I know the logic behind volcano openings and why they’re problematic (they set the expectation that that level of action and excitement will continue; they’re a hard act to follow; they make a promise you can’t possibly fulfil; etc.) but it is the natural place for my story to start: the moment my protagonist’s life changes forever. She makes a mistake and someone dies. It’s not a volcano opening as such; no helicopters explode, but it is fraught with tension and action as they fail to save the patient’s life.

I’m now struggling with Chapter 2 and the natural lull after such an exciting opening. I introduce my characters while my protagonist deals with her mistake and I thought it was okay to give the reader a bit of a breather. But my editor and agents both have issues with this particular chapter (they think my protagonist is too depressed/has no fight and the whole setup is a bit boring). I’m not sure how to fix it.

It may offer some inspiration to hear what you all do with your Chapter 2s:

After you have hooked your reader with your opening, what do you set out to do next?

How do you introduce your characters without boring the reader?

Do you try to keep your beginnings brief and punchy and get on with the story?

How do you gather and maintain momentum when the story hasn’t really started yet?

In short, once you have cranked the engine (and it started with a bang) what tips do you have to stop it stalling right away?

4 Answers 4


I've been reading a book about a related topic and the author touches on this. They refer to James Bond as the example of this type of opening: the opening to every movie is a fast paced action scene, the ending to his most recent case.

And that's followed by the next goal, right away, him seeing M and having a new assignment.

Chapter 2 should anchor the MC into the next goal, right away, a goal which I believe is carried at least through Act I and maybe through the book.

In my own story, which is my first and I am a complete novice, Chapter 1 has a hook and a bang, and incites the character to a new course in her life. Chapter 1 is not the end of Act I, but it is a small inciting event. And i think that's what you need - the action in Chapter 1 to incite the events of Chapter 2. This means your MC may need to be more proactive in Ch 2 than s/he currently is. If your MC is going to be depressed, that depression cannot translate to the reader. It needs to be communicated without depressing anyone and in such a way that it serves a purpose to the next goal. There are things we do when depressed - make that work in your favor.

I just re-watched Inside Out with my daughter and Sadness is great at being utterly dejected throughout the entire movie and making us laugh at her depressed antics. So ... there are ways to show depression without being depressing, although a cartoon probably isn't what you are aiming for.

  • 1
    I read a lot of your answers on here, it may be your first story, but you’re no novice. And this is also really good advice. It may be that I’m coming down too hard and fast from my volcano and my protagonist has gone from a whirlwind of proactiveness (trying to save the patient) to nothing. Your comments about C1 inciting C2 and making her more proactive are bang-on. I’ve see-sawed with her depression. In an earlier draft, my editor said she didn’t seem affected by her mistake. So I showed her being affected by it and my agents said she’s too depressed.
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 5:05
  • I clearly didn’t balance her ‘depression’ well. I’ll watch Inside Out for inspiration there! What is the related book you’re reading? Thx so much, this is really helpful. It’s got the cogs turning!
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 5:05
  • @GGx Thanks for the nice words. The book is "Writing Deep Scenes." One of the authors is 'the plot whisperer' (or maybe wrote a separate book by that name). Some website (which I've since lost) had great advice on increasing tension, and it referred to this book. I've bought it, and it's useful. It describes the four turning points (major plot points) in the three act structure, the types of scenes (of fifteen scene 'types') that lead well to those turning points, and so on. Ironically, the book could have used another round of editing, but none of the typos etc are insurmountable.
    – SFWriter
    May 17, 2018 at 14:05
  • @GGx We sometimes chat about depression on this SE (there was a thread recently) and in my opinion it's a state of mind as 'valid' as any other and can sometimes lead to creative awakenings. Or motivation. I sometimes imagine Lincoln (who was perhaps a depressed individual) as a bubbly man, and wonder if his great achievements would have been a goal for him had he been less somber. I think you can use the altered mental state of depression (maybe google around on depression and creativity or something) to find a unique angle for your hero to move forward in Ch2.
    – SFWriter
    May 17, 2018 at 14:08
  • @GGx I believe Inside Out is on Netflix at the moment.
    – SFWriter
    May 17, 2018 at 14:58

The classic approach is to go into the events leading up to the volcano eruption via a 'one year (moth/week/day/hour) earlier' chapter.

Make sure that you are not merely describing the events but are enabling the reader to live them with you by means of vivid imagery and realistic dialogue.

Make it clear that this section is contributing towards addressing the mystery that you must have planted in the readers mind in Chapter One, i.e. 'why did the volcano erupt?' This will maintain interest.

  • Welcome to Writers.SE! May 16, 2018 at 12:39
  • @robertcday the events move forward from there, not back. And the issue I have is that she's been fired for her mistake, so she's lost her career and is unemployed. Not exactly an exciting situation to follow my volcano. BUT, I really like your idea of making sure that the chapter begins to address what set off the volcano! YES! That's the interesting part. I address it in later chapters but there's no reason to not bring it forward to chapter 2. It could breathe life into that chapter. You're an angel. Thank you.
    – GGx
    May 16, 2018 at 12:44
  • 1
    Most welcome - may you have prevailing wind for your book. ;)
    – robertcday
    May 16, 2018 at 13:03

I would not start with a volcano opening, I think that is your mistake. A story does not start with that, a story has to start with "the status quo" world of the MC.

The reason for that is two-fold.

(1) The audience doesn't give a crap about the volcano opening because it doesn't know or care about the characters when it does. They have no connection. The impact is sharply diminished: some woman lost a patient; we don't know if "some woman" is good, bad, or the story is about them or the patient's family or whatever.

(2) The bare-bones world-building and character-building that must be done in the first chapter will interfere with the volcano.

Open with the status quo, let us know who the story is about, give us one or two reasons to care about her and like her, THEN throw her in the volcano and ruin her life. You have 10% of the length of your story to do that; you CAN get it done in 2%. In most stories the 10% mark is the harbinger of doom (something is wrong and we don't know what), which comes around the 15% mark (and no later than 20%).

This is not by engineering, btw, it is just a thing that happens in lots of stories; it is the "right amount" of setup that many professional best-selling authors have independently discovered. More descriptive than prescriptive, but you can use it as a rule of thumb: If you are doing considerably less or more than these marks, you are probably not writing enough, or writing too much, respectively, in your story.

How do you gather and maintain momentum when the story hasn’t really started yet?

I like to open (chapter 1) with an immediate problem, but a minor "throwaway" problem for the MC that will have no impact later, or perhaps a minor reference later so the reader can dismiss it. A traffic ticket because she is late, and it makes her very late. It is just a device to give us something to talk about and build some character.

If your main character is a doctor, she can be behind on some paperwork or training she was supposed to do, maybe she forgot some administrative meeting she was supposed to attend, maybe a colleague is sick and she has to cover for them on a day she had scheduled something fun to do (with a boyfriend / husband / kids / sister / friends) so she has to call and break a promise, and they aren't happy and she isn't happy.

Some plausible conflict in her status quo world that translates to the experience of a typical reader, so we can see what she's like and sympathize with her.

  • I have wrangled with this decision a lot and I totally agree with everything you’ve written here. I think it is the cause of the problems I’m having in C2. When I submitted, I was expecting to be told to change it. But on the contrary, it’s been really well received because it is such a fraught and emotional scene in spite of the lack of character building. I’m not sure my agents would even agree to me starting elsewhere, it’s a conversation I’ll have to have with them.
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 4:45
  • The few publishers we’ve put a toe in the water with have had other problems with the novel, not this one (it’s a bit of a Marmite book and is dividing in-house editors 50/50, not good when you have to convince a commissioning team). But you have really got me thinking. The status quo before her mistake still has conflict and could be a great place to start, but I’m wondering if I’ll still have the same problem to resolve, only now it will be in C3 instead of C2, i.e. the come-down off that volcano. Food for thought, Amadeus, food for thought. Thx.
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 4:45
  • You could also use your initial "throwaway" scene as a kind of foreshadowing: A problem outside of work where she made a mistake, not of huge magnitude but she makes errors through distraction or under stress or whatever. Paid the wrong amount on a bill, for example. She checks, and sure enough, the bill was $100.32 and her check was for $10.32, now she is dinged for a $25 late charge. Nobody dies, but she is pissed at herself. Must pay more attention! The status quo, even in a comfortable life we should not complain about, has plenty of dumb conflicts. Pick one that can do some story work.
    – Amadeus
    May 17, 2018 at 11:10
  • That's a really good idea! What my protagonist doesn't know is that someone is slipping her drugs to keep her subdued, and she kills the patient because she is not thinking as clearly as she usually would. A mistake made earlier would foreshadow the bigger one and set that up nicely while giving me the chance to develop her character. Oooh, now you've got me thinking. Thanks!!
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 11:52

I would not jump in time with this particular situation. I would treat it as an in medias res kind of story. We start with ongoing action. Something is happening and we are introduced to the characters as a consequence of their doing things and interacting with one another. I'd follow a Sun Also Rises kind of approach. Allow it to be clear that there is more going on in the characters lives that you are not explaining until it is absolutely necessary. This gives the feeling of a big, complex, living world the reader is stepping into.

In fact, being depressed after a major life changing event is a very interesting place to be. Are they trying to bury their feelings? Are they trying to retreat from the world? Are they successful? Are other characters trying to help them deal with their situation? This stuff can be very interesting.

It is not action per se that creates interest. It is the characters' reaction to that action which drives reader interest. You can have a brilliantly described combat scene but nobody will care unless you tell something about how it makes the character involved feel. Conversely, you can have "nothing much going on" but the psychic battle of the main character wrestling with their internal demons keeps the reader invested.

  • thx, I haven't read The Sun Also Rises but I will. Love Hemingway. Are you agreeing with Amadeus that I shouldn't start with the volcano at all? Or that you wouldn't jump forward 3 weeks in C2 to the point where she's dealt with the worst of the aftermath, has been fired, and is now trying to find a way to move on with her life?
    – GGx
    May 17, 2018 at 5:22
  • 1
    I think it's fine to start with the "volcano opening". I would just pick up and continue from there and let the reader catch up and figure out what is going on as they read. Not sure if you should jump forward. I'd say no, but I don't know the details of your plot. I think it can be important to have a reasonably normal sequence of events in a characters life (like a workday) even after something major, just to establish the place and people for the reader, but that's very much a judgement call and I don't know what you know about the story you need to tell.
    – JBiggs
    May 17, 2018 at 19:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.