First Chapter Scene Analysis: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

Welcome back! If you’ve been following this blog series, you know why studying stories is imperative to your ability to improve your writing craft.

The short answer: By studying books, particularly ones that exemplify bestsellers, breakout novels, and, perhaps most importantly, masterworks in a genre, we can recognize patterns and invaluable, key elements in fiction that engage and move readers. 

How can a writer study these patterns and elements? Stories are subjective, after all. Won’t, at the end of the day, a target reader recommend a story to their friend (or not) because of their personal taste and opinion? 

There can’t be a one shoe fits all answer to masterful writing, right? 

Absolutely—personally, I have never believed in one approach to great writing. 

Still, if there’s one truth all writers can agree on, I’d argue it’s this: Stories (at least when it concerns fiction) are about change. 

This can be a character change. A change in plot (what happens from the opening page to the end). A change in perspective, beliefs, and ideas. Preferably, all the above. 

And while many great writers often learn rules to, at opportune moments, break them, this can’t be accomplished without first understanding why certain patterns exist. 

For today, let’s continue this scene analysis series with a close examination of the opening pages in Tracy Deonn’s bestselling novel Legendborn.  

It’s my hope that by absorbing the writing advice and tips that follow, you will see how a scene not only moves the plot forward and develops a character—crucial accomplishments to a well-paced novel—but also how such movement impacts the big picture, or main plotline. 

Should You Write in Scenes or Chapters?

If you’ve been following my series that contains scene analysis case studies, you probably know that I encourage writers to plan books—and write them—in scenes instead of chapters. This is a belief that my good friend and fellow book coach, Savannah Gilbo, also holds; she’s written a fantastic article on why, which I strongly encourage you to read here.

In summary, this is why I think it’s more advantageous for a writer to plan/write in scenes instead of chapters:

Scenes are a unit of story that contain a clear beginning, middle, and end. Because of this, scenes contain key elements called the Five Commandments of Storytelling—which craft resources, like Story Grid and Robert McKee’s philosophy teach. The most important commandments in scenes show how there is a dominant conflict in a scene (or Turning Point) which forces the main character in the scene to make a Crisis decision, or undergo a dilemma. 

When a character is forced to make a decision, readers learn a little bit more about who that character really is. It also reinforces that the character has agency, and because of this, their decision will cause an action that moves the plot forward. 

In other words, a scene contains a change in Value. Or, a change in something that the character values; these can range from tangible items like their very life to psychological shifts like their emotional state of being. To learn more about Values, check out this article.     

Chapters, unlike scenes, are arbitrary. They exist mainly to enhance the reader’s experience and therefore may or may not end with a complete Value shift/change. A chapter can contain multiple scenes, one scene, or an incomplete scene that carries over into the next chapter (cliff hangers are often examples of this). 

The key difference? Chapters have more control over a reader’s experience—but they don’t necessarily contain structure. 

One major reason a manuscript might fail to maintain a reader’s interest is because nothing happens—i.e. there’s no plot and structure, and therefore, there’s no developing change. 

Scenes, on the other hand, keep a story’s evolving change in check.  

Note: There are various fiction elements that make a story great. Structure is only one of them, and even if you master scene structure, you might not have a book that hooks. But, if your book doesn’t contain structure, you’re probably in for a larger overhaul when it is time to revise your draft—which is why understanding how to write scenes with strong structure can set you up for success.     

Legendborn: Chapter One Summary

For today’s case study, we’re going to look at the first chapter (not the prologue) of Tracy Deonn’s bestselling YA fantasy novel, Legendborn. I was introduced to this book when Savannah and I selected it for Book Notes, our virtual book club—and heck, it’s an entertaining read! 

In case you’ve never heard of Legendborn, take a look at the back cover here

For today’s analysis, we will only look at the first chapter—which I believe contains two scenes. Here is a summary of the plot event that unravels in that first chapter:

Bree Matthews (the protagonist) and her best friend Alice watch students from UNC jump off a cliff into a deep pool of water at Eno River State Park. (This happens three months after Bree’s mother died suddenly in an accident.) Alice is upset that they’re breaking school rules but they attended because Charlotte, Bree and Alice’s friend from Bentonville, invited them. After they talk to Charlotte’s boyfriend, Evan, Bree worries about how people react to her mom’s death. She feels her personality and identity has been split into two parts: before her mom’s death (Before-Bree) and after her mom’s death (After-Bree). Bree stays behind when Alice goes off with Charlotte and Evan. She contemplates cliff jumping, but a guy named Selwyn Kane (Sel) appears and warns her not to jump. Bree feels electricity when Sel looks at her. He grabs her wrists and asks her if she feels something, but Bree lies (she says no).

In the distance, shouts from the party interrupt Bree and Sel. Sel runs towards them and Bree follows. They find four football players fighting. Bree also spies a shimmering object above the combatants. No one else—except Sel—sees what Bree sees (this ends up being a key antagonist in the story). This triggers haunting thoughts about her mother in Bree, and Sel, who makes eye contact with Bree, telepathically commands her to leave.

Legendborn: Chapter One Scene Analysis

I mentioned above that I see two scenes in this opening chapter, which indicates that there are two Value shifts in this scene, as well as two separate wants/objectives. The main character in this scene is the protagonist, Bree Matthews, and so it’s Bree’s want/goal that I focus on when identifying what she’s trying to accomplish in this scene and how the Five Commandments of Storytelling challenge Bree’s ability to achieve each want/goal. 

To refresh your memory on the Five Commandments of Storytelling or how I analyze scenes with these tools, review this article

Now, let’s break down this chapter into two scenes using the Five Commandments of Storytelling to confirm how there is a Value shift in each scene that moves the plot forward and challenges Bree’s character.

Scene One

Bree’s Goal: Enjoy a fun night out at the Quarry. Also, distract herself from the memories of her mother, which consume her thoughts when she’s alone.

The Five Commandments of Storytelling:

1. Inciting Incident (the unexpected disturbance that creates the goal/want or interrupts it): Evan (Charlotte’s boyfriend) recognizes Bree as “the girl whose mom died.”

2. Turning Point (an action or revelation that forces Bree into a Crisis): Alice wants to leave to avoid getting in trouble.

3. Crisis (two equally weighted good or bad options that come with consequences): Should Bree go back to the dorm room with Alice, or stay out with the other kids and risk getting into trouble?

4. Climax (the direct action that Bree takes based on her Crisis): Bree says she’ll meet up with Alice later.

5. Resolution (the aftermath of the scene, where the protagonist stands after the climax): Bree meets (and has a strange encounter with) Sel; somewhere in the distance, Alice screams.

Looking at this scene, I can assess that there is a change in Value from beginning to end. This change impacts the main stakes of the novel (Life/Death or Danger/Safety).

While I encourage writers not to fester on the perfect words to describe a Value shift, you should be able to defend why you think a change in some Value exists—as well as why that shift impacts the big picture as well as the scene. 

For this first scene, I argue there is a shift from Safety to (Slight) Danger because Bree’s decision to stay out results in her meeting Sel, as well as a close encounter with a corporal demon.

Scene Two

Bree’s Goal: Find Alice and figure out what made her scream like that. 

The Five Commandments of Storytelling:

1. Inciting Incident: Bree sees a flicker of light that triggers a memory.

2. Turning Point: Sel mesmers Bree, asking her to leave (but it doesn’t work 100%).

3. Crisis: Leave in order to find Alice and Charlotte (bury her curiosity like she does her grief) or stay to figure out what’s happening?

4. Climax: Bree hesitates and smoke and flame envelop Sel.

5. Resolution: Bree sees Sel and Tor take down the creature with magic. The creature says it’s feeding, but not by “my gate.” Bree runs.

Value shift? (Slight) Danger > (Extreme) Danger

Well-Structure Scenes Create a Purposeful Change

Since these are the first pages in Legendborn, and the main stakes in the story do concern Bree’s (and other’s) life/death or safety/danger, it’s not surprising that the scenes in chapter one directly impact Bree’s direct safety/danger. However, not every scene will prioritize the life/death or safety/danger stakes. 

Most every scene should, however, impact Bree’s movement towards life or death in the big picture or main plotline. I think it’s safe to say that these opening pages definitely accomplish this—all while championing other key fiction elements, like a captivating narrative voice, deep, emotional themes involving grief and race, and an exciting magic system with high stakes.  

In other words, as the author of your stories, you should be able to defend why every scene has a purpose or needs to exist. It’s likely that your defense will come down to this: the story event moves the plot forward in a cause-and-effect trajectory towards the climatic moment—and the main Conflict-Crisis in the scene enforces agency in the protagonist.

If you can explain how your scenes create events that cause a character to make a Crisis decision, you should also be able to explain how your scenes create a major change in the scene that also impacts the big picture. 

And if you can do this, you’re well on your way to drafting an engaging story.     

How many scenes do you see in the first chapter of Legendborn? How did you analyze it with the Five Commandments? Let me know in the comments! 

P.S. Do you enjoy analyzing stories closely? Learn more about the virtual book club, Book Notes, which Abigail co-hosts with book coach Savannah Gilbo. Click here >> 

Abigail K. Perry is the host of the podcast Lit Match and a certified developmental editor who specializes in Upmarket Book Club Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Curio Fiction, and YA fantasy. She 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 babies and buddies.  You can learn more from Abigail on her podcast or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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