First Chapter Analysis: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

story structure

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 Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, 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. 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

The opening chapter of this story does not include a full scene. Here’s a very quick summary of what happens:

In this chapter, 30-year-old Elizabeth Zott rises before dawn every day, feeling like her life is over. She packs lunch for her daughter, Madeline, and writes notes that she slips into the lunchbox; one of them reads, “It is not your imagination […] Most people are awful." Although only five years old, Madeline is already an advanced reader; however, in a desire to fit in at school, Madeline pretends to be “illiterate” like her peers. Every morning, she stealthily extracts these notes from the lunch box and stores them away before leaving for school. Madeline wants to fit in because she sees how her mother, who has never fit in, has suffered all her life. A depressed Elizabeth kisses Madeline goodbye before leaving for the television studio to film the popular cooking show, Supper at Six, of which she is the star.

Wondering why this isn’t a full scene? Check out the audio that goes along with this blog post to hear why this opening chapter acts more like a prologue in disguise than a full scene and why Abigail and I still think it works.


Chapter 2 Summary

For our analysis, Abigail and I dug into the second chapter since it’s the first chapter with a full scene. Here’s a summary of what happens:

In this chapter, Elizabeth Zott realizes that a child at school (Amanda Pine) has been constantly eating her daughter's school lunches. Because of this, she pays a visit to the television studio where Amanda's father, Walter Pine, works. She confronts him about the lunch theft. Stunned by Elizabeth’s beauty, presence, and superior knowledge and skills around cooking, Walter proposed that she host a show that “teach(es) the entire nation to make food that matters." Although hesitant because she is a chemist and not a cook, Elizabeth Zott accepts, admitting that the higher pay that would help her support Madeline better. Supper at Six debuts four weeks later and immediately skyrockets in popularity. Elizabeth Zott ends every episode with her signature line: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself” However, two years in, an article about the show refers to Elizabeth Zott as “Luscious Lizzie,” and the name sticks. She's self-conscious and ashamed and lies awake at night thinking about how her life has come to this because of Calvin Evans.

Now, when analyzing any opening scene, 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 Bonnie Garmus did this in this very first chapter of her book, Lessons in Chemistry. 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?

Lessons in Chemistry is a historical upmarket novel. The opening chapter takes place in 1961. The writing is accessible but high quality, and although it’s a character-driven story, it’s still very plot-focused. It’s also a popular choice for book clubs because it allows for thoughtful discussion.


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 Lessons in Chemistry is a combination of the society (external) and status (internal) content genres.

Society stories are all about the need for recognition and shifting the power (whether personal or worldly power) between one group or individual and another. Status stories are about the need for respect—and whether you'll rely on others to get that sense of respect or on your own self-esteem instead. This combination perfectly describes Elizabeth Zott’s story in Lessons in Chemistry.

Elizabeth Zott wants to be recognized for her work and value as a chemist, but the patriarchal world she lives and works within won't let her. She also wants the respect of her colleagues for the brilliant work she does. We read on to find out how Elizabeth Zott will fare in her scientific pursuits despite the patriarchy.


3. POV: Who is telling the story? 

The story is told via an omniscient narrator, but it’s primarily focused on Elizabeth Zott and her daughter, Madeline. This is true of the first two chapters as well. Chapter two primarily follows Elizabeth, but we do dip into Walter Pine’s head (courtesy of the omniscient narrator) to see how he views Elizabeth Zott. This was probably done to create a little bit of distance between Elizabeth Zott and the reader (she’s a character who doesn’t let others in easily) and to evoke the feeling of watching a TV show rather than reading a story. We do not know who the omniscient narrator is.


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

In the two opening chapters, the reader’s focus is mostly on Elizabeth Zott. We learn that she’s depressed (but we don’t know why), and we see that she’ll do just about anything to protect her daughter’s well-being. We know that she’s a talented chemist, so our interest is immediately piqued when she gets offered a job hosting Supper at Six

As readers, we’re wondering things like… How will this TV show impact her chemistry career? Why is she depressed? Will she ever get the respect and recognition she deserves? How will this affect Madeline? And Bonnie Garmus answers these questions for us (and so many more) throughout the story.


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

The second chapter takes place at Elizabeth Zott’s home and then at the studio where Walter Pine works (and where they will eventually film Supper at Six). Both settings will play a big role in the story, so it makes sense the opening chapters take place there.


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

In the two opening chapters, Bonnie Garmus evokes both curiosity and concern for Elizabeth Zott. We’re told she’s depressed, so we wonder why—and if she’ll overcome her depression or if she’ll sink even further into it. On the other hand, we’re curious about how this new opportunity (the TV show) will work out for her. We read on to find out how these two things are connected and to get our big-picture questions answered. 


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

In a story that combines the society (external) genre and the status (internal) genre, the stakes center around the protagonist’s need for recognition and respect. Elizabeth Zott is already a brilliant chemist, but without the patriarchy realizing this, it doesn't matter. If she was a man, she'd already be respected and recognized for her work and accomplishments. After reading these two opening chapters, readers wonder if perhaps the TV show will bring her the recognition and respect she deserves and/or if she’ll ever make a dent in the negative influence of the patriarchy. 


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 #2 - Omniscient POV

In this scene, Elizabeth Zott’s goal is to confront Amanda Pine’s father about the fact that his daughter has been eating Madeline’s school lunches.

  1. Inciting Incident: Elizabeth realizes where Madeline's lunches go.
  2. Turning Point: Walter Pine offers Elizabeth Zott a job hosting a brand-new TV show called Supper At Six.
  3. Crisis: Should Elizabeth take the job (and higher pay) even though it's a step away from what she wants?
  4. Climax: Elizabeth Zott reluctantly accepts the job.
  5. Resolution: Elizabeth blames Calvin for her predictament.

So, what has changed in this scene?

On the surface, we’re tracking whether or not Elizabeth accomplishes her goal of confronting Amanda Pines’s father about the school lunches, but the scene is about so much more than that. Because she confronts Walter Pine, she ends up becoming the host of a brand-new TV show called Supper at Six. We see that she does what’s necessary to provide for her daughter, even though it's a step away from what she wants (respect and recognition for being a chemist). So, although she successfully solves the “school lunch” problem, she’s actually going backward in terms of her overarching story goal. 


Final Thoughts

Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts Elizabeth Zott? Ultimately, the first and second chapters do what the opening pages of a novel should do, and together, they make 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!

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 →