First Chapter Analysis: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
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 Legendborn by Tracy Deonn 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 two scenes that follow Bree Matthews as she hangs out with her friends at Eno State Park. Here’s a summary of what happens:
In this chapter, Bree and Alice are at the Eno State Park watching students from UNC jump off a cliff into the water below. Alice is unhappy about breaking the rules on their first night at Early College, but Bree wants to do anything besides sit in her room and think about her deceased mother. When Alice decides to go off with some other friends, Bree stays behind and contemplates jumping. However, a guy named Selwyn Kane appears and warns her not to jump. Bree feels electricity—and some attraction—when Sel looks at her, but when he asks her if she feels something, Bree lies and says no. They hear a scream (and shouts from the party) and Sel runs off. Bree follows looking for her friends. She comes across a fight between four football players and sees something shimmering above them. Sel makes eye contact and telepathically commands Bree to leave. She does leave, but not before seeing the shimmer turn into something a little more corporeal (we’ll later learn this is a demon).
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 Tracy Deonn did this in this very first chapter of her book, Legendborn. 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?
Legendborn is a contemporary YA fantasy novel. In this first chapter we see three really important things—1) Bree’s internal obstacle (the fact that she has not come to terms with losing her mom yet), 2) the central conflict (the demon appearing amongst this group of kids), and 3) a glimmer of magic (via the way Sel deals with the demon and how he telepathically commands Bree to leave). So, right away, we already know what this story is going to be about—and now we’re pulled into the story, eager to find out how everything will come together, and how things will ultimately 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 Legendborn is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres.
On the surface, we get pulled into the world of the Legendborn—descendants from fifteen of King Arthur's knights—tasked with keeping the world safe from demons. Throughout the story, Bree faces escalating danger as the demon threat increases and as she participates in tests and trials to become a Page.
But this story is also about generational trauma and coming to terms with losing a loved one. As Bree navigates the external plot, she must also change her worldview about what it means to exist in this world without her mother. We see her grapple with this internal obstacle in the very first chapter, and it’s only when she comes to terms with her mother’s death that she can survive the external conflict.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
This chapter follows the perspective of Bree Matthews as she hangs out with her friends at Eno State Park. The story is told in the first-person point-of-view, which is a great choice because it allows the reader to connect with Bree on a deeper level.
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
In this opening chapter, the reader’s focus is on Bree because she’s the protagonist! We know that she’s just arrived at UNC with her best friend Alice, and that she’s really struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death. We immediately empathize with her, and our interest is piqued once she interacts with Sel (and sees the demon).
As readers, we’re wondering things like… What really happened to Bree’s mom? Will she ever learn the truth about her death? Who are Sel and Tor? Why can they do magic? Why are there demons on this campus? And Tracy Deonn 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 place on the UNC campus and just outside the campus at Eno State Park. Most of the story unfolds on the UNC campus—it’s where the demons are getting into this world, and it’s the home of the Legendborn.
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
The primary emotion Tracy Deonn evokes in this opening chapter is concern for Bree and Alice. On one hand, it’s easy to empathize with Bree because she’s grieving the loss of her mother, and we want her to feel better. On the other hand, demons are present—and some of the kids can do magic—so we’re concerned for her in that regard, too. It’s clear that something dangerous is afoot here, but we don’t quite know what’s happening or why. We read to find out where the demons came from, to see what Bree can find out about Sel and the Legendborn, and to see if she’ll ever learn the truth about (and come to terms with) her mother’s death.
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
The stakes in an action story center around life and death. In this opening chapter, Bree came face to face with danger (and possible death) in more ways than one. She contemplates cliff jumping, she interacts with a very powerful Merlin (Sel) who could harm her, and she comes into close proximity with a lethal demon. Because of this (and because the author did an excellent job setting up Bree’s inner obstacle), we keep reading to find out what’s going to happen and how everything will connect. We want to see how Bree will find the truth about her mother and what’ll happen once she interacts with Sel, the Legendborn, and of course, the demons. So, as you can see, Tracy Deonn 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 - Bree POV
In this scene, Bree’s goal is to join Charlotte and the other kids for a fun night out at the Quarry. There's a party and it's tradition to jump off the cliffs there. But also, she can't just sit in her room—that's when memories of mom creep in.
- Inciting Incident: Evan (Charlotte's boyfriend) recognizes Bree as "the girl whose mom died."
- Turning Point: Alice wants to leave to avoid getting in trouble.
- Crisis: Should Bree go back to the dorm room with Alice? Or stay out with the other kids and risk getting into trouble (or worse)?
- Climax: Bree says she'll meet up with Alice later.
- Resolution: Bree meets (and has a strange encounter with) Selwyn Kane; somewhere in the distance, Alice screams.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with Bree joining the other kids at the Quarry to escape memories of her mother. The main conflict surfaces when Evan recognizes her as the “girl whose mom died” from Charlotte’s stories. Because of this encounter, Bree and Alice separate, which results in Bree coming face to face with Sel. Although Bree doesn’t know it yet, Sel is a very powerful Merlin and he’s on the hunt for anyone who might be letting demons into this world. By meeting Sel (and by following him into the next scene), Bree moves away from safety and into a slight bit of danger.
Chapter #1 - Scene #2 - Bree POV
In this scene, Bree’s goal is to find Alice and figure out what made her scream like that. Are they in danger? What's happening?
- Inciting Incident: Bree comes across a group of boys fighting. She sees a flicker of light above their heads and it triggers a memory.
- Turning Point: No one else can see the flickering creature except Selwyn; he mesmers her, asking her to leave (but it doesn't work 100%).
- Crisis: Go and find Alice and Charlotte (and hide her curiosity like she hides her grief)? Or stay and figure out what's happening here?
- Climax: Before she can decide, smoke and flame envelop Sel.
- Resolution: Bree sees Sel and Tor takedown the creature with their magic. The creature says it's feeding, but not by "my gate." Bree runs.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with Bree finding Alice—that is her scene goal. The main conflict surfaces when she sees a shimmering creature floating above the football players’ heads, which distracts her from finding Alice. When she refuses to leave per Sel’s telepathic command, she moves even closer to literal physical danger as she watches Sel and Tor take down the demon.
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts Bree? 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!