First Chapter Analysis: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
If you want to write a novel that hooks a reader’s interest, 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 the first chapter of a popular published novel.
So, in today’s post, we’re going to look at the first chapter of Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. 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. And 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 of our podcasts.
Chapter 1 Summary
Here’s a quick summary of the first chapter before we look at the high-level analysis of each scene within the chapter:
Right away, the narrator introduces the plot of the novel: “A bank robbery. A hostage drama.” The narrator also claims this novel is about many things, especially “idiots” and “one single really bad idea.” We meet the bank robber (and subsequent hostage taker) through the narrator’s perspective, and the narrator tells us that the bank robber left home with a gun, and then bad things happened.
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 must set expectations at 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 Fredrik Backman did this in this very first chapter of Anxious People. 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 in 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?
Anxious People is an upmarket novel for adults. This story prompts discussions about what we would do if we ever found ourselves in a hostage situation (or in a situation like the bank robber). And there’s more focus on the characters and the line-by-line writing than a typical commercial novel.
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 Anxious People is primarily a worldview (internal) story that unfolds within a crime (external) plot.
The author tells us on page one what this story is about, but we read forward to find out what the characters will do in this strange situation. Life is complicated, and so are these characters. We wonder things like, “Are these characters going to be okay? Will different worldviews and values clash? Will any unexpected relationships form? Did the bank robber make the right or wrong choice? What would we do in their shoes?”
This opening chapter does a great job of raising all of these questions in the reader’s mind—and it perfectly sets up our expectations for a worldview/crime story.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
This story is written in the third person omniscient with a very strong narrative voice. The omniscient narrator can report on events from outside the character’s perspective and dip into the character’s heads if they want to. If you’re looking for a great example of voice, this is a story worth checking out!
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
The bank robber! Yes, we care about the other people involved in this situation (because none of us want to be in a hostage situation, right?) but the narrator sets up the story in a way so that we care about the bank robber the most. The narrator even tells us that this was never intended to be a hostage situation, so our curiosity is piqued. How did this come about? Why is the bank robber doing this? What would we do? And those are exactly the questions Fredrik Backman will answer throughout the story!
5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place?
This chapter takes place in a small town outside of Stockholm. We don’t get a ton of setting details, but we do learn that the setting causes most of the escalating conflict in the setup. There’s no cash in the safe, and the robber makes a few wrong turns while trying to outrun the police.
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
There are two main emotions I think we all feel when reading this first chapter–curiosity and concern. We’re concerned about everyone in this hostage situation, and we want everyone to come out of it safely. But more than that, we’re curious about how these characters got into this situation in the first place. If you consider the rest of the book, these are the perfect feelings to evoke in readers from page one. We read forward to get the answers to these questions and to satisfy our curiosity and concern.
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
We care about everyone in the hostage situation, including the bank robber. But beyond these physical stakes, we care about how the hostage situation will impact each of the characters involved. These are the emotional or psychological stakes that make us want to read forward to see what happens and how this situation will impact these people.
So, as you can see, Backman definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know it’s going to be about a group of people in a hostage situation. The victims, the bank robber, and probably even the police.
Micro Scene Structure Analysis
Now, let’s dig into the structure of each one of the scenes within this 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 - Omniscient POV
In this scene, the narrator’s goal is to set the stage and introduce us to the central conflict. If we zoom into the character who takes the most action (or has the most at stake) in this opening chapter, we’d probably focus on the bank robber who wants to rob a bank for a very specific amount of money. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of the bank robber’s goal in this scene:
- Inciting Incident: The robbery gets messed up (we later learn this is because the bank robber robs a bank that doesn’t contain actual cash, it’s all virtual).
- Turning Point: The bank robber runs into a building that is the first door to present itself—this leads to a stairwell with no other exits.
- Crisis: Does the bank robber backtrack and risk getting caught by the police, or run up the stairs and hope for the best?
- Climax: The bank robber runs up the stairs
- Resolution: The bank robber, holding the pistol, is sweaty and out of breath when they run into an open door (it’s to an apartment that is for sale). This action causes a hostage drama until the bank robber eventually is forced to give up. The hostages exit the building and the police search the apartment for the bank robber, but the bank robber is missing.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene is around how everyone got into this situation—and whether or not the bank robber succeeds. The bank robber starts the scene desperate and determined to solve their money problems, and they see no other option than robbing a bank. By the end of the scene, their plan has flown out the window, and they’re feeling a little more anxious, especially now that they’re trapped in an apartment with several citizens. The external action impacts the internal landscape of each character—and we can see that in this opening chapter from the omniscient perspective.
Can you see how both scenes move the plot of the story forward and impact the characters involved? And how, ultimately, this first chapter does everything that a first chapter should do?
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.
Want to hear Abigail K. Perry and I break down other popular stories? Click here to check out past scene analysis episodes!