Monday, August 3, 2015

How To Write Chapters 2 and 3 of Your Novel

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

As writers, we pay a lot of attention to chapter one. Like, A LOT of attention. Some of us are even guilty of re-writing it over and over, convinced that chapter one needs to be perfect before we can move on to chapters two and three.

While it's true that chapter one needs to be great, guess what? So does chapter two. And three. And four. And... you see where I'm going with this. The entire book will have to be great before it can be published and loved by readers. That doesn't happen with a first draft but rather edits. So if you're a writer who suffers, like I once did, from the eternal chapter one rewrite, tell yourself it's fine for now and that you need to move on. No matter how perfect chapter one is, you still have to get the rest of the book written before anyone can buy it, right?

Traditionally chapters one, two, and three are the lead-in to the inciting incident, or your character crossing through a doorway of no return. Partly, this is because of the natural structure of story. It's alsoin my experience, anywayin part because the first three chapters tend to be what an agent or editor requests if they think they're interested in you. I've had agents ask me to revise my chapter three ending to make it more "hook-y" before we send the proposal out to publishing houses.

Do you have to write your book with this kind of structure? Not at all. These are guidelines, not rules. The purpose of conversations like this is to say, "This generally works and here's why," rather than, "This is how it always, always, always is, and you'll never be successful if you do it another way."

With that in mind, here are some ideas for how to write chapter two and three in a way that you're drawing your reader deeper into the story:

1. Introduce other characters and/or settings. 

This is something I frequently do with my books. If chapter one deals with my character at school, then chapter two almost always shows her home life. Or if chapter one is with parents, then chapter two will be with friends. 

(If you're writing a book with multiple POVs, you might be asking if chapter two is the time to switch point of view characters. We'll talk about POV stuff next week.)

Before the main character gets shoved along on his or her journey, it works well to have all (or at least most) of the major players exposed. Even your villain.

This one can be tricky, especially if the identity of your villain is completely mysterious to your main character until the big reveal. But your reader wants to feel like you gave them the pieces to figure the story out on their own. They don't want to piece it all together too early, obviously, but it's frustrating to have a character come out of nowhere at the end.

The first Harry Potter book is a novel that does this very well. We meet the villain of the story early on, even though we don't realize it until the climax of the book.

2. Introduce a different story thread. 

Sometimes this happens naturally when you show us new characters and settings, but if the opening deals with "the mystery plot" then maybe chapter two can show us something about "the love interest" or "the family drama." Showing another facet of what the book is about is a great way to draw a reader deeper into the story.

3. Show us why the main character needs to do what they do.

Before we can approve of Rapunzel leaving her tower with a wanted criminal, we have to see why she needs to leave. We have to see how bored and oppressed she is in that tower. We also have to see that her mother has no intentions of ever letting her leave. 

Your character will be making a choice too. Even if they are "a chosen one," they'll still need to choose to accept or deny their status. To get your readers to support the choice they make, be sure to show us what motivates them.  

4. If you don't in number three, show us what your character values above all.

In The Hunger Games, we see early on that Katniss deeply loves her sister. We see how she's soft and affectionate with Prim where she isn't with anyone else. We also see that she's taken steps to ensure Prim's odds of being selected in the Reaping are as low as possible.

Just like what we value impacts that choices that we make, so it should be for our characters. Many of the choices Katniss makes throughout the story are motivated by wanting to do what's best for her sister. 

Having this established in your early chapters is a smart way to organically increases the stakes of the story.

5. Show us we're with a winner.

I'll restate here that this is a list of ideas, not rules, for how to help build your story in a way that keeps readers turning pages. That being said, I think it's really valuable for readers to see that they're with a character who's strong enough—whether they know it or not—to come out on the other side of this thing. 

We need to feel like Frodo is capable of returning the ring. That Anna can make it to Elsa. That Elizabeth Bennett won't sink to the low expectations of women in her time.

We also need to feel like there's a chance the character will fail—otherwise the story feels bland and predictable—but we need to have reason to believe that we're on the winning side, even if we don't know exactly how that will look in the end.

A moment that broadcasts a character's strength doesn't have to be something elaborate. One of my favorite examples is in the most recent movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. This scene isn't in the book, but I think it's a brilliant addition. Elizabeth overhears Mr. Darcy say to his friend that he won't dance with Elizabeth because he finds her "barely tolerable." Elizabeth is hurt by this remark but determined not to let it ruin her evening. Later, when she's in a group that includes Mr. Darcy, she's making fun of a boy who wrote poetry to her sister. Mr. Darcy says to her, "And what do you suggest to encourage affection?" Elizabeth looks him in the eye and says, "Dancing. Even if one's partner is barely tolerable." Then she curtsies and walks away. 

Jane Austen purists likely disagree, but I really enjoy this moment of triumph for Elizabeth. I think it's a great way to show a modern audience that Elizabeth won't be tempted away from her principles by a man of money and status.

Have you used any of these techniques in your first three chapters? 

I'm still traveling and won't be able to respond to comments like I normally do, but I look forward to reading them!


  1. I'm really proud of chapter 1 of my story, because it's the best I've written so far, but from after that the plot dwindles. I do introduce another character and setting in chapter 3, and chapter 2 ends on a big hook, so much so that I've been thinking about switching them around. I don't think I use the rest of the techniques, but I could be wrong. After I finish this story, I'm hoping to do a HUGE rewrite, but not before writing another book and convincing myself I can make it to the end once more, and have a fairly okay draft. This is my first real book, after all. If anything, I've learnt a lot. A LOT. I've switched from complete pantser to more of a plotter. On that note, do you guys know of any plotting techniques I could use? I'm new to this, and I'm thinking about at least outlining my next story as I crawl to the end of this one. Thanks in advance!

    1. Hey there, Jonathan! Here's some posts (from GTW, and elsewhere) that may help you out:
      (this one is my absolute favorite, and the Three-Act Structure printout is available here:
      (2 part post)
      (this is a PDF file that you can fill in)
      (one of her links is to a plotting post by K.M. Weiland, who always has great tips on every facet of writing)
      (the Snowflake Method can be a bit complicated, but I've heard it works)

      Keep pushing to the end. :) Good luck and happy writing!

  2. I'm pretty sure my chapters two and three fit most of these categories, given that they've been edited over and over. One thing this post has made me think about, however, is "what my character values above all". I've hinted what she values, but I think I might need to make a stronger showing of what she values.

    Thank you for the post, Mrs. Morrill, and safe travels!

  3. I cannot tell you how many times I've redone my first chapter. It's crazy. Honestly, I didn't even know it was possible to change the plot of a story just by rewriting the first chapter three hundred times.
    Thankfully, I've stopped. For now. I really think the first chapter is down, and the second one is coming along very nicely
    Thanks for the great advice!

  4. This is so helpful! It isn't something that you often hear about on writing websites and such, and so I really appreciate the tips!

  5. Thanks for advising on how to write the third chapter. Your post helped me a lot. Thanks!

  6. It's funny how I was setting out for writing for the day and thought "oh I should check GTW first" and then boom, exactly what I was planning on doing. Thanks for reading my mind!

  7. Awesome post! I'm about to start my rewrite, and it's good to remember to look beyond the first chapter! Can't wait for next week's posts as I have five main characters:) I never thought about showing my villain early, but I realize I do show my main antagonist and villains within a reasonable time frame. Good thing to look out for.

  8. Yes! I believe I've used most of those tips in my last two novels! But still learned some great stuff!!!