5 Ways To Start A Chapter — Analyzing Joe Abercrombie’s Prose

Some years ago, I read the first two books of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. I never picked up the third book. I can’t remember why, but I likely started a new genre binge and put aside fantasy for a while.

Recently I was trying to think of authors with good, easy-to-read prose, and Abercrombie’s name popped in my head.

He is known for being strong with grit and violence in his writing, and I remember enjoying reading his first two books, so I decided to go back and finish the series.

As I was reading The Last Argument of Kings, the third and final book in the trilogy (there are a few other standalone novels in the series), I noticed that Abercrombie does a particularly good job at starting his chapters. In some he starts with a character action. In others, he starts with dialogue or description. In one, the chapter starts with a letter.  Below are excerpts from the openings of five different chapters, showing the different ways Joe Abercrombie starts his chapters.

Spoilers note: Although this is the final novel in the series, there are only some very minor spoilers contained below. However, you’ll likely get a bit more out of it if you’ve read the book.

1. Dialogue Start

“Cold night!” shouted the Dogman. “Thought it was meant to be summer!”

The three of ‘em looked up. The nearest was an old man with grey hair and a face looked like it had seen some weather. Just past him was a younger man, missing his left arm above the elbow. The third was no more’n a boy, stood down the end of the quay and frowning out at the dark see.

Dogman faked a nasty limp as he walked over, dragging one leg behind him and wincing like he was in pain. He shuffled under the lamp, dangling on its high pole with the warning bell beside it, and held up the jar so they could all see.

The rest of this chapter involves Dogman and his crew killing the sentries and infiltrating a castle. The scene uses a dialogue start, beginning halfway into the operation with Dogman posing as an injured man.

2. Description Start

The great moat had been drained early in the siege, leaving behind a wide ditch full of black mud. At the far end of the bridge across it four soldiers worked by a cart, dragging corpses to the bank and rolling them flopping down to the bottom. The corpses of the last defenders, gashed and burned, splattered with blood and dirt. Wild men, from past the River Crinna far to the east, tangle-haired and bearded. Their limp bodies seemed pitifully withered after three months sealed up behind the walls of Dunbree, pitifully starved. Scarcely human. It was hard for Wests to take much joy in the victory over such sorry creatures as these.

This chapter starts with the description of the end of a siege and the sorry dead of the losing side. The end of the paragraph shows us that this is West’s POV.

This chapter catches us up with the war (its difficulties) and the next plan of action as well as the conflict between Burr’s generals.

3. Action Start

Ferro stalked around the room and scowled. She poured her scorn out into the sweet-smelling air, onto the rustling hangings, over the great windows and the high balcony beyond them. She sneered at the dark pictures of fat pale kings, at the shining furniture scattered about the wide floor. She hated this place, with its soft beds and its soft people. She infinitely preferred the sun and the thirst of the Badlands of Katnta. Life there was hard, and hot, and brief.

But at least it was honest.

Abercrombie starts with an action. Ferro scorns her new comfortable digs, revealing her character and her future trajectory.

4. Opinion Start

Uffrith didn’t look much like it used to. Of course, the last time Logen had seen the place had been years ago, at night, after the siege. Crowds of Bethel’s Carls wandering the streets—shouting, and singing, and drinking. Looking for folk to rob and rape, setting fire to anything that would hold a flame. Logen remembered lying in that room after he’d beaten Threetrees, crying and gurgling at the pain all through him. He remembered scowling out the window and seeing the flow from the flames, listening to the screams over the town, wishing he was out there making mischief and wondering if he’d ever stand up again.

The first sentence is an opinion. The second sentence tells us who’s opinion it is and Logen’s backstory—what it was like the last time he was in Uffrith.

5. Letter Start

Superior Glokta,

Though I believe that we have never been formally introduced, I have heard your name mentioned often these past few weeks. Without causing offense, I hope, it seems as if every room I enter you have recently left, or due soon to arrive in, and every negotiation I undertake is made more complicated by your involvement.

Abercrombie begins with a letter that Glokta receives. The next part is Glokta standing in the meeting spot–an immediate skip to the natural conclusion of Glokta receiving an invitation to meet.

Notes

  • The first paragraph of a chapter should start in the middle of a scene. For example, we don’t see Glokta sitting in his office, receiving a messenger who presents a letter to him. We get the letter, and immediately thereafter, we see in standing in the meeting point. (Note: This is slightly easier to do with different POVs which allows for easier time skip transitions.)
  • The first paragraph should be directly related to what the chapter is going to be primarily about. This is key. If you are having trouble figuring out how and where and when to start your chapter, just remember this point.
  • Do not use the same type of chapter start for each of your chapters. Switch it up as often as possible like Abercrombie does.
  • Each of the examples above moves the story forward and reveals character. Your chapter starts should do the same.
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