Add layers to your first chapter. (A look at POSSESSION)

We all know that first chapters are deal makers or deal breakers. And I’m assuming that you want yours to be a deal maker. As I do mine.

Let’s look at Elana’s first chapter to see what we can learn.

“Good girls don’t walk with boys. Even if they’re good boys – and Zenn was the best. He strolled next to me, all military with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing the black uniform of a Forces recruit. The green stripes on his shirtsleeves flashed with silver tech lights, probably recording everything. Probably? Who am I kidding? Those damn stripes were definitely recording everything.”

In the rest of the chapter we learn how Vi, the main character, has been breaking rules in this dystopian society where the Thinkers control just about everything. Zenn is her match. They are in love. And he’s about to give her a gift. But a hovercopter interrupts the moment, picks her up, and brings her to the institute for a formal hearing.

First layer:

  • We are introduced to an awesome voice.
  • Immediate conflict.
  • Love interest.
  • Introduction to the dystopian world.

And at the end of the chapter I want to know what happens to Vi.

Successful first chapter. Hooks an agent, an editor and readers.

Second layer:

  • Nothing in the first chapter is as it seems.
  • Later in the book, more is revealed, and the first chapter takes on a whole new dimension and meaning. Wow!

Sorry, no spoilers, you’ll have to read the book.

Here’s Elana’s book on Amazon – give it a try.

How can you add layers to your first chapter? How about the whole first half of your story?

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30 Responses to Add layers to your first chapter. (A look at POSSESSION)

  1. Andrea September 26, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Layering is so important. I find that a lot of it only comes during revisions.

  2. christine danek September 26, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    For me it takes revisions to reveal what my layers whould be. I don’t really have a method, it just happens.

    • Laura September 26, 2011 at 11:46 am #

      Yes, I agree. Layering often happens in the revision when you actually know the ending so know how to add it to the beginning! But I really loved that about Possession.

  3. Creepy Query Girl September 26, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    I didn’t think to go back and read the first chapter after but now that you mention it, I’ll bet it does take on a whole new meaning! Great post!

  4. Stina Lindenblatt September 26, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    This post has inspired me to try something new. Once I’ve finished reading a book, I’m going to reread the first chapter. This could be an interesting lession. 😀

  5. amie borst September 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    oh man! this is such a great post. there’s a manuscript i’m working on right now, and it’s like peeling an onion….so many layers! it’s amazing how much that adds to the plot and characterizations!

  6. Susan Kaye Quinn September 26, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    I like Stina’s idea about re-reading the first chapter! Great tip!

  7. Susan Sipal September 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    Thanks for giving this example, Laura. It helps so much to see how other authors do it to evaluate our own work. And the voice in Elana’s opening is wonderful!

  8. Lisa Green September 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Hahaha! Great tease and lesson. Awesome!

  9. Christina Lee September 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    YESSSZZZZ!! I love that you used Elana’s book to do this (and now I see that first chapter ina new light)!

  10. Loree Huebner September 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I find the layering sometimes happens accidently. That’s when you know that you understand your characters well.

    It also happens mostly during revisions for me.

    Great post.

    • Laura September 26, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

      Maybe because I’m plotting and thinking about my first chapter that I want to be writing NOW – instead of plotting. But I know that doesn’t go well for me. I love layered first chapter.

  11. Stephanie Scott September 26, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    It’s tempting for me to edit and revise my early chapters before I’m finished with a draft. Like other commenters said, sometimes the layers arise out of writing and are more clear during revision. I agree the first chapter should have hints to all of the layers, even if it’s not said outright. As long as it’s not a massive infodump, but more like hints and glimpses.

  12. Matthew MacNish September 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    I read the ARC a while back, and you’re absolutely right, great example, Laura.

  13. Elle Strauss September 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    This is what I loved about Ruby Red as well.

  14. Kelly Polark September 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    THat is seriously an amazing first chapter.
    And I’m glad you didn’t have spoilers because I’m almost done reading Possession!!!

  15. Sherrie Petersen September 26, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Great example. Her first chapter IS amazing!

  16. Patti September 26, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    I loved Stina’s idea of rereading the first chapters and see how they worked – or didn’t. And Possession does a great job of setting things up.

  17. Ghenet Myrthil September 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this so now when I do, I’m going to pay even more attention to that first chapter. 🙂

  18. Melissa Pearl September 26, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    I am about to start a new project and the first chapter has been whirring around in my head. I have about four different ways I could go. This post is helping me to refine it even more.

  19. Leigh Moore September 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    the best part, I think, is the whole things not being as they seem part. Well, apart from the great voice. Very cool.

    Oh, and in this age of Kindle samples, it’s even more important to have a hooky open, yes?

    good stuff~ <3

  20. Lynda R Young September 27, 2011 at 1:49 am #

    Yes! Layering adds that extra dimension that makes a good book great. I try to use it my own stories too so there’s a few ah-ha moments for the readers.

  21. becca puglisi September 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Thanks for this breakdown! Layering is super-important, though hard to do, in my experience, so I have no advice, lol. I’m always looking for ways to add more depth, so I’ll be looking into this in the revision rounds that follow. Thanks for the breakdown!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  22. Karen Strong September 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    Love how you break down the layers.

    It’s something that always has to be done in revision for me but as a reader there is nothing I love more than having an author do this in a novel — it encourages a second reading to see the deeper meanings.

  23. Jennifer Hoffine September 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    I’m almost done with Possession. The voice is amazing, and I was impressed with how layered the whole book is.

  24. Misha September 27, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    I have some layering in my first chapter, but they’re buried so deep that people won’t pick it up until close to the end of the series.


  25. Anita September 27, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    I have to agree that Elana has a pretty awesome first chapter. I’m currently rewriting my own first chapter, so this post is perfectly timed.

  26. Jennie Coughlin September 27, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Layering is absolutely key to a good story. I plan out my series several books ahead so I know where a lot of the characters are going as I’m writing earlier stories. It lets me sprinkle lots of bits and pieces over time and build in those layers that will pay off later in the book or in a future book. Some come in the drafting by knowing that; others come in the revision phase as the pieces fall into place for that particular story. Each book stands alone, but in some, there will be a bigger payoff for people who read all of them.

    • Laura September 28, 2011 at 12:38 am #

      Thanks everyone. I always appreciate a layered story that makes sense and is done well. I noticed it about Possession right away.

  27. Eileen Astels Watson September 28, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    Layers make the world of difference and I love it when I discover new ones along the way in a story. If the initial chapters are too convoluted though, I pass, I need to be eased into the layering, myself.

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