Breaking Down the First Chapter #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

woman leaning on the wall while reading book
photo credit: @jsycra on Unsplash

First chapters are far and away the most crucial part of your story because if the person who just picked your book up off the shelf or clicked on Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature (because hello 21st century) was enamored enough by the summary to make it this far, it’s time to show them what you’ve got, that the summary wasn’t kidding around when it said this book was a “rich classic in the making” and will “absolutely stun you.”

Full disclaimer: if you’re currently drafting, I wouldn’t recommend reading this. Or, if you’re a curious or particularly masochistic soul, I recommend not taking any of this advice too seriously at the moment. Wait until you’ve got your Editor Hat™ on and then come see me. Because drafting is not the time to be agonizing over whether or not your first chapter takes off from the gate like a thoroughbred on race day, you know?


For this exercise, let’s take a look at and break down the first chapter of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2019).

The opening line(s)

It seems to be an instinct born in every future writer the debilitating anxiety of crafting the perfect opening line. “You have to hook the reader!” they all cry. “You must establish tone! You must…” (this is where I lose them as I fade away into anxiety attack-induced unconsciousness.)

I was fortunate to attend Kevin Hearne‘s keynote presentation to the students of the Writing Popular Fiction MFA program at Seton Hill University this past January. His talk was about cracking the first chapter. He says the first line needs to do one thing and one thing only: inspire curiosity.

The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his journey. He walked as if drunk through the haze of mist that clung like spidersilk to Seiiki.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

In these opening lines, we already know that 1) this isn’t from the point of view of the man coming out of the sea but rather from someone elsewhere watching him emerge from the water; so who is the watcher? 2) what happened to this man that he bears “the scars of his journey”? 3) where did he come from and under what circumstances? Shipwreck? Mutiny? Freak accident?

And then we know some world building stuff like this is a world where there are water ghosts and silk doesn’t come from silkworms like in our world but rather from spiders. It’s also a country called Seiiki.

Now that our curiosity has been inspired, what’s next?

The conflict

In his Masterclass, award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks about how he can’t start any story without first knowing the intention and obstacle. Honestly I need this tattooed on the inside of my forearm where I can reference it at any time.

Let’s look at the way Samantha Shannon presents conflict. Her POV character has discovered a stranger coming out of the sea and we already have a sense that this is bad but then we start to learn why.

On the first page, here’s what we learn:

  • the stranger’s intention is to speak with the Warlord of Seiiki
  • the stranger’s obstacle is that the POV character, Tané, holds a knife on him

Then we come to paragraph eight, which carries us over onto page two, that tells us both Tané’s intention and her obstacle:

She dared not speak, for to show she knew his language was to forge a link between them, and to betray herself. To betray the fact that just as she was now a witness to his crime, he was a witness to hers.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Now we’ve learned:

  • her intention is to keep her crime hidden
  • her obstacle is this stranger being a witness as well as a liability

Also, our minds are exploding with questions: she’s committed a crime? Why is it a crime? And why is it a crime that he washed ashore?

We quickly learn that the reason for her anxiety is that she’s supposed to be in seclusion in preparation for her Choosing Day. She cannot be caught out or else she’ll be considered tainted.

But in a brilliant stroke of raising the stakes, it isn’t just Tané herself at risk. We learn about the fear of the “red sickness” that she’s afraid this outsider must have. This could be seen as a bad omen. Now, if she were caught with this outsider, not only would she be considered tainted for having left her seclusion, but the bad omen would condemn her entire generation of apprentices to miss the opportunity to become riders (of what? We aren’t told yet.)

Tension builds as she wrestles with herself. “If she turned this outsider over to the authorities, she would have to reveal that she had broken seclusion.” What is she going to do?

She could not report him. Neither could she abandon him. If he did have the red sickness, letting him roam unchecked would endanger the entire island.

There was only one choice.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

So we have a character, Tané, who has a lot going for her in life and a big day of her to follow and here comes this stranger to screw everything up. What does she do? What is she willing to risk to protect herself and what she wants?

We then come to a section break. She makes her choice: blindfolding the stranger (careful not to touch him) and guiding him through the city towards a point where she can leave him for another to smuggle him across an inlet to an island close by called Orisima. It’s obvious this is a huge risk for her to take. As readers, this tells us a lot about her.

There’s another section break and we meet a new character as the POV changes: Niclays Roos, who is quickly established as a grumpy old hermit on the island of Orisima. Conflict develops further as the smuggler tries to foist the stranger off on him but he refuses.

“No.” Niclays stared. “Saint, woman, are you trying to involve me in a smuggling operation?” He fumbled for the door. “I cannot hide a trespasser. If anyone knew–“

“One night.”

“One night, a year–our heads will be sliced from our shoulders regardless. Good evening.”

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

So now we get that this is a big deal for all involved.

Niclays isn’t given a choice. The smuggler promises silver and simply leaves the stranger behind. The stranger and Niclays have a conversation wherein we learn a few more things like 1) the stranger is from a different country called Inys; 2) that his name is Triam Sulyard; 3) he and Niclays have different religions and countries of origin; and 4) that Triam is on a dire mission for the sake of his queen, who doesn’t know anything about it. Niclays has great contempt for all of this, as he doesn’t consider anything worth the risk to himself.

And then the cliffhanger:

In the street, there was no sign of the sentinels, but several of his neighbors had gathered. Niclays joined them. […]

An enormous head towered of the fence of Orisima. It belonged to a creature born of jewel and sea. […]

A dragon. Even as it rose over Cape Hisan, others were ascending from the water, leaving a chill mist in their wake. Niclays pressed a hand to the drumbeat in his chest.

“Now, what,” he murmured, “are they doing here?”

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The character(s)

A few givens about conflict: it cannot exist in a vacuum. It isn’t conflict unless it affects somebody. So presenting conflict means presenting characters and why this development is a conflict for them.

Tané is an apprentice about to face her Choosing Day. If she’s caught, she’ll lose her entire future. We can sympathize with such an agonizing decision: she doesn’t want to kill this stranger, for all that she holds a knife on him, but she has so much to lose because of him. And Niclays, a crotchety old doctor, will be executed if someone so much as suspects him of housing an outsider.

We have respect for Tané for risking the futures of her entire class of potential riders for the sake of this stranger and in contrast, we rather dislike Niclays for thinking only of himself when the choice is put to him.

Samantha Shannon essentially asks the reader: what would you do in this situation? This question keeps us involved as the conflict develops because it’s stressful.

In conclusion

There are three big things Samantha Shannon does with this opening chapter:

  1. establishes three main players, what they want, and why they can’t have it
  2. a glimpse of a much wider tension-filled conflict that spans the seas
  3. a cliffhanger ending where dragons rise from the ocean and we’re pretty sure they aren’t supposed to (the “red sickness” after all is sometimes referred to as the “draconic plague”)

After analyzing this chapter, here’s what I’ve taken away from it as a writer:

  • keep in mind Kevin Hearne’s advice: start with something that inspires curiosity and keep doing that
  • remember that the reader doesn’t expect to learn everything in this first chapter, so be picky with the details
  • show what the characters are like through their decisions

If I were to offer any critique for this opening chapter, it would revolve solely around the writing style, which I thought lacked a cohesive atmosphere, sensory details, and concise language. But for the way she snags the reader and begins developing the conflict, this is a solid beginning that prompts the reader to keep going.

I chose The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon because it was close at hand. If I were to pick my favorite opening chapters, I’d recommend The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

What first chapters inspire your curiosity? Share in the comments!

This post is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop. Want to see other posts in the hop? They’re all about helping you, future/current author, in your authorly endeavors. Click here to see more.

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Less is Way Too Much: A Lesson on Specificity in Plotting

When my American Literature professor assigned us our final paper, her advice was to make our argument as specific as possible. For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman was completely out of touch of the undergraduate reality because there was no way a narrow argument would fill up that many pages.

Not that what I thought mattered because this paper had to be written come hell or high water, and as the deadline loomed, the water was rising up around my shoulders.  So, okay. Let’s try the out of touch professor’s advice. For grins and giggles.  Picture me then, a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning. 

In a fit of indignant pique, I made the following argument (in the spirit of being as specific as it was possible for me to be in my panic-fueled state):

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.

(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Okay, now what? The 8-page quota loomed ever larger, like a demon growing stronger the more it feeds on my panic.

What happened still amazes me to this day.

The thesis is essentially three claims, each of which I had to set up and defend: 1) criticisms of disorganization and lack of meaning, 2) the interpretation of the mutiny, 3) how the interpretation fits the novel as a whole.

Having actually read the book (God help me), I started to realize how long it would take to set up and defend these points. Suddenly 8 pages had shrunk to maybe not being enough?

Who’d have thought specificity would strengthen my argument? Not I, that’s for damn sure.  After five hours in the library, my 7-page long paper was concise and well-structured. And I got that paper back with a beautiful red “A” on it.

part ii.

Okay, confession: I sprawl. I’m a sprawler. I lounge languorously from page 1 until I run out of steam and collapse, exhausted, around halfway through the manuscript because my arms just can’t juggle that many subplots and extraneous “character building” scenes anymore.

I wasn’t pleased with my external plot of my current manuscript because of this reason. It lacked cohesiveness. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done and it all ended up at my feet in a soupy, gloopy mess.

Enter specificity in the form of a mentor from my MFA program.

Explaining my problem to him, he nodded, his mouth scrunched, disappearing into his beard as he thought a moment. Then, “Why don’t you do [insert very simplistic but brilliant idea for external plot here]?” he says, very nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just possibly fixed a problem I’ve been having with this book for years.

WHY DON’T I JUST, SIR? WHY DON’T I JUST.

In the space of, oh, two seconds, I had a single cohesive line of thought that I could hook into my internal plot and instead of my characters wandering around like lost little lambs whose shepherd was directionally challenged, they were charging like Braveheart warriors in a straight line right towards an end goal that actually made sense.

Specificity, my friends. Specificity is where it’s at.

The Practicality and Morality of Being a Magpie

I advise you to keep your writer’s notebook handy when you’re reading, because you want it right there when inspiration strikes, and if you’re a writer and a reader, odds are you’re most likely to be the receiver of the inspiration fairy when you’re reading.

Some people are probably feeling some low level panic right now. “But I don’t want to steal someone’s ideas! I don’t wanna be a copy cat!”

Okay, I hear you.  I used to worry about the exact same thing.  I’d worry about “stealing” ideas or of being “too influenced” by a particular author or book.

My short response, dear hearts, is this: don’t worry about it.

There are two aspects to this pressing concern: the practical side and the intellectual/moral side.

On the practical side, ideas change so much from conception to final product that the original idea will most likely be unrecognizable.  I, for one, find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to recognizably replicate the book that inspired you.

On the moral side, I find it admirable that you place emphasis on originality and responsibility for your own ideas.  As writers, we’re bred to seek after the previously unexplored.  We’re expected to unearth the buried.

On the practical side, this expectation of Absolute Originality is unreasonable, because even in Biblical times, there wasn’t anything new under the sun.  And, paradoxically, anything you generate will be original anyway (at the very least in execution) because it came from you and not anyone else.

On the moral side, I think the emphasis ought to be placed on authenticity.  Instead of the aesthetic details of your world or your characters or your magical system, consider them vessels for your personal meaning.  Because without something Deeper, the aesthetic will be empty and essentially meaningless.

On the practical side, you are a human being, which means you are graced with the remarkable ability to discern minuscule details from one another.  So consider this difference:

  • I like this idea of two mismatched eyes, one totally black, the other normal, and how it signifies they have blood magic that can transport them between worlds.
  • I like this idea of wands.  I’ll do something with wands.

I’ll bet–and I’m confident that I’ll win this bet–that you are able to discern the degree to which these two thought processes are different.  The first example is very specific to the world and plot of the story from which it came (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab).  The second example, however, is a general concept that could apply to any number of stories, including my current WiP.

I would personally consider the first example worrisome and yes, edging too close to the idea of “copying.”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the second example, though, because it leaves the limitless question of, “What about wands?” hanging in the air, leaving you to answer it however you please.

On the moral side, you probably want to continue to grow as a writer and a creator.  So I urge you to ask yourself this question when you come across something shiny that catches your eye:  “What more can I do with this?  What else is there to explore with this idea?”

On the practical side, writing down the spinoff inspired by the story you’re reading in no way commits you to doing anything with that idea.  You’re a writer.  Like magpies and ravens, we collect shiny things to add to our hoards.  It’s a Thing.

I’ll leave you with this.

I’ve found that the more confident I became in my own writing and storytelling abilities, the less I coveted the ideas I found in published works.  This tells me that the problem does not lie in the copying itself, but of the lack of confidence that causes it.  Instead of worrying about being a copy cat, consider instead your confidence in yourself.  The more confident you become in yourself, the less demand you will feel to claim someone else’s work as your own.