First Chapter Friday #2 (May 2016)

#FirstChapterFriday May 2016 | Every Friday, I read the first chapter of a book I’ve never read before to learn how to write a first chapter that will make readers want to read chapter two. These are the lessons I learned in May 2016.

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The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

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Engaging first sentence?

No. I understand what it’s supposed to mean, but that meaning is lost when you look at the first sentence alone:

The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them.

Basically: he’s hot, but he’s kind of acting like he’s cold. Reading on, we do realise the man is spiritually cold, but the first sentence doesn’t tell us that, which means it isn’t as engaging as it’s trying to be. It’s just about a dude under a hot sun drinking tea (because when you think about it, cupping a glass of tea doesn’t immediately suggest distress).

The problem here is word choice. The use of “as if” makes it clear that our narrator is objective, which means we don’t have any idea what the old man is thinking or feeling. Maybe the narrator’s right; maybe the old man is cupping his hands around the tea as if to warm them. Maybe he isn’t; maybe that’s just how you hold a glass of tea sometimes. If you want me to see something deep in this cupping gesture, prove that it’s something worth looking into.

Word choice could go a long way here to show that this “cupping” is a gesture of seeking comfort. For example, the word “gripping” suggests a more desperate action, giving a much heavier implication that, considering the weather, the old man is not just trying to warm his hands, he’s trying to warm his soul.

Engaging first chapter?

Well, it’s a prologue, and you know I hate those.

Look, this prologue is supposed to kick off a character arc. It’s meant to build internal conflict. I get that. But what this prologue delivers is: the old man has a severe case of the heebie-jeebies. I don’t know this man. I don’t know if his intuition is trustworthy. Just because he thinks something is creepy, doesn’t mean the reader is also going to find it creepy. I need a little more to go on.

What I would have liked from this prologue is fragments of thoughts, feelings and memories. I don’t need to understand exactly why this statue frightens him so much, but I need to know that these feelings are rooted in something and that this something supports the man’s reaction to it. I want to believe him when he thinks this statue is something to be concerned about, because this concern, this fear, is supposed to be the hook that will get readers interested and make them keep reading. A line or two here and there hinting at his thoughts would have made a huge difference.


2/5. I don’t know how bad this discovery is, so I can’t fully appreciate it. It wasn’t enough to make me want to keep reading.

Update August 2017: I still haven’t read this book.

The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey

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Engaging first sentence?

I’m going to say no because I lacked the context to fully appreciate it. “Awakening” could or could not occur in a whole range of circumstances, not all of them interesting, so I felt the sentence didn’t set up the rest of the prologue. Also, the passive voice is completely unnecessary and I’m put off by the attempt to sound obscure. It doesn’t work for me.

So I broke the rules with this one because the prologue was charmingly short, and I read the first chapter. That first line I did like because in those few words, I felt like someone was talking to me. Voice is important to me as a reader, and it’s especially important in YA novels because it establishes a swift connection between the narrator and reader and enables the reader to become more easily engaged.

Engaging first chapter?

Yes yes yes. It excited me, not necessarily because of what happened, but because of the implications of what happened. The difference between this prologue and the prologue of The Exorcist is that even if I don’t know what’s going to happen or exactly what the events of the prologue mean, I know the severity of it and have enough information to get excited about the possibilities. There’s a very delicate balance between giving the reader too much information and not giving them enough, and I think this prologue struck that balance nicely. It made me wonder.

The first chapter, on the other hand, lost me. I’d just read an introductory scene and was excited to see what kind of story world I was going to be stepping into … to be faced with something that wasn’t even a scene. The voice and length of the chapters have won me over for now, but no story happened in this first chapter and that bothers me. Also, to be frank, I don’t care about anything that was said in the first chapter. What the aliens do or do not look like doesn’t matter to me at such an early stage of the book. I want to get to know the narrator and how the central conflict directly relates to him/her.


3/5. I’m giving it an average score based off the first chapter, but I’m definitely going to continue reading because the prologue promises a potentially riveting story world. Fingers crossed that the book lives up to this promise.

Update August 2017: I still haven’t read this book and can barely remember what happened.

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool

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Engaging first sentence?

Yes. It was odd and obscure, but in a way that, from what I can tell, might directly relate to the plot so it didn’t sound like it was trying too hard, like the first sentence of The 5th Wave. It had me asking a question or two, which is what you want out of a first sentence.

Engaging first chapter?

It was another prologue, yipee. An no, it wasn’t engaging. It was backstory and, after reading the blurb, I’m left wondering if it should have even been a prologue. It seems to be directly related to plot, so it shouldn’t be separated from the main body of the story.


2/5. I felt it created a nice mood that I’d like to revisit one day, but it didn’t work as a beginning for me. I’m simply not that interested in what’s going to happen.

Update August 2017: Still haven’t read it and can’t remember what happened.

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The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater

Engaging first sentence?

Yes, I liked it for the same reason I like the first sentence of the first chapter of The 5th Wave: it had voice so I immediately connected with the character. I also have a suspicion that it’s directly related to the central conflict, so it works as a topic sentence, which is great.

Engaging first chapter?

Guess what, it’s another prologue. That’s 4/4 for this month. What have I done?

Look, this works as an opening. I get to know the protagonist immediately by stepping into her daily life, the text is nicely written, things happen that I can picture (unlike the first chapter of The 5th Wave), and it ends with an inciting incident that relates back to the first sentence. The only problem I have with it is that it seems to relate to the central conflict, follows the protagonist, and doesn’t seem to happen that much earlier than the first chapter, so I’m wondering if it should have been a prologue at all. I don’t think I need to know this information right away, so it might have been better to work the information into the first chapter.


4/5. It works really well as an opening and I already feel a connection to this character because she feels real to me.

Update August 2017: Still haven’t read it.


Want to join the discussion? Read the first chapter of any book and post on Instagram with the tag #FirstChapterFriday.


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