First Chapter Analysis: The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

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First Chapter Analysis: The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

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 The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom. And we’ll look at the chapter in two different ways:

  1. Macro: How does this chapter give readers insight into what the story is about? 
  2. 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:

It’s Eddie’s 83rd birthday and he’s spending the day working at an amusement park near the ocean. His job is to maintain the rides to prevent accidents and to keep the guests safe. Eddie has worked at this amusement park for so long that many of the customers know him by name, even calling him “Eddie Maintenance” because of the patch on his uniform shirt. While enjoying some downtime on his break, Eddie thinks about the past including how Ruby Pier looked when he was a child, his time spent as a soldier in the war, and the day he met his wife. He makes a pipe cleaner animal for a little girl he recognizes—Amy or Annie—and all seems normal until he hears someone scream. He rushes to Freddy’s Free Fall, a ride that drops two cars down a steep tower, and notices that one of the cars has come loose at the top. Eddie instructs the crew to climb to the top and manually release the safety belt so they can get the riders out of the car. However, as Eddie runs the scenario through his head, he realizes that the cable is unraveling. Unbeknownst to him, a boy named Nicky, lost his car key on the ride weeks ago and it is rubbing against the cable. If they drop the car, the brakes will not stop it. Eddie tries to warn the crew, but the crowd noise drowns out his voice. As the car begins to fall, Eddie realizes the child, Amy or Annie, is in the way. He rushes toward her and feels “two small hands” in his own.

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 Mitch Albom did this in this very first chapter of The Five People You Meet In Heaven. 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?

The Five People You Meet In Heaven is listed on Amazon in categories like Commercial Fiction and Inspirational Fiction for readers age 13+. Although “Commercial Fiction” is a bit of a vague (or general) category, we definitely get the sense that this story will be inspirational within this first chapter. The protagonist, Eddie, risks his life to save a young girl—and ends up dying to save her. From the start, readers can expect to be inspired by Eddie’s story as he ventures into Heaven.

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? The Five People You Meet In Heaven is primarily a worldview (internal) story that focuses on Eddie’s perception of himself and his life. 

Yes, there are life and death stakes in this first chapter—Eddie dies saving the young girl—but we don’t read on to find out whether he will survive or not. We know he dies. We read on to find out how Eddie feels about his life. Did it have meaning? Did he lead a good life? Was he a good person? As readers, we have assumptions coming out of chapter one, but we want to see how Eddie will reconcile what he believes about himself and his life versus what others believe. 

This opening chapter does a great job of setting up expectations for the rest of the book. From the back cover, we know Eddie will meet five different people in Heaven—and we can assume (from this first chapter) that Eddie’s worldview and beliefs will be challenged as he meets each person.

3. POV: Who is telling the story?  

This story is written from an omniscient perspective. When readers meet Eddie on page one, he’s very biased when it comes to his own value and the meaning of his life. But because of the omniscient narrator, we get to see Eddie through the eyes of the other characters present in this chapter. As readers, the omniscient narrator gives us an unbiased look at Eddie’s life and actions, and lets us make our own decision about whether or not Eddie’s life has value and meaning.

4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?

As readers, we can’t help but care about Eddie in this opening chapter—all of the narrator’s focus is on Eddie, and it’s truly his story. We root for Eddie because we see (through the eyes of the omniscient narrator) that he’s an innately good person, even if he’s a bit grumbly in this opening chapter. 

But we also care and worry about the young girl (Amy or Annie). We wonder things like… Did Eddie actually save the girl? Or did they both die? What’s going to happen when Eddie goes to Heaven? Who will Eddie meet and what will they teach him? And these are exactly the questions Mitch Albom answers throughout the story!

5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place? 

This chapter takes place at an amusement park on Ruby Pier. This is where Eddie spends most of his time and has the most interactions with other people. It’s also where Eddie spends the last day of his life, which makes it the perfect place to open the story.

6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?

The primary emotion we feel in this opening chapter is sadness and/or concern for Eddie. He doesn’t see his own value and is struggling with finding the meaning in his life. As readers, we hope that he’ll find his purpose by the end of the story–and that he’ll find that sense of meaning he’s lacking in the beginning. Beyond that, we’re curious about what actually happened. Did he save the little girl? Did they both die? What happened? If you consider the rest of the book, these are the perfect feelings and questions to evoke in readers from page one. We read forward to get the answers to our questions and to satisfy our curiosity and concern. 

7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next? 

As readers, we care about whether Eddie (and the girl) lives or dies—but there’s more to this first chapter than just life or death stakes. We already know Eddie’s going to die based on the back cover copy. So, in this opening chapter, the internal stakes feel louder than the external stakes. If Eddie didn’t take action to save the girl, he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. His sense of meaning and purpose would have (most likely) gone backwards. When he gets to Heaven, he’s constantly asking, “Did I save that little girl?” He’s looking for meaning in his final action, but isn’t given the answer until the very end of the story. We read forward to find out the answer to this question, too. We’re right there with Eddie wondering a) what actually happened, and b) if the answer to this question will give Eddie the meaning he’s so desperately seeking.

So, as you can see, Mitch Albom definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know it’s going to be about Eddie searching for a sense of meaning and purpose. And based on the back cover copy, we know the five people he meets in Heaven will aid him on this journey. So, it’s a fantastic opening chapter for an internal, character-driven story like this—one that all writers can learn a lot from!

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 - Scene #1 - Omniscient POV

In this scene, Eddie’s goal is to go through the motions of a normal day at the amusement park. He wants to do his job and keep all the guests safe. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in Eddie’s way as he pursues this goal:

    • Inciting Incident: Eddie hears someone scream.
    • Turning Point: Eddie sees the girl (Annie or Amy) underneath the falling ride.
    • Crisis: Should Eddie do something to help the child and risk his own safety? Or should he do nothing and let the girl die (or at best, get seriously injured)?
    • Climax: Eddie runs forward.
    • Resolution: Eddie feels the girl's hands in his own; Eddie dies.

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with whether or not Eddie will keep the patrons of Ruby Park safe by doing his day-to-day maintenance work. The conflict kicks in when someone on Freddy’s Free Fall (one of the rides) screams, indicating that something has gone terribly wrong. Eddie taking action to save the young girl from the falling ride cart is Eddie acting on his life’s purpose—but he doesn’t know it yet. Although Eddie dies, this scene moves him in a positive direction in terms of understanding his life’s purpose and meaning. This scene puts him on the path towards meeting the five people who will help him see his value and innate goodness.

Final Thoughts

So, can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts 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!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →