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Is it bad if you start all your chapters with a description of the surroundings? I wrote 4 chapters and it looks terrible, because I always start in a room and I am just describing the room with the most accuracy possible, which sounds weird, what are some other ways to start a chapter? Could you provide a few examples?

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  • "Could you provide a few examples?" Sure. Your favourite books. Aug 27, 2021 at 7:57
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    I don't think there's any hard and fast rule you could cite that would point you in one direction or the other on this, apart from whether what you're doing is justifiable artistically and will engage your target reader. A friend told me once that Borges loved finding ways of breaking rules artistically for the right reasons. Writing is a dance between same and different - provide enough variety it could become a masterful riff on a 'theme and variations' structural approach. Make it too samey and it will easily put people off. Aug 27, 2021 at 9:18
  • I ALWAYS start out orienting my reader to the location at the start of the chapter, but it's rarely more than a paragraph, sometimes just a line or two. Add essential descriptions after in an organic (not forced) way.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 27, 2021 at 13:01
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    How long are your opening descriptions? A short paragraph or a full page?
    – Alexander
    Aug 27, 2021 at 17:49

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There needs to be enough setting in the opening of a scene to orient your reader. To read for six paragraphs on the assumption they are talking in the library only to discover it's in the garden can be quite a jolt.

However "most accurate" is a problem, because it takes up space. An absolute master of style might be able to write such openings with such marvelous beauty that people would want to read them, but descriptions on the whole are dangerous because they stop the story dead. (There is some leeway if your point-of-view character is the sort of character who notices things, but that also needs delicate handling.)

The trick is to provide enough detail to let the reader know where they are, and to be telling details that make the place vivid, as briefly as you can. (Which takes a lot of practice.)

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  • I don't care how "beautifully" an author can write. After ten pages of extraneous detail of things that don't interest me or the characters and don't move the story, I'm going to put the book down and find something better to do with my time.
    – JRE
    Aug 27, 2021 at 9:31
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    No writer can appeal to every reader.
    – Mary
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:21
  • Very succinct and to the point.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:58
  • @JRE Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that. If it bores you, it's clearly not your idea of beautiful writing. Aug 27, 2021 at 18:02
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Alright, I haven't answered a question in a long time but I guess I'm back.

So, in my opinion there isn't really anything wrong with starting off a lot of your chapters with descriptions of your surroundings, but starting off all of them that way is definitely going to get extremely repetitive and boring.

No matter how sneaky it is, your readers will eventually piece together the fact that every time they finish a chapter, they'll have to read the description of a new room, and they'll eventually subconsciously stop looking forward to the next chapter and, in turn, stop reading the book as much or at all.

Now, this obviously doesn't apply to all readers, I'm sure there's lot of people who would have a party if they got to read a book where every chapter started with a description, but the majority of people are going to get bored of it, and honestly, it's the same if you started off every chapter with a fight scene. It gets old, no one wants to read the same thing worded slightly differently every time they finish a chapter, no matter what the thing is.

This obviously doesn't mean you can't make the majority of your chapters start off with descriptions, and it definitely doesn't mean you can't make any chapters start off with descriptions at all, but if every single one is the same thing, it just won't work.

Some other good ways to start a chapter is simply wherever you left off the previous chapter. If the character was kidnapped the chapter before, instead of describing how the room he's now in looks, describe how he feels. How he didn't realize what was happening at first until he felt the sharp pain in the back of his head, which is where he was hit by the bat that the kidnapper had used to knock him out, after that you can transition into a description of how the room looks, and bam, that chapter is now entirely different from every other chapter you've written.

If nothing happened the previous chapter that requires a continuation, just time skip. For example, if the previous chapter left off with the soldier's scouts finding the enemy base, which was filled with dragons and mermaids and a bunch of other mythical creatures, start off the next chapter something like this.

It had been three days.

Cole woke up, looking out of his tent at the soldiers around him, they were already getting armed for combat, the command to move out would be given at any moment. He cursed himself for sleeping in late.

He jumped out of bed, heading for (insert whatever the hell he does next). Anyways, I think you get the point. In summary, no, I don't think it's a great idea to start off all your chapters with a description, but it's fine if you start off the majority of your chapters that way.

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As a reader, I don't want a "most accurate" description of a room. Most of the details are uninteresting (nobody cares if the ceiling is exactly 249 centimeter high instead of the standard 250 centimeters) or irrelevant (it doesn't it matter if there's a poorly painted patch on the north wall.)

Tell me the details I need. Better yet, tell me the details that your character finds interesting or necessary. That tells me something about the character and the setting. Best of all is to have your character discover needed details.

Here's an example from Helen Wright's A Matter of Oaths:

Rafe splashed cold water on his face, dribbled it over his head, temporarily driving back the unmistakable after-pain of a sleepbeam. A stateroom was the last place he had expected to wake; neither the provosts nor Security habitually provided such accommodation for their guests. Which left a very large question to be answered: whose guest was he?

Or rather, whose prisoner. When he tried the door of the stateroom, it was locked. There was an intercomm on the wall that might yield the answers, but he ignored it in favour of a rapid examination of the rest of his surroundings. Standard model luxury stateroom, the storage units empty except for a selection of clothes that were suspiciously close to his size and had the look of new fabric. An inactive console, hidden behind a decorative panel of real wood. A range of personal items in the san, all new. Nothing that suggested how he had arrived here, or why.

He remembered being trapped between Security and the provost sergeant, catching the edge of a sleepbeam as he moved to avoid it. After that, his memory was less clear. A condition he should be accustomed to by now, he jibed at himself. There was a vague impression of being supported by somebody, then the deadening sensation of another sleepbeam. Then nothing until this stateroom.

Rather than dump a detailed description of the room on the reader, Ms. Wright has the involved character explore the room and discover relevant details.

You should also assume your readers can remember where your characters were or where they were going.

If character A says they are going to the library, then there's a chapter involving character B, then the next chapter involves character A again, you should assume that your readers remember that character A was going to the library. You can gloss over the trip to the library (if it is uneventful) and go straight to character A pulling a book from the shelf or riffling through the card catalog. You don't have to describe the library unless the library itself is somehow interesting - or your character finds it interesting and your readers will find that knowledge about your character interesting.


Many authors seem to think cataloging all the details in a story is a good thing. In the middle of an intense action scene, they'll have characters mentally cataloging the appearance and weaponry of each opponent. People don't do that. People notice what is necessary to accomplish whatever task they have in hand. They notice things that impede them. They notice random details that pop into view and remind them of things (though usually not while fighting for their lives.)

The author should have all of those details in mind, and judiciously share them with the reader where and when needed. Dumping all the details into the story is usually a bad idea, though.

If a detail is there, it needs to have a purpose. That purpose can be to move the plot along (Chekhov's gun, hanging on the wall for future use,) or it should be to give the reader some insight into the characters (the poorly painted patch of wall as an indicator of a previously well off person living in a home they can no longer afford to properly maintain, making do and trying to keep up appearances.)

You only have so much "credit" with your readers. They'll follow your flood of details for a while, but will lose patience and skip stuff or drop your book eventually. Spend that credit wisely and "buy" your readers' interest. You want them to trust that your details are relevant, and that they will be rewarded with interesting things when they spend their time reading your prose.

A detailed but irrelevant description of a setting squanders that credit. It bores your readers and makes them more likely to drop your book. Do it once, and they might forgive you. Do it in every chapter, and you'll be lucky if anyone ever finishes reading your story.

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    MINOR point: I disagree that you can assume readers remember character A was on the way to the library. A gentle reminder (possibly just a word) helps greatly. The reader may have put the book down and come back the next day between chapters. Chapter breaks are so traditionally used for location jumps that readers may expect them.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 27, 2021 at 13:06
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    @DWKraus, indeed. I just read a scene in the first draft of my current WIP (after having put it down for three months). I have no clue where the characters are, or for that matter how they ended up "there," so now I have to figure that one out. Note to self: thank you for the headache...
    – Erk
    Aug 27, 2021 at 17:36
  • "Many authors seem to think cataloging all the details in a story is a good thing." Yep - I blame 'show don't tell'... Aug 27, 2021 at 18:03
  • @DM_with_secrets Show-don't-tell is a bit like medicine - you need it, but taking too much can poison you too. I had another author tell me to ignore it, and worry more about avoiding infodump. Not sure I'd go that far, but you do get more leeway in sci-fi (which is where I'm at).
    – DWKraus
    Aug 27, 2021 at 18:09
  • @DWKraus I like that analogy - notably, you only need it when you're ill :P Aug 28, 2021 at 6:24
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You don't have to waste all that description you wrote. Just move it. Keep the first sentence like "Jane settled back into her favourite armchair" and then carry on with what you're doing. After a few sentences or paragraphs she can gaze warmly at that painting/decanter/whatever and think to herself about what she likes about it. Or she can get up and walk and her bare toes can sink into the deep luxurious carpet, or love/hate the cold slate under them, or whatever. She walks to a window maybe, and looks out at the familiar? changed? terrifying? view. If there's someone else in the room, they can discuss the view, the room, would you like a cookie, are you cold I can get you a blanket, I told you not to wear that sweater, whatever. This will probably involve references to where things are kept or the fact one character has brought a suitcase or backpack with them.

As the author, you need a detailed and accurate description of all your settings. But you don't need to share all of it with the reader, and not as the first 6 paragraphs of each chapter. It's great that you wrote it. Now take it out and put it in a settings document, and refer to it as you liven up people's walking across rooms or opening cupboards or whatever. When one character envies another, you have the details on the differences in their homes or offices already written up to use in an internal monolog or a dialog with a third person about how unfair something is.

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    It's always convenient when someone gives a better version of the answer I was still getting around to giving.
    – Jedediah
    Aug 27, 2021 at 20:15
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You could always start with surroundings because it’s really never a bad place to start, however, the issue arises when you become predictable, not for a lack of skill in describing scenery, but because it really does get boring to start a chapter the same way again and again. Would you like to read an author who does that even if he or she was good? If the answer is no, then you’ve got work to do.

There are an infinite amount of ways to begin a chapter: dialogue, tangential thoughts, cursory thoughts or cursory scenery, and even things that have nothing to do with anything you’ve been writing about. Remember, you are writing on a blank page, so think of the beginning of each chapter as such. Anything can happen insofar as you have the mastermind for your story. Let loose and keep your eye on the path and surely you’ll find a variety of ways to begin a chapter and keep yourself interested in it. Truth be told, if you can keep yourself psyched about what you’re writing, then chances are someone else will, too.

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Your chapters should behave like scene changes in film or television and have one setting that is consistent for the purposes of what that chapter serves. As the story progresses, it might be necessary to break a scene with a chapter to run concurrently with another scene.

Consider Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, who's climax hinges on the main characters three different attacks (Luke fights Vader in the Emperor's Throne room on the Death Star, Lando leads the rebel fleet's assault on the Death Star to blow it up, Han, Leia, Chewie, R2 and C3PO lead the ground assault to disable the Death Star's shields). If they were chapters, you would have each change of scene laid out so that each scene hinges on a cliffhanger (Chapter X opens with the Death Star firing on the Rebel fleet. The fleet realizes it's dangerous and moves to pull back only to see the Imperial Fleet cutting their retreat. Akbar declares "It's a Trap" [chapter X+1] Luke gives in to the Emperor's Temptation to strike down the emperor, pulls his saber, swing for the Evil Emperor... and is blocked by a red blade... he now must fight vader [chapter + 2] New chapter opens on the Ewoks attacking the Storm Troopers at the Endor base and builds up to Han trying to break into the bunker while Leia provides cover... he accidentally closes the blast doors [chapter x+3] Back in space, the rebel fleet is getting torn apart. Lando tells Ackbar to move the ships towards the imperial fleet as the Death Star wouldn't risk shooting their own ships and while it's very risky, they're more likely to survive the engagment with conventional forces.

If you're chapter takes place in a setting that should already be familiar to the audience, you need not say anything beyond the elements that changed. For example, if the story takes place over a year of time, you might describe the main room of a house as various seasonal decorations are added or changed (For example, the family room has muted glow of Christmas Lights from the tree twinkling in winter, but is warm and sunny with no lit lights during summer.).

In other cases, the chapter ending might be done to build suspense for the reveal, in which case the break could signal a gap to build suspense.

Suppose that some meddling kids and a talking dog finally caught the monster in the barn woth a trap. "Now, let's see who you really are?" Says the smart girl as she reaches for the mask and pulls up to reveal the face of... [end chapter] [New chapter begins with a cut to some other developing plot point and wraps up.[end chapter][new chapter is back in barn] "Old Man Jenkins/Rold Ran Renkins," The meddling kids and their talking dog shout in unison...

In that situation, the reveal could be built up or paused as reveal is signaled. Often this is done to hook you into reading more or getting the urgency of the situation or for dramatic effect. In other times, it's to cater to people who would read one chapter at a time... the cliff hanger can be used to get you to come back to read tomorrow.

Some fun techniques could be used here, like say the Monster is definitely either "Old Man Jenkins" or the meddling kid's lovable Jock's rival "Red Herring", the chapter could transition like:

"Now, let's see who you really are?" Says the smart girl as she reaches for the mask and pulls up to reveal the face of... [end chapter] [Next Chapter] Red Herring made his way to the basement of the barn house... [end chapter][Next Chapter] ""Old Man Jenkins/Rold Ran Renkins," The meddling kids and their talking dog shout in unison...

Note that in that example, the end of the first chapter and the begining of the second almost fit perfectly in a sentence (she reaches for the mask and pulls up to reveal the face of Red Herring). But once you read the first sentence of the second chapter, we learn that Red Herring is not even in the same scene and is up to something at a different location (The heroes are in the barn, while Red is making his way to the basement of the Barn House). When Red's chapter ends, we come back to the scene in the Barn and learn the real answer.

This not only shows multiple events at once, but also creates some dramatic tension as well as give the readers incentive to get through the non-reveal to find out who really done it. This could also be used to change POV of the narrator (perhaps Red was sneaking up on the heroes... he might watch as the mask is pulled from afar but when Old Man Jenkins is revealed, we now see the events from his POV. The Smart Girl explains that while the stoner dude and his talking dog were eating, the knocked off her glasses, causing her to fumble around until she found an important clue which she realizes the significance of after the fashionista girl tells them about what she saw in the cellar after she fell through the trap door. All while Red watches from afar plotting his next move.

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