First Chapter Analysis: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

story structure
First Chapter Analysis: "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

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 Magicians by Lev Grosman. 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 to 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:

Quentin Coldwater and his two friends (James and Julia) walk through Brooklyn on their way to a college interview. James and Julia are dating, which Quentin dislikes because he’s attracted to Julia. However, he keeps his thoughts to himself because he knows she will never reciprocate his feelings. As they walk, Quentin loses himself in his thoughts. He knows he should be happy, but he’s not. Ultimately, his thoughts drift to his favorite fantasy book series, Fillory and Further. There are five books in total, and they follow the adventures of the five Chatwin children through the magical land of Fillory. Though almost an adult, Quentin remains engrossed by the books and often escapes into the world of Fillory when he finds real life too difficult to cope with. 

When they arrive at the building where the Princeton interview will take place, Julia leaves for the library, and Quentin and James enter the house. After briefly wandering around the front room, Quentin spots a dead body on the floor of the den. Fifteen minutes later, the paramedics arrive, and one of the paramedics tells Quentin the man died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Then, she hands Quentin and James an envelope with their name on it, but only Quentin agrees to take his. 

After leaving the house, Quentin and James separate; James goes to the library to find Julia while Quentin looks in the envelope. To his surprise, he finds a notebook entitled “The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further.” He turns the page and finds a note, but it gets picked up by the wind and flies away before he can read it. Quentin follows the piece of paper into a neglected garden, and things go quiet, the din of the city nowhere to be heard. Feeling suddenly nauseous, he closes his eyes, and when he opens them, he finds himself standing under a deep blue sky, staring at a great green lawn and a large stone house. A tall, skinny teenager greets him, and Quentin asks, “Is this Fillory?” And the boy says, “No, this is Upstate New York.”

So, that’s what happens in the first chapter. 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 Lev Grossman did this in this very first chapter of The Magicians. And to do this, we will 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 Magicians is an adult fantasy novel that follows 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater through his college years. In this first chapter, we are immediately introduced to the fact that there will be magical elements in this story—and that there will be a little bit of dark humor that goes right alongside the more serious topics, too.

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? What’s underneath the commercial genre label

Despite many action elements, The Magicians is primarily a worldview story. In this opening chapter, we learn that Quentin Coldwater believes there’s more to life elsewhere. That if he was somewhere else, maybe he could finally be happy.  

Once he discovers that magic and Fillory are real, he thinks that magic (and eventually being in Fillory) will solve all his problems and finally make him happy. But unfortunately, just like the real world, both magic and Fillory have their own set of problems—and everything in the plot forces Quentin to reconsider his worldview and to find happiness within himself instead.

This opening chapter introduces readers to the idea that a) Quentin has an outdated worldview that isn’t serving him, and b) he will either find the happiness he seeks or remain unhappy despite the ever-changing circumstances. We read forward to find out how Quentin will fare once he gets to the magical world of Brakebills and Fillory.

3. POV: Who is telling the story?  

The Magicians is written in the third person limited, following Quentin Coldwater’s perspective. This decision makes sense because it truly is Quentin’s story—and we must understand his worldview (and get access to only his interiority) for the story to have its intended effect on readers.

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

As readers, we can’t help but care about Quentin Coldwater in this opening chapter. Even if we’ve never felt the same kind of ennui that Quentin feels, we all know what it’s like to want something more. We all want to be the hero (or heroine) of our own story, so it’s easy to empathize with Quentin and root for him to find happiness (whatever that looks like). On the flip side, many of us know what it’s like to put something or someone on a pedestal—and Quentin does that with James, Julia, and even Fillory. From this opening chapter, we can infer that Quentin’s going to learn some hard (yet rewarding) truths about life, and this is exactly what Grossman delivers throughout the rest of the story. Pretty cool, right?

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

This chapter takes place in November in Brooklyn, New York, during Quentin’s final year in high school. Specifically, we follow Quentin and James into a man’s house (the man who is supposed to interview them for Princeton), then through an overgrown garden, and ultimately onto the grounds of Brakebills. 

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

There are three main emotions I think we all feel when reading this first chapter–curiosity, concern, and wonder. We’re concerned about Quentin because we’ve heard all about how unhappy he is in this first chapter. We’re curious about the strange interaction with the paramedic and the envelope she gave him that led Quentin to Brakebills. We also feel a sense of wonder while reading this opening chapter because it’s obvious Quentin went through some kind of magical portal to arrive at Brakebills, but we don’t understand how the magic works yet. We read on to find out if this (Brakebills) is the magical world Quentin has been so desperate to be a part of—and if so, we’re eager to find out how everything works there. If you consider the rest of the book, these are the perfect feelings to evoke in readers from page one!

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

This opening chapter raises a lot of questions for readers. Is magic real? What is Brakebills, and how did he get there? Will there be consequences for not going home? Why did the paramedic give him an unpublished Fillory book? What is the significance of Quentin taking the envelope versus James not taking the envelope? Will Quentin ever see James and Julia again? What will happen next? As readers, we want the answers to these questions, so we keep reading.

But this opening chapter also sets up the stakes for the entire story, too. Quentin is so unhappy—and as readers, we want him to find happiness. Once he crosses through the magical barrier to Brakebills, we hope he’s finally going to find the happiness he’s looking for. In other words, we feel the same as Quentin does about this new adventure—a little skeptical but mostly hopeful that this will finally make him happy. 

So, as you can see, Grossman definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know it’s going to be about 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater and his search for happiness and belonging. Along the way, he will make friends, experience magic and magical creatures, and go on the kind of adventure he’s always longed for. We read on to find out whether the magical world will bring Quentin the happiness he seeks. 

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: Quentin’s POV

In this scene, Quentin’s goal is to complete his Princeton interview. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of Quentin’s goal in this scene:

  1. Inciting Incident: Quentin and James arrive at the man’s house, but nobody answers the door when they knock.
  2. Turning Point: A few minutes later, they knock again, and the door creaks open.
  3. Crisis: Should Quentin continue to wait outside and potentially miss his interview? Or should he step inside the man’s house and potentially offend him?
  4. Climax: Quentin goes into the man’s house and secretly hopes this will kick off an adventure like it does in his favorite fantasy books.
  5. Resolution: Quentin explores the front room (including a large, mysterious-looking cabinet) and sees a dead body on the floor.

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene is whether or not Quentin succeeds with his interview. The main conflict surfaces when it appears nobody is home, and Quentin decides to step into the man’s house. Once inside, Quentin sees a giant cabinet that looks just like the mysterious, magical cabinets and clocks the Chatwin children stepped through in the Fillory books. He secretly hopes this will be the start of a great adventure but ends the scene feeling embarrassed that he actually tried to find a secret back door in the cabinet. But also? There’s a dead body on the floor that tells us (and Quentin) that he will not be doing his Princeton interview today. So, he has not accomplished his scene goal, but he has successfully been pulled into the central conflict just a bit more.

Now, let’s take a look at the second scene…

Chapter #1 - Scene #2: Quentin Coldwater

In this scene, Quentin’s goal is to leave the man’s house before he gets too involved. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of Quentin’s goal in this scene:

  1. Inciting Incident: The paramedic takes an interest in Quentin, not James.
  2. Turning Point: Quentin and James try to leave, but the paramedic stops them and tries to give them each an envelope with their name on it.
  3. Crisis: Should Quentin take the envelope with his name on it even though he doesn’t know what’s inside? Or should he decline and possibly miss out on an adventure and/or something he needs for college?
  4. Climax: Quentin takes his envelope. James declines.
  5. Resolution: Quentin and James leave the man’s house, but they’re not upset with each other over the whole encounter (and the envelopes). James leaves to meet Julia at the library.

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene is around whether or not Quentin leaves the man’s house without getting too involved. The central conflict starts when the paramedic takes an interest in Quentin, not James—this never happens! And because of this, Quentin does end up hanging around despite wanting to leave. When Quentin takes the envelope from the paramedic, he unknowingly holds the key to everything he’s ever wanted—magic and Fillory. So, he did accomplish his goal in this scene—he did end up leaving the man’s house—but he’s also been pulled even deeper into the central conflict without even knowing it.

Chapter #1 - Scene #3: Quentin Coldwater

In this scene, Quentin’s goal is to go home (and figure out how to explain everything to his parents once he gets there). So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of Quentin’s goal in this scene:

  1. Inciting Incident: Quentin opens the envelope and finds an unpublished manuscript titled “Book 6 Fillory and Further.”
  2. Turning Point: While chasing the note through the unkempt garden, everything goes quiet—there are no sirens, no car horns, and no stereos. 
  3. Crisis: Should Quentin turn back and risk never finding out what the note said? Or should he keep going despite something strange happening (and/or despite the physical discomfort he’s feeling right now)?
  4. Climax: Quentin keeps going.
  5. Resolution: He feels nauseous and confused but eventually comes out on the other side of the garden into a completely different climate. 

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene is around whether Quentin makes it back to his parent’s house or not. The central conflict kicks in when he opens the envelope and finds the manuscript with a note tucked inside. Once he crosses through the garden and ends up on the Brakebills campus. So, Quentin did not accomplish his goal in this scene, it’s clear his life is about to change forever. 

Final Thoughts

Can you see how all the scenes within this first chapter move the plot of the story forward and impact Quentin’s character arc? 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 dig into popular stories with Abigail and me in our quarterly book club? Click here to learn more about Book Notes—a virtual book club for writers!

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 →