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April 30, 2010 / Chersti Nieveen

analysis: construction of the first chapter

Ryan, Carrie. The Forest of Hands and Teeth. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Warning: This analysis contains spoilers. I take an in-depth look at what makes this book work and why. And it may only be helpful if you’ve actually read the book. However, continue reading at your own risk. For more information on the Friday Analysis, go here.

THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan

For a synopsis, click here.

For this book I’d love to talk about CONSTRUCTION OF THE FIRST CHAPTER.

My mother used to tell me about the ocean. She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away. She once showed me a picture that she said was my great-great-great-grandmother standing in the ocean as a child. It has been years since, and the picture was lost to fire long ago, but I remember it, faded and worn. A little girl surrounded by nothingness.

In my mother’s stories, passed down from her many greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking–that the water was filled with salt.

That is when I stopped believing about the ocean.

What works: This first chapter gives a framework for the story as a whole.

Why it works: When you arrive at the end, you realize that is has not only been set up since chapter one, but that the story has somehow come full circle. For this example, the protagonist, Mary, starts her story by describing the stories she’d heard about the ocean. Through this insight, she expresses her deep desire for something more. Throughout the book, this desire fuels her actions so that first, she is able to leave her village and go through the gates, and then later it gives her the courage to leave the safety of the gates and go into the unknown world. After that last action, Mary wakes up in the waves of the ocean. She has finally gotten what she desired for the whole book, so it’s not as unexpected as it might have been. Despite all she has given up, she achieved her goal in the end.

Hard Rule: The ending must meet the reader’s expectations. This does not mean that the ending is predictable. But even when the ending is a surprise, it should be clear that that is where the protagonist should have ended up. Note that Carrie Ryan’s perfect circular nature of the first chapter to the last doesn’t work with every story.

Bring it home: If you are finished with your story, examine the ending. Does it meet the reader’s expectations?

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