First Chapter Analysis: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
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 A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. 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 to either one of our podcasts.
Chapter 1 Summary
This opening chapter includes one scene that follows Diana Bishop as she studies old manuscripts in the library. Here’s a summary of what happens:
Dr. Diana Bishop discovers an unusual book (known as Ashmole 782) while researching 17th-century chemistry at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Diana immediately senses that the book has supernatural powers because she’s a witch, and she can sense these things even though she rejects this part of her heritage. She resists her own magical powers because she blames her parents’ magic for their disappearance and death, so instead, she relies on research and science to direct her own life. And so far, it’s worked out for her—she’s a published author and a tenured faculty member at Yale. But while examining Ashmole 782, Diana struggles to treat it as just a regular book—it sighs and refuses to open until she lays her hand on it. And inside, the illustrations seem to be alchemically incorrect. There’s no accompanying explanatory text, but Diana comes to realize that this book is a palimpsest: a manuscript that has been erased and written over with new text. And to complicate matters even more, the original writing is hidden by a spell. Disconcerted and determined not to get involved with magic, Diana sends the book back to the stacks. There’s also another character present in this chapter, Gillian Chamberlain (a fellow witch), who tries unsuccessfully to get Diana to join the local coven in a celebration of Mabon (the autumnal equinox holiday).
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 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 Deborah Harkness did this in this very first chapter of her book, A Discovery of Witches. 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?
A Discovery of Witches is a romantic fantasy novel for adults. In the opening chapter, we meet Diana Bishop, the protagonist, as she’s researching in the library for an upcoming presentation. We find out almost immediately that Diana is a witch but that she doesn’t practice magic because she blames magic for the death of her parents. Instead, she relies on knowledge and logic and prides herself on being practical in all things. The author also shows us that something strange is afoot as Diana interacts with one particular manuscript that she calls Ashmole 782. Right away, we know what this story is going to be about—Diana’s a witch, there’s something magical and strange happening with Ashmole 782, and we read on to find out what’s going to happen next.
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 A Discovery of Witches is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres.
A Discovery of Witches is primarily an action story because the plot revolves around acquiring a manuscript (called Ashmole 782) that has been missing since 1859. Witches, demons, and vampires all want to get their hands on this manuscript because they believe it holds secrets specific to their species—and where they came from—and they’ll go to extraordinary (and dangerous) measures to acquire it.
Meanwhile, the Congregation, which makes all the rules in the magical world, does not want this manuscript to be found. As a witch, Diana is caught in the middle of this hunt for Ashmole 782—and things only get more dangerous for her when she meets (and falls in love with) Matthew Clairmont and enters his world full of vampires.
But beneath this exciting plot (and the life and death stakes), Diana must update her worldview and accept (and use!) her magical gifts if she wants to survive. She must come to terms with her parents’ death and integrate who she currently is with who she was always meant to be. We see her grapple with her magic vs. logic in the opening chapter, which she’ll continue to deal with throughout the story.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
Diana is the first-person narrator for most of the book, but the author occasionally switches to the third person to show perspectives from Matthew and his son Marcus. First-person POV is a great choice for Diana’s scenes because it allows readers to feel close to her and to immerse themselves in her perspective. Since Diana is the primary protagonist, it also makes sense that Matthew and Marcus’s scenes would be shown in the third person since this allows for a little more narrative distance—the same kind of distance Diana feels in relation to these characters.
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
In this opening chapter, the reader’s focus is on Diana Bishop. We connect with her because she’s smart, focused, and has a clear goal—she wants to do well on an upcoming presentation. We also feel sympathy for Diana because she’s had a rather rough childhood. She lost her parents before the age of thirteen and then had trouble finding her place in the world throughout high school and college. Because of all of this, we want Diana to get what she wants—we want her to be happy. But then she opens Ashmole 782 and discovers it’s a palimpsest, so by the end of this chapter, we’re just as curious about the manuscript as Diana is!
As readers, we’re wondering things like… What happened to the missing pages in Ashmole 782? Why did Diana feel a spark when she touched it? Why is this book a palimpsest? What do the hidden words say? Will Diana embrace her magic? Will she come to terms with her parent’s death? And Deborah Harkness answers these questions (and so many more) for us throughout the rest of the story!
5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place?
The opening chapter takes in the Bodleian Library (in Oxford), where Ashmole 782 currently resides. Throughout the story, we also travel to France and the United States as Diana and Matthew work to stay one step ahead of the Congregation and the other witches, demons, and vampires who all want Ashmole’s secrets.
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
This opening chapter does a fantastic job of evoking both curiosity and concern in readers. Right away, we’re told that something strange is happening—the air tingles, another witch is present in the library, and a manuscript shocks Diana when she touches it. As readers, we’re curious about Ashmole 782—especially because Diana keeps feeling drawn to it but won’t let herself explore it beyond the bare minimum for her research. We also learn it’s a palimpsest—a manuscript within a manuscript. Why? What does the hidden text say? Beyond that, we’re concerned for Diana because we understand what’s at stake for her now that we know her backstory. She believes magic is responsible for her parent’s death—so, if something magical is going on here, we can’t help but be a little worried. We read to discover what makes Ashmole 782 so significant and to see if Diana will ever embrace her magical abilities (and her past).
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
The stakes in an action story center around life and death. In this opening chapter, the author shows us (through Diana’s backstory) that using magic can result in danger and/or death. Diana admits that by opening Ashmole 782, she’s breached the wall that kept her magic separate from her scholarship, so we’re eager to find out what’ll happen now that she has. So, as you can see, Deborah Harkness definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story in this first chapter!
Micro Scene Structure Analysis
Now, let’s dig into the structure of the scene (or scenes!) 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 - Scene #1 - Diana POV
In this scene, Diana’s goal is to do research in the Bodleian Library to prepare for an upcoming presentation. But then:
- Inciting Incident: Sean stops her at the call desk. Her manuscripts are ready (early), and he has found Ashmole 782.
- Turning Point: Diana realizes Ashmole 782 possesses an otherworldly power—and it’s really, really hard to ignore!
- Crisis: Should Diana engage with the manuscript even though she doesn’t want to mix magic with her studies? Or should she put the manuscript back and risk missing out on something that could truly help with her presentation?
- Climax: Diana opens Ashmole 782 (and engages with magic).
- Resolution: After learning Ashmole 782 is a palimpsest, she sends it back to the stacks. The air in the library squeezes her and shimmers—something magical has just happened, but Diana isn’t sure what.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene concerns Diana’s research paper and how Ashmole 782 steals her focus. When Diana chooses to engage with Ashmole 782, knowing it’s “possessed by an otherworldly power,” she unknowingly sets off a chain of dominos that will pull her into the central conflict. So, although Diana is simply researching for her presentation—and interacting with a mysterious book—this scene does move her closer to the danger/death side of the action value spectrum.
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts Diana? 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!