craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
First chapters are killers. Writers can spend so much time revising and retooling their openings to catch the eye and imagination of an agent, an editor, or a reader. You want to hook your reader and draw them into the story.
One way to be sure your first chapter will have the effect you want is to focus on what questions will arise in the readers’ minds as they read, and then revise to control those questions to serve your purpose.
An opening chapter introduces a lot of information to the reader. Even chapters that avoid big info dumps–those paragraphs of explanation and backstory–are bringing readers into the world of the novel and providing information. The trick is to balance the information on offer with questions that you will answer later–not because you’ve just left out information, but because the answer actually happens later in the book.
Let’s look at an example.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
The big question
Sadie begins in an unusual place for a novel–a transcript of a newscast:
DANNY GILCHRIST: It’s a beautiful day in the city. The sun is shining, not a cloud in the sky. I had a great lunch in Central Park, a chicken shawarma from the Shawarma Stop . . . From WNRK New York, I’m Danny Gilchrist and you are listening to Always Out There. (1)
Danny is introducing a podcast series called The Girls, reported by West McCray. He provides the blurb:
The Girls explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery. It’s a story about family, about sisters, and the untold lives lived in smalltown America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love . . . and the high price we pay when we can’t.
And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl. (1)
So we have a lot of information. This is a podcast, created by a New York radio producer. It has eight episodes and can be binged. There’s going to be a crime and a mystery. There will be sisters. It takes place in a small town. And there is likely to be some loss–someone will not be able to protect someone else. Also, there’s a dead girl.
This first page brings up a few questions that we’ll continue to ask as the book continues. From the blurb, we might ask, what crime? what’s the mystery? who will we meet from smalltown America? what will one character do to protect another? These are all relevant to the story. Some will be answered early (the crime) and some later (the solution to the mystery).
The big question, though, comes from the last sentence. The dead girl. Who is this dead girl, and how did she die?
The blurb sets up this question by giving it context. It’s an interesting enough story that NYC types spent a lot of time on it, we are pretty sure the crime must be murder, and we know it happens in smalltown America. The girl is also likely someone who has a sister, so she is loved and missed. All of those elements make us interested in this dead girl, and make us want to turn the page.
A series of questions
The next page starts Episode 1 of the podcast. It’s written in transcript form, and West McCray sets the scene in the first four paragraphs. It’s all information. But because we’re holding onto the question of who the girl is and how she died, we’re interested enough to read four paragraphs of setting, partly because we’ve been set up to understand that the setting and context matter to the story.
The setting description ends with two short sentences:
It’s hard to imagine feeling trapped here.
But most people here do. (3)
We have a new question. Why do people feel trapped?
Summers dives right in with an answer, a soundbite from a female resident of Cold Creek, Colorado: “You live in Cold Creek because you were born here, and if you’re born here, you’re probably never getting out” (3). This quote doesn’t answer the question so much as prove that it’s one worth asking.
McCray describes exceptions to the rule, people who did get out. He claims that people in Cold Creek can’t afford to focus on drama and scandals, “Until it happened.”
Next question, what is “it”?
This is another question that allows Summers to move back into description and to hold our attention with it. McCray describes an abandoned schoolhouse that was burned in a fire. He says, “It’s the perfect place to be alone with your thoughts. At least it was, before” (4).
New question, before what? and is the before the same as the “it”?
The script next introduces readers to Mary Beth Foster, a neighbor and mother-figure of the dead girl. Via her narrative, we get more information.
Just about . . . here.
This is where they found the body. (4)
We have an answer to the questions–”it” and “what” are finding a body. But we still have some of our initial questions: who is she? how did she die?
The podcast transcript shifts to a 9-1-1 call where a local factory worker came across the burning schoolhouse, then watched as the fire was put out, then saw the body.
Summers keeps returning to this body over and over to keep those main questions in our minds, but each time she mentions it, she backs up and gives description, context, information–more pieces of the surrounding story. All of this material helps move us toward the answers by giving us clues, but it also serves to delay the answer to the question just enough that we want to keep turning pages.
The story question
Finally, West McCray answers both questions and turns our attention to another question:
The body of Mattie Southern was discovered between the burning schoolhouse and the apple orchard . . . . She’d been reported missing three days earlier and here she was, found.
I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be a part of this show. . . . In my opinion, you only really need to know two things.
The first is the cause of her death was blunt force trauma to the head.
The second is this:
MARY BETH FOSTER:
She was only thirteen years old. (6)
We now know who the person is, that she has been missing for three days, how she died, and her age. By not including gruesome details, Summers hints that there are some. Then she redirects to another subtle question–who killed Mattie? But Summers doesn’t dwell on that question. She actually shifts the narrative then to McCray’s experience–why he was in Cold Creek, how he’d heard about the story, and why he was interested again now. The narrative that has been driven by this dead girl seems to have wound down. There’s a lull, a rest. Then McCray gets a phone call from Mary Beth saying Mattie’s older sister Sadie was missing:
She thought maybe I could bring Sadie back home to her alive. Because Sadie had to be alive, because–
MARY BETH FOSTER (PHONE)
I can’t take another dead girl. (9)
This last section opens up the huge story question Is Sadie alive, and will West find her?
Summers starts the story by keeping us focused on two main questions, then uses our interest in them to allow herself to provide background and context that has meaning because of those questions. If we weren’t asking the right questions, all that information could seem irrelevant, or we wouldn’t know what to focus on within the information. The questions direct our attention.
Summers’ big feat, however, is introducing those two initial questions (which will be relevant later), and then shifting our attention to the big reveal of the main story question of the novel–and it comes at the perfect spot: the end of the first chapter.
Now it’s YOUR Turn!
There are some things about Summers’ technique that especially lend themselves to the thriller. But her ability to control the readers’ questions is something that can be emulated in any genre.
As you’re considering your own first chapter,
- Look at the balance of information and questions. What questions do you prime readers to ask? Does the information provide background and context for those questions?
- Notice that the initial questions you prime your reader for don’t have to be directly related to your story question.
- Where is your story question introduced? The end of the first chapter can be ideal, especially in a thriller, but by the end of the second chapter can work, depending on the book and genre.
Watch next week for an analysis of the first chapter of a middle grade novel.
Check out these additional KidLit Craft posts on opening chapters:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.