Before we get started today, I want you to go to your bookshelves and pull out two of your favorite books of all time.
Now, I want you to read the first three chapters. I’ll wait here…
[Jeopardy theme music plays. I go get a Dr Pepper. Jeopardy theme music keeps playing.]
Your assignment for today is to examine the first three chapters of those two books. And then, you’re going to analyze the first three chapters of other books as well. But let’s focus on those first two books.
Your favorites. You’ve probably read them multiple times, right? Good. So now you have homework.
Answer these questions:
1 – why are these your favorite books?
2 – what happens in those first three chapters?
3 – did you love the story from the first three chapters?
4 – how did the author drench you in the world of the story?
5 – how did you feel about the main character(s) in the first three chapters?
6 – what made you keep turning the pages?
It’s important to note that you should have pretty good—quite possibly lengthy—answers to each of those questions even though they aren’t deep or all that difficult. (Yes, I did my own homework. And mine is two pages long.)
You see, a story that becomes a favorite—one that resonates with the reader long after the pages are closed—captures us… engages us…invites us in…gets us connected with the characters.
For the second part of your assignment, I want you to re-read those first three chapters. And even read the first three chapters of a couple other books. Make a list of everything you see in those first three chapters.
For example – here’s the beginning of a list I have for a favorite book:
1 – begins with a prologue
2 – first POV is the villain
3 – after the prologue, in chapter one I’ve entered the “ordinary world” of one of the main characters.
4 – I’m completely engaged with her, cheering her on… I relate to her
5 – but the ordinary world is interrupted and causes her to lose focus
6 – things seem to be spinning out of control
Here’s another list (just the beginning) for another story that is a completely different genre:
1 – story begins with prologue
2 – prologue is in the POV of the heroine of the story but when she was much younger
3 – the bad guy is present and I dislike him immediately
4 – the ordinary world for the heroine is horrible – I want so much more for her
5 – next chapter is the hero
6 – his ordinary world is amazing
And here’s one more list (again, just the beginning) for another different genre:
1 – story begins with prologue
2 – I’m totally engrossed with the setting (yes, a lot of description, but it’s amazing)
3 – the hero is deeply flawed, wounded
4 – a secondary character appeals to my emotions
5 – chapter one we meet the villain – ordinary world explodes
6 – chapter two we meet the heroine – and (gasp!) I don’t like her
The lists above are just the tip of the iceberg. The beginning. The first list is seventy-five items long, so your lists will most likely be lengthy too.
Now the fun part…
What did you see in your lists that is common ground between the stories?
Which character resonated with you the most in each story?
How important was the setting?
How important was the villain?
How important was the ordinary world of the main characters?
Did the story start off with a bang?
Did the story ease you in with an incredible setting?
Here’s a tough question… WHAT is the FIRST thing you loved most?
The reason I say it’s a tough question is because I want you to actually think about this. For instance, in the third story that I did a list on – #6 is that we didn’t meet the heroine until chapter two and I didn’t like her! Guess what? I actually LOVED it that I didn’t like her at first. Granted, I have now read that book several times, but one of my favorite things about the book is that I enjoy the arc of that character… I enjoy the fact that I don’t like her at the beginning, but by the end, she’s one of my all-time favorite characters!
This lesson has been full of homework, full of questions, and not full of “instruction.” But I did that on purpose. I want you to analyze and think for yourself. Whenever you read a book and you love it, I want you to ask: What made this so incredible? Why did I love it so much?
It could be the suspenseful-ness of the plot.
It could be the characters.
It could be the setting. (Yep. I know readers who pick up books primarily because of the location of the story.)
It could be the goal of the characters, the motivation of the characters, or it could be the conflict.
It could be a combination of all the above.
The point and fact is that readers like books for different reasons. Even some of the best-selling books of all time like LORD OF THE RINGS – will have different answers from different readers. They’re still amazing books. Favorites among many. But the reason behind it differs as much as the person reading it. (For some it’s the fantasy setting, others it’s the characters, some others it’s the allegory, their love of all things elvish, or even some—the epic battles. I think you get the idea.)
The biggest thing you need to remember is that the reader has to CONNECT. With something. Otherwise, it’s probably like reading a textbook on how grass grows. Dry. Boring. Mundane.
To connect a reader, you need to engage them immediately. Depending on your genre, that could happen a number of ways. But you need to study HOW they are engaged.
So… now you have another assignment. You—most likely—have a genre that is your preferred genre to read. You could probably tell me right now what it is that engages the reader in that genre, but could you tell me for other genres? If your answer is no, then you need to go do some reading. Examine them. Make lists.
Then, go write three chapters of your own new story.
Engage the reader.
With pen to paper,