First Chapter Analysis: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
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 Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. 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
We decided to study both Marcellus’s opening pages and Tove’s first chapter since they are both pivotal POV characters. This story has no chapter numbers, so here’s what happens in the section we’re studying:
Tova Sullivan, Sowell Bay Aquarium’s oldest employee, is performing her nightly duties of mopping and emptying trash bins. As she cleans, she greets the sea creatures inside each of the tanks, including a giant octopus named Marcellus. From the first two pages, we know that Marcellus only has about 160 more days to live and that he views his time in the aquarium as a “sentence.” When Tova finally pops the gum off the floor, she heads to the breakroom and spots an orange blob behind the vending machine—it’s Marcellus, tangled up in the power cords! Tova frees Marcellus, and he scoots out the door and back into his tank. Tova closes up and heads to the nearby pier, where she thinks about her deceased son, Erik.
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 Shelby Van Pelt did this in this very first chapter of her book, Remarkably Bright Creatures. 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?
Remarkably Bright Creatures is adult upmarket fiction. Based on the back cover copy, we know that Tova is a widow who has also lost her son and that she will befriend Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus. We also know that Marcellus will help Tova learn something important about her son’s death. These opening pages show us how Tova and Marcellus meet—and why Marcellus, who isn’t the most friendly octopus, learns to trust Tova. We also learn that both characters are nearing the end of their life spans—Tova is 70 years old, and Marcellus only has 160 days (ish) left to live. So, right away, we know this is going to be a story about an unlikely friendship, and we keep reading to find out what Marcellus will help Tova learn about her son’s death.
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 Remarkably Bright Creatures is primarily a worldview (internal genre) story about how Tova, Marcellus, and Cameron (a POV character we don’t meet in the opening pages) find a new sense of meaning and purpose in life.
The back cover copy is heavily slanted towards the mystery aspect of the story, and this draws us in. Right away, we’re wondering what truth Marcellus will help Tova see about the night her son disappeared. But the story is ultimately about the power of friendship (especially friendship born from unlikely places) and how it’s never too late to find meaning and purpose.
3. POV: Who is telling the story?
The first two pages are from Marcellus’s perspective, and the second chapter is from Tova Sullivan’s perspective. There is also one other POV character in the book, Cameron (Tova’s grandson). The story is written in the third person point of view, and it sticks close to one character per scene/chapter.
4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?
In the first two pages, we care about Marcellus primarily because of the language he uses (he’s “imprisoned” and waiting out his “sentence”), and also because we’re told right away that he only has about 160 days left to live. Immediately, we root for Marcellus and hope he’ll get the chance to be free before he dies.
In Tova’s scene, we connect with her because a) she’s kind to the animals, b) she’s conscientious and cares about keeping the aquarium clean so that visitors can have a nice time, and c) she saves Marcellus despite his aggression towards her. It’s also hard not to feel sad for her having lost both her husband and her son. We root for Tova and hope she’ll find something that gives her a sense of purpose.
As readers, we’re wondering things like… Will Marcellus ever go back to the ocean? Will Tova find something to bring her happiness and fulfillment? Will Marcellus and Tova develop a friendship? What information will Marcellus help Tova see in relation to her son who drowned? And how does Cameron fit into all of this? And Shelby Van Pelt 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?
These opening pages take place at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, which is a great choice because a) a large part of the story takes place here, and b) this is the location that brings Marcellus and Tova together.
6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?
The primary emotion Shelby Van Pelt evokes in these opening pages is concern. We want both Marcellus and Tova to find their own versions of happiness. We know Marcellus wants to be free, so we root for him to be free. We also know Tova feels unmoored after her husband and son died, so we hope she finds meaning and fulfillment without them.
7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next?
The stakes in this story center around finding meaning. In the beginning of the story, neither Tova or Marcellus (seem to) have much to live for. But it’s clear that they’ll start some kind of friendship (we learn as much from the back cover copy), so we read to see how that plays out—and to see how they might help each other get what they need. We know there’s going to be a big reveal at some point regarding Tova’s son, and we hope that it brings Tova a sense of peace. Shelby Van Pelt definitely gave us a look at the big picture of this story in the 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 - Tova’s POV
In this scene, Tova’s goal is to clean the Sowell Bay Aquarium to get it ready for business the next day.
- Inciting Incident: Tova sees an octopus in the break room, tangled up in cords.
- Turning Point: Tova realizes the octopus is losing color, and she needs to save him as soon as possible.
- Crisis: Should she keep trying to help the octopus despite his aggressive behavior? Or should she leave the octopus to its fate?
- Climax: Tova untangles the octopus.
- Resolution: The octopus scoots away, and she sees that he’s made it back into his tank as she exits the aquarium.
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with Tova performing her normal nightly duties to get the aquarium ready for business the next day. The main conflict surfaces when something out of the ordinary happens—she finds an octopus tangled up in the power cords behind the vending machine. This encounter brings Tova and Marcellus together—and it shows Marcellus that not all humans are untrustworthy. The door is now open for their relationship to bloom, and because of this, we can say that both Tova and Marcellus move closer to the meaning (and freedom) they both seek.
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts both Marcellus and Tova? 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!