First Chapter Analysis: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
If you want to write a novel that hooks a reader’s interest, then you had better write an engaging first chapter. But how exactly do you do that?
Since I’ve already provided resources on how to write a solid set of opening pages, and the big mistakes to avoid when writing your opening pages, I thought it would be fun to step back and analyze a first chapter of a popular published novel.
In today’s post, we’re going to look at the first chapter of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. And we’ll look at the chapter in two different ways:
- Macro: How does this chapter give readers insight into what the story is about?
- Micro: How does each scene advance the plot and character development?
This way, you’ll be able to see the first chapter from a big-picture lens as well as on the smaller, scene level, too. Ideally, you’ll be able to implement some of what you learn into your own first chapter as well.
A special note for listeners of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast: In the episode that goes along with this blog post, I’m joined by an extra-special guest, and the host of the LitMatch podcast, Abigail Perry. If you want to hear our full discussion of this opening chapter, you can tune in on either one of our podcasts.
Chapter 1 Summary
This opening chapter includes one complete scene that follows Addie LaRue who wakes up in a boy named Toby’s apartment. Here’s a summary of what happens:
In this scene, a young woman named Addie LaRue wakes up next to a songwriter named Toby. Though they have spent many nights together, he never remembers her in the morning. This is because Addie has a curse that grants her eternal life but makes it impossible for anyone to remember her the moment she leaves their presence. Embarrassed, Toby assumes that he got too drunk to remember going home with Addie. Meanwhile, Addie plays a song on the piano that Toby does not remember but that they’ve been working on writing over the past few dates. Without the ability to bring pen to paper herself, this is how she leaves her mark over the years: by inspiring artists and musicians.
Now, when analyzing any opening chapter, whether it's from a published novel or a messy first draft, the first thing I look for is a glimpse of the big picture. So, what is this story really about?
Big Picture Macro Analysis
As writers, we need to set expectations in the beginning of our stories, and then work to deliver on those expectations throughout the middle and end. In other words, we need to show readers exactly what kind of story they’re in for, and then deliver that story scene by scene.
Let’s take a look at how V.E. Schwab did this in this very first chapter of her book, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. And to do this, we’re going to use seven questions from Paula Munier’s book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.
1. GENRE: What kind of story is it?
I like to look at genres two ways–commercial vs. content genres. For this first question, I usually think in terms of the commercial genre. So, where would this novel sit on a shelf in a bookstore? And how does this first chapter set up the readers’ expectations from a commercial genre standpoint?
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a dual-timeline fantasy with a dash of romance. In this very first chapter, we get both flavors. Addie wakes up next to her current love interest, Toby, and for some reason, he has no memory of meeting her the night before. Right away, we know this is going to be a fantasy story and we know that Addie is going to struggle with people not remembering her. Already, we’re sympathizing with her and hoping that she’ll find someone who remembers.
2. PLOT: What is the story really about?
For this question, I like to look at the content genre of the story. So, what is the story really going to be about? And The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a combination of the horror (external) and worldview (internal) content genres.
On the surface, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is about a young French woman in 1714 who makes a bargain with the devil that makes her immortal, but curses her to be forgotten by everyone she meets—except Henry Strauss. But it's also about what it means to make your mark on the world—and what someone might give up (or sacrifice) in order to feel free and live an authentic, meaningful existence. It's also about having courage and perseverance.
We chose horror as the primary external genre of this story because although Addie is immortal, her soul is at stake. As soon as she gives up the will to live an immortal life, Luc will destroy her and take her soul. Although we don’t know all the details yet, we see the impact of this curse on Addie’s life in this very first chapter.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
This chapter follows the perspective of Addie LaRue as she wakes up in her most current lover’s apartment. The story is told by an omniscient narrator. We know this because the narrator can move through time and comment on past or future events.
"Seven years from now, Addie will see a puppet show being put on in a Paris square. A curtained cart, with a man behind, hands raised to hold aloft the little wooden figures, their limbs dancing up and down with twine. And she will think of this night. This dinner." (Page 145)
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
In this opening chapter, readers are drawn to Addie because we’re mostly following her perspective. We learn that she has been lonely for 300 years and longs for human connection. We relate (even though we aren’t cursed) and want her to find happiness.
As readers, we’re wondering things like… How did this happen? Why does Addie think living all this time without real human connection is worth it? What will happen to Addie? And V.E. Schwab answers these questions for us throughout the rest of the story.
5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place?
The opening chapter takes place in New York City (as does most of the present day timeline). It makes sense that the author chose to start the story here (rather than in the past timeline) since this is the setting that will ultimately bring Addie and Henry together and allow their relationship to blossom.
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
The primary emotion V.E. Schwab evokes in this opening chapter is concern for Addie LaRue. We don’t know all the details of her curse yet, but it’s pretty clear that she leads a very lonely life where not a single person remembers her. We read the rest of the story to find out if Addie will find a way to break this curese and/or if she will ever find a meaningful connection with someone who does remember.
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
We care about what happens next because we want someone to remember Addie. Everytime she interacts with a new person, we hope that this will be the person who remembers. We also learn that Addie is dreading the reappearance of someone (Luc), but we don’t know who or why just yet. Once the author takes us back into Addie’s past (and starts filling in some of the blanks for us), we care even more for Addie and we hope that she can overcome the bargain she made with Luc.
So, as you can see, V.E. Schwab definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know that it’s going to be about Addie LaRue searching for a meaningful connection with someone, despite being cursed so that everyone forgets her. We read on to find out exactly how things will unfold.
Micro Scene Structure Analysis
Now, let’s dig into the structure of the scene within this first chapter so we can see how and why everything works. To do this, we’re going to use the scene structure I laid out in this article. If you’re a fan of The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, you will recognize this structure.
Chapter #1 - Addie POV
In this scene, Addie is torn between wanting to leave Toby’s apartment (because she can’t bear seeing his face when he doesn’t remember her) and wanting to stay (because she likes Toby and she’s slowly leaving her mark on the world through the song they’re creating together). So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of his goal in this scene:
- Inciting Incident: Toby begins to stir in bed next to Addie.
- Turning Point: She hears Toby getting up (from the living room).
- Crisis: Should Addie make a run for it to trap their moment together in amber? Or should she stay and face him not remembering?
- Climax: Addie stays and braces herself.
- Resolution: As expected, Toby does not remember her. They have an awkward conversation and Addie re-teaches him "their" song. She promises to go see his band play later (though he won't remember her).
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene involves the relationship between Addie and Toby. Addie knows he’s not going to remember her, but it’s clear that she holds out a small bit of hope that he might. The main conflict surfaces when Toby starts to wake up, and eventually gets out of bed. Before Toby comes into the living room, Addie still has a chance to keep last night as a beautiful memory if she leaves. Once she decides to stay, it’s only a matter of seconds before that beautiful memory is replaced with the harsh reality of Toby forgetting her. This tracks on the global value spectrum because every time someone forgets, it pushes Addie a little bit closer to giving into Luc (and giving him her soul).
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts Addie LaRue? Ultimately, this first chapter does everything that a first chapter should do, and it makes us keep reading to find out what will happen next.
I encourage you to look at your first chapter through this macro and micro lens to make sure that you’re delivering enough of the big picture to your readers. This is also a fantastic exercise to do with the opening chapter of your favorite novels, too. You will learn so much and your writing will improve as a result.
If you liked this first chapter breakdown, you’d love our book club! Once a quarter, Abigail and I choose a book to study, and then we meet online to engage in a craft-based discussion. Click here to learn more or to join our book club!