Break down of a terrific first chapter.

It happened again.
I read a sample on my Kindle and was completely and totally hooked.
I haven’t read the rest, but I will. So let’s take a look at the first chapter of a commercial high-concept book.

FIRELIGHT by Sophie Jordan

1. Opening line that introduces an initial conflict:

Gazing out at the quiet lake, I know the risk is worth it.

What risk? Will she get caught? What is she about to do? Is it worth it?
Those are all the questions running through my mind after one sentence. The stakes are high in the first line.

2. Imagery and sensory detail and the character’s reaction to it:

Low-rising mist drifts off liquid mountains floating against a purple-bruised sky. An eager breath shudders past my lips.

Jacinda’s excitement is infectious. I connected to her – all the better she is about to do something forbidden.

3. Stretching out moments for full emotional impact:

For several paragraphs we see Jacinda and Azure watching this beautiful sunrise as they anticipate the risk they are about to take. Sounds like it could be boring, but it’s not. It’s milking a moment so I am fully entrenched in the character and the moment. And I know something bad will happen, so I’m hooked. The quiet before the storm.

Later on in the chapter, we experience moment by moment her transfiguration to a dragon and her forbidden flight with plenty of sensory detail and terrific imagery.

4. A little bit of backstory:

This rebellion is partly about getting away from him. Cassian. Always hovering. Always there….I just hate that they’re not giving me a choice.

This wasn’t just any backstory. It showed that Jacinda’s being watched closely and being forced to do something. And immediately, I’m rooting for her. Isn’t that what we want?

5. Hints of character arc:

I breathe fire. The only fire-breather in the pride in more than four hundred years.

Jacinda resents that her pride controls her because of this special ability. She’s being selfish, but it’s totally justifiable and something any teen can relate to.

6. Introduction of danger and go big:

Sophie Jordan again stretches out a moment for full impact. Instead of saying a helicopter appears over the mountain. She goes moment by moment, using sensory detail until the moment arrives when the chopper appears. And it’s not just one helicopter – it’s a bunch. And once Jacinda and Azure are in the trees hiding, a land team appears.

Then more connections are made with Jacinda with this one thought: Is this how it happened with Dad? Were his last moments like this?

7. Show likeable qualities in the main character:

It started with Jacinda leading her friend, Azure, into a rebellious act. We connect to that and respect her spunk.

But Jacinda accepts full responsibility for her actions and decides to create a diversion to save her friend. (Hooked again.)

8. End with a hook:

“W-what are you going to do?” (Azure talking)
I force a smile, the curve of my lips painful on my face.
“Fly, of course.”

We don’t all write high concept stories or want to. But these same concepts can be toned down to fit your manuscript whether it be historical fiction or a literary character-driven story.

Have you seen these same concepts applied in other books? Is there any you need to work on? I’m working on stretching out moments for the full emotional impact, especially in my opening.


28 Responses to Break down of a terrific first chapter.

  1. Andrea March 21, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Interesting analysis, Laura. I’m working on revising the opening of my novel, and it’s useful to look at exactly how to get and hold the reader’s attention.

  2. Anna Staniszewski March 21, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Thanks for the breakdown, Laura! It can be so intimidating to have to work all these things into an opening chapter, but when it’s done well, it’s almost invisible.

  3. Amie Kaufman March 21, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    Okay, first, I’m going to have to download this sample as well, it sounds great!

    Secondly, great breakdown–I think stretching moments out for emotional impact is more difficult to do in MG, where the pace is often snappier, but where you can manage it, it’s beautiful.

  4. Tab March 21, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    Great break down!

    Pleasure to find your blog.

  5. Kris March 21, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    OOh, sounds really cool. You make a strong case for an e-reader, my friend. Love your analysis. 🙂

  6. Lydia K March 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    I like how you broke it down. Also, it’s just neat seeing what hooks readers or doesn’t. I’d also love to see a first chapter that didn’t do it for you!

    • Laura March 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      I’d love to show what doesn’t work for me in an opening chapter because we can learn from that to. Just take the opposite of what ends up hooking me. Of course, we’re all hooked by different aspects of a book, so what works for me, might not work for you. But different approaches hook me too. Like an opening with excellent telling that can totally hook me.
      Thanks for commenting everyone!

  7. Paul Greci March 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Cool post, Laura!

    A touch of relevant/significant backstory that doesn’t give too much away but makes me want to read on is usually pretty essential for me to connect with a character.

  8. Sherrie Petersen March 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Love this breakdown! I loaned my ARC of this book to a friend before I read it myself and she lost it! Grrr… Now I’m really going to have to harass her about cheating me out of a good read 😛

    • Laura March 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

      Sherrie – omg – I can’t believe she lost it! I have fullest confidence that I’ll like the rest of the book, even if it’s not perfect.

      Paul – Backstory is important to me too! Too bad it has such a bad rap.

  9. Karen Lange March 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Good stuff! Working on something now that this will help with. Thanks, friend! 🙂

  10. Lisa Green March 21, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    I work on that during revisions usually. Scaling the scene up or down depending on it’s importance. Time should stretch in those big moments! Great post.

  11. Patti March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    I loved this breakdown and it was very timely, as I’m revisiting my first chapter again.

    • Laura March 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      Karen – I’ve been revising my opening too!

      Lisa – I’m an underwriter so I always have to add words when revising!

      Patti – I think we’re always in a state of constantly revising our opening. 🙂

  12. Tana Adams March 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Great! I think the first sentence, paragraph, few pages are like walking a tight rope. It’s the most challenging part of the entire book.

  13. Shannon O'Donnell March 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    I love this breakdown! I think I’ll share it with my comp classes. 🙂

    • Laura March 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

      Thanks Shannon!

      Tana – I agree. They are extremely challenging to get right!

  14. Tiana Smith March 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    I’ve been wanting to read this book, and now you’re taunting me with it! 🙂 Great break down.

  15. Angela Felsted March 21, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    I LOVED firelight. And I cannot wait until Vanish comes out.

  16. Jill Kemerer March 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Oooo, I love how you broke this down! I’m not great at adding sensory description, but I layer it in while revising. Your #2 helps me a lot!

  17. Carolina Valdez Miller March 21, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    Awesome breakdown, Laura! I’d be curious to see what you’d do with my book. If it publishes, I just might try to bribe you to give it a shot!

  18. Tracey Neithercott March 21, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    This was a great breakdown and analysis. I think so may different types of first chapters hook me–slow, jumping right into the action, ect. It’s all about execution, which you said. And if there’s a shred of a mystery or something bad about to happen I’m in.

  19. Jemi Fraser March 22, 2011 at 1:18 am #

    I’ve had this book on my wishlist for ages! It sounds wonderful 🙂

    Great breakdown – it really helps to see it all pulled apart like this!

  20. Susan Sipal March 22, 2011 at 1:35 am #

    I think walking that line between emotional tension, sensory imaging, and giving enough info without overload in the first chapter is just so difficult. You don’t want to tilt too much on any and slow the pace. I struggle with this a lot. Great analysis!

  21. Leigh Moore March 22, 2011 at 1:47 am #

    beautiful breakdown, Laura! I’ve heard mixed reviews of this book, but I like how you describe the first chapter. I think it’s a pattern that can be spread out and applied to an entire novel.

    As for high-concept, I like starting that way, but I always seem to quiet down. Not sure why… 😀 Thanks! <3

  22. Adventures in Children's Publishing March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve never seen a break down like this, but I’ll be running off to check the ms I’m querying as soon as I press submit!


  23. Susan Kaye Quinn March 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Stretching those moments in the first chapter are so difficult to do, because of the demands of brevity. This is a constant push-pull I struggle with, and you are right: part of it is confidence in knowing that you have delivered exactly what you meant to.

  24. Julie Kingsley March 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    I’m revising too! I needed to hear this today. Thanks!

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