First Chapter Analysis: Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover
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 Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover. 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 and 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 Tate Collins as she moves into her brother’s apartment building. Here’s a summary of what happens:
In this scene, Tate Collins has just made the long drive up the coast of California, and all she wants to do is settle into her brother's apartment and get some sleep. Unfortunately, there's a drunk man sleeping outside her brother's door, blocking the entrance. Tate calls Corbin (her brother) and stays on the phone with him while she tries to ease past the man. He grabs her ankle, and she slams the door on him, only to realize she left her purse and suitcase in the hallway. Corbin calls his neighbor and friend, Miles, to assist Tate with getting her belongings in the room, but when Corbin calls Tate back, he asks her for a favor: Miles, his neighbor, is the one who is drunk outside the room, and Corbin asks her to let him crash on the couch. Tate is not happy about it, but her older brother is protective of her, and she knows Corbin would never put her in danger, so she helps Miles inside the apartment and onto the couch. Tate quickly realizes that Miles is attractive, but she's super confused by his behavior! He's drunk, apologizing and crying profusely, and calling her Rachel over and over again. She's uncomfortable, but she can tell that Miles is genuinely remorseful (for whatever he did to this Rachel person), and she feels bad for him. Because she's such a kind and empathetic person, she strokes his hair to help calm him down, and then retreats to her bed once he has fallen asleep.
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 Colleen Hoover did this in this very first chapter of her book, Ugly Love. 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?
Ugly Love is a contemporary romance novel, and in this first chapter, we get to see Tate and Miles meet for the very first time. Right away, we know this is going to be a story about their relationship—and we’re hoping we’ll see them get together by the end.
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 Ugly Love is a combination of the love (external) and worldview (internal) content genres.
On the surface, we follow the relationship between Tate and Miles, and we root for them to get together (and stay together). But this story is also about coming to terms with the past and overcoming your fears. It shows us that it’s okay to be afraid (as long as you don’t let fear stop you from moving forward), and that sometimes love will equal pain (but not always). In the very first chapter, we see Miles deal with this internal struggle the most—he’s feeling a lot of pain over a past loss.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
This chapter follows the perspective of Tate Collins as she moves into her brother’s apartment building. The story is told in the first person point-of-view, and it is written in the present tense. This is a great choice because it allows the reader to connect with Tate on a deeper level.
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
In this opening chapter, the reader’s focus is on Tate because she’s the protagonist. We know that she’s moved to San Francisco to further her nursing career, so we root for her to succeed. But once she meets Miles, and realizes that he’s in extreme emotional pain, both Tate and the reader end the scene feeling concerned for him.
As readers, we’re wondering things like… What happened to Miles? Will he and Tate get together? How will his past (and this Rachel person) affect their relationship? And Colleen Hoover 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 Corbin’s apartment building in San Francisco. Most of the story unfolds here, and it’s this setting that helps bring Tate and Miles together (and keeps them in close proximity throughout the story).
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
The primary emotion Colleen Hoover evokes in this opening chapter is concern—mainly for Miles. It’s very clear that something bad has happened to him, but we don’t know what or when. We read to find out what made him this upset, but also to find out if he’s going to get together with Tate or not.
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
We care about what happens next because we know Tate has come to San Francisco to further her nursing career. But once she meets Miles, we wonder if she’ll be able to focus on her studies now that he’s in the picture. Also, it’s clear that Miles has to heal from whatever’s causing him so much grief. If they do get together, will Miles’s inner obstacle sabotage the relationship? We don’t want Tate or Miles to get hurt because we care about them from the start.
So, as you can see, Colleen Hoover definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know that it’s going to be about these two characters (Tate and Miles) navigating their inner obstacles in the midst of a budding romantic relationship. And based on the title, we know that parts of their relationship might be “ugly.” 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 - Tate POV
In this scene, Tate wants to settle into her brother’s apartment so that she can start her new life in San Francisco and focus on getting her masters. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of his goal in this scene:
- Inciting Incident: There's a drunk man outside Corbin's apartment.
- Turning Point: Corbin asks her to bring Miles inside the apartment.
- Crisis: Should Tate bring Miles into the apartment, trusting Corbin's word? Or should she leave Miles outside, and risk Corbin being upset?
- Climax: Tate brings him into the apartment.
- Resolution: Tate sets herself up in the apartment; she takes care of Miles pretty tenderly; Miles breaks down about Rachel.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with Tate getting to her brother’s apartment—that is her scene goal. The main conflict surfaces when she notices a drunk man leaning against her brother’s apartment door. This initial meeting changes the dynamic of Miles and Tate’s relationship, and they go from being strangers to being neighbors and acquaintances. It tracks on the global value spectrum because it brings the couple together.
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts both Tate and Miles? 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!