How to Analyze a First Chapter
If you want to publish your manuscript, you need to learn how to write well-structured scenes that hook and engage your readers. You also need to learn how to balance fun and important details that work with structure.
In other words, you need a scene where every line weaves together—where no detail is needless or wasted.
To help you gain confidence in how you write and analyze your own scenes, I’m working on a series of articles for DIY MFA that look closely at strong scenes. Specifically, I provide my subjective analysis of a first chapter from a bestselling book.
All of the chapters that I select are, in my opinion, well-structured and strong examples of how to not only start a book, but write a scene and chapter.
For today, let’s continue our analysis studies with a small picture first chapter scene analysis of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue.
Afterwards, I’ll share why I chose to analyze this first chapter as one scene instead of multiple.
Here we go!
First Chapter Analysis: Red, White & Royal Blue
*NOTE: I have adapted this scene analysis template from Story Grid’s writing toolbox. The four Socratic questions (I’ve reworded them but they are the foundational ideas) and the five commandments are what Story Grid uses in their masterwork guide analysis books.*
“On the White House roof…flash from someone’s camera goes off.”
Summary (2-4 sentences):
Alex and his sister, June, attempt to put on a happy face when they attend the Royal wedding, but Prince Henry’s insipid demeanor agitates Alex. Henry asks June to dance and Alex decides to get increasingly more drunk. Eventually, Alex feels so irritated with Henry that he confronts him. When Henry points out that Alex acts like he is “obsessed” with Henry and then Henry turns his back on Alex, Alex tugs Henry’s shoulder. For a moment, it looks like Henry will push Alex—but he doesn’t. Alex trips over his feet and accidentally pulls Henry down with him; they topple over and ruin the $75,000 wedding cake.
4 Socratic Questions that Analyze a Change in a Scene:
1. What is the literal change in the scene? How does this advance the plot in some way?
In America, Alex pokes fun at a false rumor about his romantic relationships. By the end of the scene, Alex is in serious trouble after causing an altercation with Prince Henry at the Royal wedding.
OTS: Poking fun at the press to publicly humiliate (which is exacerbated by the press).
Others: America to Great Britain
2. What does the main character in the scene want? Why do they want this?
Alex wants to get through the Royal wedding without getting into an altercation with Henry because—even though Alex doesn’t mind messing with the tabloids—his long-term goal is to be the youngest congressman in elected history. Alex also recognizes that he has a rivalry with Henry, and he, essentially, wants to be the better of the two.
ATS: Entertained to humiliated
Others: Humored to horrified; contained bitterness to active loathing.
3. How does the change in the scene impact the value shift in the central plot (big picture)?
Alex obsesses over what Henry thinks about him but also loathes Henry and views him as arrogant and as competition. Alex’s altercation with Henry will force them to spend more time together, even if this is initially against their will.
BTS: Dislike to loathing (potentially this masks Alex’s unrecognized attraction to Henry)
4. How does the main conflict in the scene create a story event? Describe this story event in one sentence.
Alex attends the royal wedding and causes an altercation with Prince Henry that results in the destruction of the $75,000 wedding cake.
5 Commandments in Scene Structure:
1. Inciting Incident (Causal or Coincidental): Causal. June reminds Alex about the royal wedding that they need to attend.
2. Turning Point (Action or Revelation): Action. Henry turns his back on Alex after he passively points out that Alex appears to be obsessed with Henry—Henry says that Alex often seeks Henry out.
3. Crisis Decision (Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods): Best Bad Choice. Should Alex swallow his pride and let Henry get the last word or should he challenge Henry?
4. Climax: Alex pulls Henry’s shoulder back.
5. Resolution: Henry looks like he might push Alex but doesn’t. Alex trips over his own foot and topples backwards. On his way down, he reaches for Henry and they both smash into the $75,000 wedding cake. Alex dreads how his mother will react to this debacle just as someone’s camera goes off.
Why One Scene?
I had to read this chapter a few times before confidently analyzing this first chapter as one scene instead of three scenes. Depending on how you analyze scenes (or have been taught to analyze scenes), you may use a set time and place to determine how a scene begins and ends.
Before I studied Story Grid (especially in screenwriting, which is my background), I also used a change in setting or time as a change in scene.
Story Grid’s methodology, however, doesn’t restrict a scene’s start and end to a set time and place. Instead, it concentrates on the value change and polarity shift, which is the purpose of a scene.
The reason for this is that readers have a sense, consciously or not, that the plot has advanced if there is a change or shift in a scene.
This also means that there has been a change that raised the main stakes for the novel, and these stakes have developed a character because they’ve been forced to make a Crisis Decision—i.e. Characters who make decisions take action, and action moves the plot forward.
Overall, I think that all three encounters in the first chapter of Red, White & Royal Blue are interesting (Encounter One: Alex talks to June in the White House, Encounter Two: Alex, June, and Nora fly to Great Britain, and Encounter Three: the royal wedding). However, I couldn’t pinpoint an effective Crisis Decision in the first two encounters—even if there is a page break that separates each encounter, indicating a change in time and place.
From my perspective, I saw each encounter—even though they are set in a different place and time—as moments that introduced conflict and complicated stakes that eventually led to the Royal wedding and the main crisis in the scene: Alex’s altercation with Prince Henry.
I believe the main event in the first chapter, being this altercation, impacts the love stakes in the central plot (big picture) best, so I wanted to focus my analysis on that moment.
While others might argue that there are three scenes in this first chapter, I’d argue that there is one scene in one chapter based on how I use Story Grid’s five commandments and their scene analysis template.
Alex doesn’t make his Crisis Decision until the royal wedding. How he acts on his crisis causes a change in value, whereas Alex’s reactions in the first two sections—or what I’ve called encounters—(June reminds Alex about the royal wedding and then Alex, June, and Nora judge the extravagance of the wedding on the plane) demonstrate a change in behavior or tactic.
A change in behavior or tactic is a beat, not a scene.
A scene requires a change in value—which I believe all three encounters together create.
How did you Analyze this First Chapter?
If you want to write a great first chapter, you need to know how to analyze how the details both set up expectations for the big picture and develop a well-structured scene.
We focused on scene structure today, and I argued that because of how I understand Story Grid’s five commandments that the first chapter in Red, White & Royal Blue is one scene.
The beauty of my analysis, however, is that it’s just one perspective. You might see the scene structure differently, and that’s okay!
It’s not important that you and I have the exact same analysis for this first chapter. Instead, focus on how to use the four Socratic questions and five commandments to analyze scenes of all kinds—and then use them to defend your analysis.
When you start to master these tools, you’ll probably gain confidence that will help you make decisions about when to keep or cut moments from your manuscript.
These decisions are hard to make!
I hope these tools make your revision process and all the hard work that comes with it fun and interesting.
If they did and you want to learn more about how to analyze scenes, check out more of my articles on DIY MFA or take a listen to one of my first chapter analysis episodes on my podcast, Lit Match.
How did you analyze the first chapter of Red, White & Royal Blue? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Abigail K. Perry is the host of the podcast Lit Match and a certified developmental editor who specializes in Upmarket/Commercial Book Club Fiction, Historical Fiction, and YA fiction and fantasy. Abigail holds a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Endicott College. Abigail worked as an editorial intern and the Agency Relations Assistant for P.S. Literary Agency, is fluent in book and movie quotes, and loves a long walk with good company, which includes audiobooks and two- and four-legged buddies. Learn more about writing and publishing from Abigail on her podcast, Lit Match, or her website.