Pt. 2: Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter

Photo by Brett Carlson

Yesterday, I gave you some pleasurable homework: reading the free first chapter of Marcus Sakey’s new thriller, THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES. In this series of posts, I’m arguing that it’s an excellent example of how to juggle all of an author’s conflicting priorities to write a captivating first chapter for a thriller novel. I laid out those objectives yesterday in the first post in this series. Here they are again, abbreviated:

  1. Bring the main character or characters onstage
  2. Give us some some sense of who and what sort of people these are
  3. Make us care about them (like, loathe, or fear)
  4. Introduce the (a) setting
  5. Give a sense of the main plot
  6. Raise story questions that make it impossible for the reader to put the story down
  7. “Crash a plane” — derail the characters’ lives with an extraordinary, thrilling incident

Sakey “crashes a plane” in the first paragraph to yank us into the story. More precisely, he drops the main character and, by extension, the reader, into the ocean half drowned, and barely

Click “Read More” to see the rest of this post and comment.

lets him swim to safety on the beach. We know some catastrophe has happened, but we have no idea what it might have been (raising a tantalizing story question):

HE WAS NAKED AND COLD, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goose bumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater into his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feet crawling like a child.

Notice that Sakey does everything on my list in this very first paragraph, except maybe, give us an explicit sense of the main plot, though once we know the main plot, we see that this paragraph does, in fact introduce us to it perfectly. (The main plot is that this man regains awareness here in the ocean in this paragraph — but he can’t remember who he is or how he got here.)

What makes this paragraph so compelling? The paragraph is narrated from the struggling man’s point of view, and we get the scene through his senses, building our sympathy with him. Strong, well chosen nouns (ice, frost, goose bumps, tendons, salt, dark stones) and verbs (carved, rippled, rolled, gasped, scouring, gagging, scrabbling) engage nearly every physical sense and put the reader uncomfortably and vividly into this situation.

And how do you describe to a sheltered, cubicle dwelling reader what it might feel like to nearly drown in the sea? Relate it to experiences the reader has had: Feeling naked and cold, maybe at the doctor’s office. Being in the ocean and feeling a fish — or something — brush past your legs. Tasting saltwater. Being tugged by a rip current. Crawling like a child. Note how these details also evoke a desolate, desperate mood, without Sakey having to write, “He was worried he was about to die. He hoped there was some way he could get out of the sea alive.”

What does Sakey choose not to do in this paragraph? Tell us what state, country or even ocean we’re in. Give us the character’s name, occupation, age, or biography. (Partly, this serves the particular amnesia story, but even if that weren’t the plot, we wouldn’t have gotten much more than the name). Start the story in happier times, to show us what this man’s life was like before all this happened to him (he gets to that in later chapters).

It’s a paragraph that compels you to read more. So click READ MORE below and leave me your comments on the paragraph and my analysis, including anything you disagree with. I’ll continue this series of posts tomorrow by telling you what I found compelling in the rest of the first chapter.

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