The Magic of the First Chapter

I have a confession to make, and I need to know if anyone else is the same way or if I’m just strange. For the most part, I can tell by the end of the first chapter – sometimes by the end of the first page – whether I will like a book or not.

That’s weird, isn’t it? I can just feel authors everywhere cringing at the idea. Because we all know of books that were slow in the beginning and picked up or made a bad impression at the start that was really just a screen that turned into something magical and deliberate at the end. I know bloggers who absolutely refuse to quit a book any sooner than 100 pages in, if they quit at all. They – these enviable optimists – believe that there’s always a chance for redemption by the end, that somehow an author will pull out a miraculous trick to turn everything around. And that’s fine.

But for me, there’s something magical about first chapters. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately as my to-read pile has grown and the number of first chapters I’ve read multiplies. Everyone has heard first impressions are important, and none so frequently, I think, as writers attempting to craft a story. The first chapter – really, the first page – is where the wow needs to happen. When I talk about “wow,” I don’t mean just flash and pizazz. I’ve read books that started out in the middle of a hairpin turn and kept a breathless, giddy pace from start to finish. And yet these same books were just so-so for me. I don’t mean books with a great hook in the first sentence either, because those can fizzle out quickly.

Last year, I had a string of bad reads. Some were DNFs, and some just made me mad. I picked up another book on my way to bed and began to read, fully expecting… Well, I don’t know what I expected. But I was only a few sentences in and I knew. I knew I was floating in a magical first chapter.

When I read a magical first chapter, I can literally feel my body relax. It’s some incalculable mix of prose, writing style, hook, and an indefinable “it” factor. When I find a good book, reading the first chapter feels like settling into the comfiest spot on my bed after a long day. I feel my insides relaxing and unclenching. That pent-up pit deep inside exhales and I sink down slowly, like a swimmer into deeper water. I’m immersed in the world, in the words. Every rock of cadence, every sentence, every cushiony adverb and sanded noun was crafted just for me.

The lack of this magic doesn’t mean the book will be bad, nor does the sensation automatically mean I’ll adore every aspect of the book. But time and again I’ve felt myself snapping into place like a puzzle piece that’s found its mate, felt my body relaxing, my mind stretching out over the pillow of words like a cat in the sun. I feel at ease. I feel welcome. And I know that this is a book, an author, to whom I’ll come back again and again.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me, am I crazy for thinking I can connect with books this quickly? Have you ever read a book and felt the magic, that sense of utter relaxation and perfection?

35 Responses to The Magic of the First Chapter

  1. Stormy January 10, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I think I definitely notice magical first chapters. It’s not always a guarantee, of course, but I find the books with magical first chapters tend to be my five star reads. They’re the books I love from the beginning and have trouble imagining NOT loving. The first books that come to mind for me when I was reading your post were This Song Will Save Your Life and All Our Yesterdays. Two very different books, in very different genres, that just had those magical first chapters. There was that “IT” factor, the thing that can’t always be described but I just knew these were Very Special Books.
    Stormy recently posted…Book Review: Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren MorrillMy Profile

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      YES. And the same “IT” factor that attracts me might repulse another reader, and that’s okay. If it feels “made for me,” by definition it might not feel customized for someone else.

  2. Andrea @ Bookish January 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    No ma’am, you are not alone. I do the same thing. I just know within the first chapter if I’m in love, if I’m in lust, or I’m going to be annoyed, struggle through, or DNF the book. I think that first chapter is really telling. I’ve been surprised by a few books where my instinct was wrong – but those books are far and few between.
    Andrea @ Bookish recently posted…Beauty’s Daughter: The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy by Carolyn Meyer (Review + Interview)My Profile

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 11:43 am #

      I’m not crazy! Hooray! And you’re right, books that surprise me are few and far between. The fact that they exist usually keeps me from DNFing after only a chapter, but they don’t happen very often.

  3. Karen January 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    I used to be one of those * never surrender!* readers that struggled until the bitter end no matter what. Then I started with the 100 page rule – now the 50 page rule lol

    I have learned to start trusting myself more though. I’m not sure the first few chapters are enough for me to make a call (because some books struggle until he characters/story are established) but I’m beginning to listen to my inner voice and just let books go if the writing just doesn’t hit me right away.

    That could be with a few chapters or even 10.

    You have to go with what works for you. There’s no sense reading a book you don’t enjoy.

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

      And, really, is it fair to a book to push through if you hate it? I know it’s not for me, so why make myself cranky? There’s no law that says I can’t try again a few months/years from now.

  4. Nikki @ Foil the Plot January 10, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Can I just say how much I admire you for this, Shae?

    I WISH I could tell after the first chapter if I am really going to enjoy a book, but alas, I am one of the optimistic few. I think it’s because I DO try to give an author the benefit of the doubt coupled with the fact that there have been those select few who have managed to turn it around by the end (see: Under the Never Sky — HATED it at the start but LOVED it by the end). I feel guilty DNF’ing but the logical side of me knows that I should embrace it. The world is full of too many good books to waste time on the bad ones. Easier said than done, right?

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

      Way easier said than done. And UtNS is a VERY good example. I didn’t hate the beginning, but I didn’t love it either. But, like you, I adored it by the end. I credit the charismatic cannibals.

  5. Alexa S. January 10, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Honestly, I think you are the FURTHEST thing from crazy by talking about this… because I have felt it, too! Even though I happen to be one of those eternal optimists that almost always doesn’t DNF a book, I still know what you mean when you talk about magical first pages/chapters. There’s just something in me that recognizes when a book WORKS for me — and I’m glad I’m not the only one who appears to feel that way!
    Alexa S. recently posted…I Simply Remember My Favorite Things, And Then I Don’t Feel So BadMy Profile

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

      High-five, reading buddy! Seriously though, my spine literally relaxes when I sink into a good book. It’s the most amazing feeling. Of course later my spine is killing me because I haven’t moved in six hours, but whatever.

  6. Margo Berendsen January 10, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I know just what you mean, but sometimes a first chapter that doesn’t work for me connects with another reader in a magical way. I remember being so excited to read the Crown of Embers because everyone was raving about it, and I couldn’t get into it. In fact the first chapter really turned me off. But, because everyone was raving, I tried not to DNF and when I hit chapter 14, FOURTEEN!!!! I finally fell in love.
    Margo Berendsen recently posted…Insecure Writer: resolutions make me uneasyMy Profile

  7. Brandy January 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm #

    I totally get this. Sometimes I can be on the fence about whether I really want to read a book or not and reading the first few pages makes my decision for me. It that entirely fair? Maybe not. But my time is precious and there is so much out there I want to read.

    Truly magical first chapters are the best though, the ones that really sweep me away. Like The Thief or Holes. I think those are my two favorite magical first chapters of all time. The Westing Game has a great one too.
    Brandy recently posted…The Latte RebellionMy Profile

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

      I don’t remember how I felt about the beginning of THE THIEF the first time I read it. Now, of course, starting it feels like coming home. It’s so delightful comfortable and familiar and beautiful.

  8. Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books January 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I think I understand what you’re saying here. And I think that’s awesome how much a great first chapter can affect your entire reading experience. That’s definitely a good thing!
    From my personal reading experiences, though, I’m not sure I have such a quick connection with the majority of books I read. I think that’s due in a large part to the fact that I read so many fantasies and works of science fiction. I feel like in speculative fiction in particular it takes a few chapters at least for me to hit my stride, finally figuring out who (and what) these characters are and what their world is like.
    Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books recently posted…Review: And All the Stars by Andrea K. HöstMy Profile

    • Shae January 10, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

      That makes sense. And not all books hit it off with me automatically. Some do take time. However, it is EXTREMELY rare for me to start a book, hate the prose, and end up liking it by the end. Actually, I don’t think that’s ever happened. The closest I’ve come is disliking something about the plot and then warming up to the story.

  9. Anya January 11, 2014 at 12:26 am #

    Haha, so I’m weird in that the last chapter can make or break a book for me. I’m such a fan of crazy epic endings that one of those with some awesome twists can make up for a lot in a book for me 😉
    Anya recently posted…Sci-fi and Fantasy Friday {SF/F Reviews and Giveaways}My Profile

    • Shae January 11, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Ooh, that’s cool! A bad ending can definitely ruin a book for me, but I’ve gotten so used to being able to guess endings that they don’t mean too much to me.

  10. acps927 January 11, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    I can usually tell pretty early on too, though not always at the first chapter. I’m a big believer in starting strong, even for a slow-paced book, so if the first chapter or two doesn’t feel magical to me, I usually worry about the rest of the book.
    acps927 recently posted…My Top 10 Movie Anticipations for 2014My Profile

    • Shae January 11, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

      Right. Even if it’s slow, you gotta make me feel invested.

  11. Kailia Sage January 11, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    I don’t think you’re crazy at all! I’ve felt this way about some books too but for me, it’s rather rare. I did have this feeling with Daughter of the Forest which I read in a matter of hours, on a school night. Even though this book was slow, I realized early on that this would be a fantasy novel I would love.

    I feel that sometimes it happens when it comes to the genre also. I tend to have these first chapter feels when it comes to fantasy novels more than any other genre. Maybe that makes me weird!
    Kailia Sage recently posted…Review: Going Vintage by Lindsey LeavittMy Profile

    • Shae January 11, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Ooh! I JUST got that book, too! How exciting.

      No, I get that. World-building is SO important in fantasies, so when it clicks, it REALLY clicks.

  12. Jessica January 12, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    You’re definitely not crazy about this! While I have read books that I’ve ended up loving, even after not being drawn in by the first chapter or two, I have felt that amazing feeling of opening a book and just knowing that I’m going to love it! Either because of the wording, or the characters, or the humor, or a mix of all of those things! There is something about opening a book and just KNOWING that you’re going to love it and that it will become a favorite! It’s a wonderful feeling! 🙂

    I will mention that I won’t give up on a book right away if I don’t feel that, though. I usually give it a few chapters first, then if it’s still not working for me I’ll DNF it.

    And by the way, The Little mermaid gif is perfect for this post! 🙂
    Jessica recently posted…Marvelous Musical Friday 8My Profile

    • Shae January 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      Her hair is rather mesmerizing, isn’t it?

  13. Christine @Buckling Bookshelves January 13, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I can completely see how this could happen for a lot of readers, but I am definitely not a “first chapter” girl myself. I mean, I can get a bit of an idea of whether or not it might be good, but I don’t think I’ve ever had that magical feeling, except maybe when I first read the first chapter Harry Potter — that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten. The book can be good, bad, or in between, but first chapters always leave me struggling to keep track of all the names and figuring out who is who, what details are important, and just generally what the heck is going on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a little further and said to myself, “I think there was a reference to XYZ earlier, but I’m not really sure” so I’ll go back and re-read or skim the first chapter and there is always stuff my brain didn’t hold onto! Doesn’t seem to matter how good my concentration is, first chapters always make me feel like I’m treading water, trying to keep my head up, LOL
    Christine @Buckling Bookshelves recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday #21: (Mostly) Bookish Goals for 2014My Profile

    • Shae January 13, 2014 at 9:38 am #

      Yikes, that sounds frustrating.

  14. Miranda @ Tempest Books January 13, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    LOVE this post! 🙂 I usually try to give a book about 20% before DNFing it, but usually I’m kind of like you…I can tell right from the start whether I’m going to love it or hate it. Or if a book is just going to be “special.” I love that feeling…and I definitely go through book after book after book trying to find it over and over again. Sometimes I worry that it’ll never happen again if I’m in a slump, but eventually it always does 🙂

    • Shae January 14, 2014 at 6:08 am #

      Oh yes, definitely. I HATE reading slumps, because all I want is to find that comfy feeling again.

  15. Charleen January 15, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    I think it’s great! Especially if it seems to be something you can count on, because it makes it that much easier to DNF without wondering “but what if it gets better.” I don’t know that I’d ever give up on a book after only one chapter (well, that’s not true; I’ve given up on books after only a few pages but that was because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get past the narrative style… but never because of plot or characters or even lackluster writing). But absolutely, the sooner the book can work its magic on you, the better.
    Charleen recently posted…Review: SecondWorldMy Profile

    • Shae January 15, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

      I still second-guess myself, but yeah, being able to get that magic feeling helps a lot in the decision-making process.

  16. Terri @ Starlight Book Reviews January 20, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    Oh yes, definitely! That magical feeling … some days you need it! And some books are just amazing at this. Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder comes to mind. The moment I read that chapter, I was hooked.

    There’s something so comforting about having those go-to books where you’re “home” from the very start.

    • Shae January 20, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      Usually those opening chapters tell me I’m in for a wild ride. 😀

  17. Christina (A Reader of Fictions) January 26, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Hmm, I definitely don’t have the magical first chapter thing. Often books take time to grow on me. I wanted to DNF Code Name Verity, for example, until about the halfway point. With the REALLY good ones, I often know within the first page or two, but unless the magic is right there, it takes me a bit.
    Christina (A Reader of Fictions) recently posted…Sadie Hawkins Sunday Review #53: UnteachableMy Profile

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bookish Recap: January 5th – 11th | A Bookish Heart - February 1, 2014

    […] the “proper” way to take care of books. – Shae @ Shae Has Left the Room talks about the magic of the first chapter. – Holly @ Novel Bliss talks about not loving a book – is it you or the book? – Tory @ The […]

  2. Booklover Blog 3000 - June 6, 2014

    […] The Magic Of The First Chapter: Posted by Shae at Shae Has Left The Room. First impressions really are important. You may or may not (hopefully may) have noticed my Opening Lines page, where I post the first few sentences of every book I’ve ever reviewed. There is a sort of magic in the way authors introduce us to their worlds. They chose to share this with us, and those first few lines, paragraphs, or chapters can make or break the decision to go further. […]

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