Analysing First Chapters

There’s nothing quite like cracking open the cover of a book and instantly being immersed in the story.

Some writers are just magical, able to immediately transport you into a new world with characters that you instantly care for and want to know more about. Already, you probably have a book or an author in mind! How do they do it so well?

Have you ever thought to just…look?

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own stories that we forget about all of the ones that inspired us to write in the first place. Though there are tons of writing resources out there online, really, we have all of the resources we need in the books on our shelves! All we have to do is take the time to truly analyse them.

We’ve already talked about this a bit – the latest post was just a couple of weeks ago! But today, I want to show you how you should analyse a book and which parts to look at, specifically within the first chapter of the book.

Why the first chapter? Because it’s arguably the most important. The first pages will tell an agent or publisher if they want to represent your book. The first pages will make a reader keep flipping through the book obsessively or put the book down and decide to do something else. If you don’t get the first chapter right, the rest of your book may be amazing and no one will ever know.

Now, it’s time to pick your book of choice. Got it? Now, before you open it up, take off your reader hat. You’re no longer coming to this book for enjoyment (not this time, at least), but to learn from it and look at it from a removed perspective. You don’t want to get immersed in the character’s thoughts; you want to understand why the author gave that character those thoughts. Instead, look at the book like something to (lovingly) deconstruct down to its bare bones. You’ll need your technical writer’s hat here, but don’t worry! You can put your reader hat back on again when you’re done.

Now, for how you should delve into this first chapter, I’m going to point you to Savannah Gilbo’s breakdown of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I listened to this on her podcast a couple weeks ago and was totally astounded by how detailed her analysis was. And yet, when you look through it, it’s easy to see that it’s something anyone can do! Here’s basically how it goes:

1. Macro Analysis

This involves looking at the first chapter as a whole, figuring out what it does for the overall story and how it gets the reader engaged. Nail down summaries of the genre, plot, POV, most important character, setting, main emotions conveyed, and the stakes that make readers want to keep reading.

2. Micro Analysis

Here, you break down the first chapter into scenes. How do you know where one scene ends and another begins? Well, according to Story Grid and their “5 Commandments of Storytelling,” a full scene includes five elements: inciting incident, progressive complication/turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. It’s like a mini story inside of the bigger story. And these five elements are exactly what you’re going to be analysing within each scene of the first chapter.

It may take you some time to get through these analyses if you’ve never looked at a book like this before, but once you’ve had practise identifying what makes a story tick, you’ll be surprised at how easy it becomes to break down a story! I’ve just presented the essentials here; if you want to see exactly how this works, check out Savannah Gilbo’s post!

Once you’ve done your analysis, you have before you the recipe for a great first chapter (as long as you’ve chosen a great book to analyse!). Take it, study it, and apply the things that work to your own story. Make your first chapter exceptional, and let the rest of your book follow that same standard.

Happy writing!

-E.J.


Want to learn more about how to write a great story? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter to get a FREE storytelling guidebook right off the bat, plus insider looks into my upcoming works, more writing tips, book recs, and much more!

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