star map or a list of Greek gods. Also, I like to use names of lesser-known cities in various foreign countries, sometimes. Wikipedia can be handy for that.

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    5. I like Rayne and Jayda best. :)

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    6. I agree with Amanda--I like Rayne and Jayda best.

      One suggestion: Behind the Name.com has a name search function and it'll bring up variants on the name you search, as well as that name in other languages. Sometimes you can get some really interesting spelling variants.

      Hopefully that helps!

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    7. Thanks everyone! :D I think I'm going to name her Rayne, and have a secondary character named Jayda. Lili is going to be her younger sister's nickname, but her name is really Lilith.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post! It's always so helpful when someone talks about how to do things, because oftentimes now I find that I know what I'm supposed to do, just not sure how.

    Let's see if I can find a few of my pet chapter endings and beginnings...

    Here's a sad sort of ending:
    I walked down the empty halls like a person sleep-walking, numb to the core. After some amount of time I found myself outside, in front of the stables. I went in and let myself into Elenya’s stall. She nickered at me softly, and I stretched out a hand to pat her nose.
    “It’s all over, girl,” I whispered to her. “I’ll never have a happily-ever-after.”
    She neighed again, and I was convinced she’d understood what I had said and her neigh had a trace of sadness in it. She brought her head down to my shoulder for a moment, and my hand that’d been rubbing her stilled. Then I curled into a ball in the cleanest corner of her stall and cried myself to sleep.

    Here's an opening:
    My mind buzzed with nervousness and confusion as I stepped into the dining hall that evening. Despite the warmth in the room, and the food, I’d much rather have been outside in the dusk.
    Alone.

    Another ending:
    Once I stood, she let go and started back to the warehouse. And I walked by her side, feeling like something had just happened. My heart felt lighter. And as we entered the building, it hit me, all of a sudden.
    I made a new friend.

    An opening where I mentioned the passage of time:
    We’d been sneaking through a shadowy forest for three hours now. Worry and regret pulsed through my veins, but my heart pounded for another reason altogether: Danger was very much real now.

    A "poetic" opening:
    Winter’s frigid chill at last began to fade and spring emerged from the surface of the earth. The rains were gentle, with even beams of sunlight peeking through the clouds at times during the day. Plants that had been banished while winter raged now began to poke their heads above the ground once again. The world was awash with newness.
    Springtime usually brought me much joy, and while I couldn’t deny seeing the beauty of it, this year dreary, freezing winter seemed to better match the state of my spirit.

    A "dramatic" ending:
    My last thought was, I am going to die. And then I took a deep breath and struck a match.

    That was fun. :)

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    1. Woah, that was long. Whoops. And from my WIP, my favorite ending I've written so far (and this is also a bit long...sorry. The background is, Sarah is the MC and something is wrong with her vocal chords and she can't talk. She just got to the hospital a few hours before this.):

      Sarah’s mom handed the phone to her. “Dad wants to talk to you, sweetie,” she said. Sarah wrapped her fingers around the phone and stared straight into space. Desperation began to set into her. She couldn’t even say hi to her dad.
      “Sarah, honey?”
      At the sound of his worried voice, Sarah almost started crying again. Why couldn’t her mom have been more understanding? She knew her dad would never sit here and talk on and on about how difficult this was going to make life.
      “I’m so sorry, Sarah. I know this has to be hard for you.”
      You have no idea, she thought. But I appreciate the sentiment.
      “I’m going to come stay with you, okay? Mom needs a break. I know you’d probably rather have your mother by your side through this, but hopefully you can understand that she needs her rest.”
      Understand that? Sarah almost wept tears of relief.
      “Mom told me what you wanted, so I’m going to get that right now, then I’ll be over there as quick as I can. Be brave, honey. Love you.”
      Instinctively, Sarah’s lips formed the words “Love you, too.” But her dad couldn’t hear the words. And he hung up. The echo of the dial tone in Sarah’s ear sent shivers through her body, and she numbly handed the phone back to her mom. Then she turned and buried her face in the strange-smelling hospital pillow and cried.

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    2. Wow, your writing is great! Especially that last excerpt. I hope I get to read the book someday.

      Okay, now I have to go find some of mine, because I was way too lazy to do it before, and I was on my Kindle anyhow. Darn.

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    3. Wow, Amanda, those are great! My favorites are the "poetic opening", the "dramatic ending", and the one that you added from your WIP. They're seriously good! :)

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    4. Thanks, guys! The last one is my dream book. You know, the one that you feel like you really have to get right. It's special. :) Not really working on it right now, so WIP is a bit inaccurate, but I think if I was going to query someday soon, that's the one I'd query with. (When it's finished, of course.) :)

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    5. My current project is my dream book, as you call it, too! I've had the idea for soo long, it's special to me for some reason. It's really important to me to finish it and really make it worth my while. :)

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    6. Mine is definitely my dream book. Transform is really important to me--it's ' the idea,' the one that I hope to publish someday. And Transform is a year and a half old concept, so I feel like I owe it to myself to stick with it and finish it. No matter how many times I have to start over.

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    7. Amanda - these are really good! The only thing I personally would change is that instead of saying "3 hours" (in the 4th one), I would say "quite a few hours" or "a few hours." It's still telling, but it's less of a "tell", and I think ti runs a bit more smoothly. :)

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  7. Some quick background here: this is a WIP that I'm about to restart (though I'll likely keep many scenes--it's the plot and details that need to change) but as it is, it's the story of April, a teen shape-shifter with terrifying abilities. In the current version she's trying to rescue her parents from the Hunters, and find a scroll that could save the world, but that won't be the case in the new version of the plot.

    One of my favorite endings:
    But as I started to follow her and Zoe and Audrey down into the shadows, I looked up one last time at the sky. Through the patchy clouds, I could make out a handful of stars, pinpricks of light in an ocean of darkness. Would I ever see those stars again? I didn’t want to take the last step. Didn’t want to leave this world behind.
    I took a deep breath. I had to let go.
    And as I stepped into the darkness, my old life slipped away like a dream.

    And a beginning:
    “You're not ready.” Nathan folded his arms, his piercing amber eyes fixed on mine.
    *Since when are you in charge of my life?* I thought bitterly.
    I’d heard those words too many times before. I wasn’t giving in this time. Not when I was so close.

    Another beginning (actually the start of my book, but sadly I'm going to have to change it since my MC isn't going to be a shape-shifter in this version):
    I’m not supposed to be a shape-shifter.
    I shouldn’t even be alive.
    Most shifters are born with magic in their blood. They know who they are . . . what they are. And for thousands of years, no one questioned the fact that magic came only from magical ancestors.
    Until me.

    Another ending:
    There were a thousand things looming overhead, dark clouds closing in on us. But for this one afternoon, everything was sunshine and silent laughter.

    (There's some more of this on my blog, longer excerpts, if you'd like to read more. I posted them as part of my TCWT blog chain post, which is currently the first post on the page:)
    http://thespellboundreader.blogspot.com

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    1. Those are good, Ellie! The first and fourth excerpts are my favorites, especially the "silent laughter" in the fourth excerpt. It adds to the ominous feel. :)

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    2. Thanks so much, both of you! The fact that people are taking the time to read and comment on my writing means a lot to me :-)

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    3. The first and fourth are my favorites as well, and I echo the comment about "silent laughter." It's intriguing. :)

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    4. Thanks, Amanda! The first is definitely my favorite out of the four. I honestly was kind of surprised by people liking the silent laughter thing so much (it involved precisely two seconds of thought to write that line and it wasn't edited), but hey, if readers like it, it stays. I hope I get to keep that line in version 2; chances are I will.

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  8. Wow! Great post! Here’s a couple of mine, if anybody wants to read them :)

    The assassin poised silently over the sleeping figure, dagger pointing downward as he tried to fight the accursed fear. Waiting. Listening. His heart threatened to thump its way out of his ribs, his chest loath to give in to the terror the Emperor had prepared so pleasurably for him. The sharp needles poked his face, but he tried to pay them no heed. Not again, not anymore. Behind him, the sound of crunch of twigs and gravel made him almost drop the dagger. His heart leapt into his mouth.
    You fool, Dorlin!

    This is actually the beginning of my book. An ending, this time:

    “Hel lied to me,” he growled. “As soon as I had your blood, I wanted more! I turned into this,” he almost whimpered, “Creature. A beast who eats his own people! And it’s all your fault, you pathetic freak. I will do to you what you did to me.”
    “Listen to yourself for a moment,” Dorlin snarled. Scowling, Servus bared his fangs, preparing to swoop at his neck. “This was your own fault, not mine. You don’t have to do it!” He attempted to move once more, but his wounds simply hurt too much.
    His rival stirred, just behind him, Dorlin heard something move. A shadow of a man fell across the surprised Servus, a man dressed for battle.
    And then a shot rang out, and the mutilated Strife fell on the ground, dead.

    A beginning:

    Dorlin cursed. “Don’t take me for a fool. The Witches of the Forest. They’re the only ones who can cure me, and they’re cursed themselves…” And now his voice faded, and Borifas felt a pang, even though he knew not why. Dorlin couldn't make it all the way to the Forest and after what had happened, all those years ago—no. He wasn't going back there. There had to be another way. Then there was a creak, and the boy emerged from the inside of the bar with a box. His hands shook as Borifas cleaned the wound as best he could, even though he had cleaned so many. But this would do no help, for after all it was the poison killing him. Curse Atallhiti. He could use him right now. Borifas turned towards the lad, grimacing. “Kid, is there a horse here, a good one?”
    The boy nodded.
    “Good. Saddle it, and fast. We’re ridin’ to the Forest.”

    And a beginning I like:

    In the deep thickets of the Vostol Forest, there are many places one must never visit. In the heart of the woods, tucked in a small valley where the trees are the most ancient, and canopies are greater that the skies, lies a mysterious cottage. Secluded from the rest of the woods, it is here the the sprites fawn, and the animals the most peaceful; the imps dare to raid the nests of the birds, giggle to the skies, and it is here magic lies so thick none may survive it except the gods themselves. Yet, to this day, nobody really knows what happens in this strange dell. Anyone who dares survive the Forest nearby and chance upon it is never seen again. Huge animals, bears and wildcats, even the mightiest of Elves, saunter up to it now and again, only to disappear entirely: any fowl that dare fly above it strangely vanish. So people decided to forget it, and it was well they did.

    That was long! There are countless more, from other (partial) manuscripts (well, only one) and from this one. Thanks!

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    1. Here *the* sprites fawn. Sorry for the error :p. This is mainly unedited, and the prose isn't as good as I'd wish. There are many places noticeable instantly where the writing could become better. Thanks again!

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    2. Wow, your writing is great! The last one is my favorite--makes me want to read more! Nice job!

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    3. Okay, I think I used that first sentence like four times today. Pretty sure I got up too early or something.....

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    4. The first and the second are my favorites. :) I like the little hint in the "Not now, not anymore" and I'm curious about the assassin's thoughts about what he's doing. Nice job!

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  9. Thank you for a lovely post! I struggle so much with beginnings for chapters or the work as a whole. This gives me plenty to think about in edits. :)

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  10. I love this! I read once that your first line should be what your character is thinking or feeling about whatever is going on. This has turned out to be awesome advice, and it's a great way to break into the scene of the chapter.

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