In today’s episode, Abigail K. Perry and I take a deep dive into the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Here’s a preview of what we talk about:
[03:17] A very quick summary of the first two chapters
[06:30] Our analysis of the scene/s within the first two chapters using the "5 Commandments of Storytelling" from The Story Grid
[25:11] Final thoughts and episode recap
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If you're doing anything that you know maybe like because you see the advice out there like never use prologues right? But obviously we see a lot of these little prologues in disguise Just think about why you're doing it and if you have a valid reason, then it's probably okay. If your reason is because I want to tell my reader all this information before the story even starts, probably not okay, right, because we don't want to be info dumping. So I always just like to say to fact check yourself, think about why we would do it and, if you know, you might have some reasons similar to what Bonnie Garmas did with this book. Welcome to the fiction writing made easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming. So each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're diving deep into the first chapter of lessons in chemistry by Bonnie Garmas, and I'm super excited to share this episode with you because the recording is from part of our last book club meeting where we dug into this whole story and talked about how and why it worked. If you're interested, you can get your hands on the full recording of this book club meeting at savannahgilbocom forward slash book dash club. If you go to that page and scroll all the way down to the bottom, you'll find the recording of the lessons in chemistry book club meeting. Now, with that being said, I also want to introduce my special guest in this episode and the co-host of our book club, abigail K Perry. Abigail is a developmental editor and the host of an amazing podcast called Lit Match, where she helps writers find the best literary agent for their writing and publishing careers. I will link to her podcast in the show notes, as well as where you can find Abigail around the internet if you want to get in touch with her. If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, then you already know the deal about these first chapter episodes. But just in case you're brand new here or in case you need a reminder, abigail and I like to pick apart the opening chapters of stories to see how the author hooks our attention and pulls us into the story, and we like to analyze these opening chapters on both the macro and the micro level. So basically, we're asking why does this chapter work? And then, how does the scene or how do the scenes within that chapter work? So that's a very, very quick overview of what we're going to dig into today. You'll hear more explanation for everything once we get into the episode. So, with that being said, let's go ahead and dive right into the conversation. I'll go ahead and just read this and I'll just practice real quick.Speaker 2:
We're actually going to do a deep dive analysis of the second chapter, but we also want to talk about this first chapter and why it does some important things. So we'll explain why in a little bit, but here's a quick summary of it. In November of 1961, 30 year old Elizabeth Zott rises before Dawn every day, feeling like her life is over. She packs lunch for her daughter, madeline, otherwise known as Mad, and writes notes that she slips into the lunchbox. One of them reads it's 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, mad pretends to be illiterate like her peers. Every morning, she stealthily extracts these notes from her lunchbox and stores them away before leaving for school. Mad wants to fit in because she sees how her mother, who has never fit in, has suffered all of her life, not because she's ashamed of her mother. A depressed Elizabeth kisses Mad goodbye before leaving for the television studio to go film the popular cooking show Supper at Six, of which she is the star. So how many scenes do you see within the first chapter?Speaker 1:
Okay, so we have a poll and so far everybody's saying we see one scene in the first chapter, some people are seeing two. So our options are are there zero scenes, one scene or two scenes? Let's give a second. Okay, I'm going to close it. So 65, we'll call it 60%. Okay, wait, we just got a zero vote. All right, so I'm going to end it. So 8% of us one person says zero, seven people, 58% said one and 33% said two scenes. So how many scenes are here, abigail?Speaker 2:
Okay, so I think that it depends on how you define scenes, but for me, I would not classify this opening chapter as a scene, and I'm going to explain why. But go ahead, savannah, you're nodding, so yeah, so I was just going to say I'm actually on team zero.Speaker 1:
I don't think there is a complete scene in this chapter, but we're going to tell you why we think this opening scene is affected or this opening chapter is effective, but we want to hear from you. So what, as a writer, if we're writing something like this, where we're not really including a full scene, why would we have a chapter like this? So let us know in the chat, and also we want to talk about what big picture expectations this first chapter sets up for us, even if it's not a full scene, and I know it takes a second to type, so don't worry, we're not in a rush.Speaker 2:
And you can also let us know if you voted for a scene or two scenes, maybe why you voted for the scene or two scenes, and did it surprise you about our answer?Speaker 1:
Yeah, and we can maybe start digging into our key points. But I'm looking at. Amber says this is a prologue. It makes you wonder how mad is so smart and why her mom is depressed. So we call it a prologue in disguise, because we agree.Speaker 2:
Yeah, so it's, and I think that's one of the things that's really interesting is that you have this prologue in disguise and I've talked about this with Savannah, I've talked about this with other book coaches and writers. More and more. I am seeing this in particular, and especially these upmarket books. This is happening all the time and that makes me question, because you know, it's not labeled as a prologue either. It's like the prologue in disguise. So what is going on? Why is this being such a captivating way of starting the story, hooking your readers and getting us to read more? And we have various reasons for that. But I think in the last at least five books that I've analyzed, I've had these incomplete scenes, by the definition that I would use to study and, you know, basically plot out scenes which we'll look at in a second too. Yeah, so we'll look at that. So the first thing we want to talk about is with this chapter one. The first chapter, I think, is not really a scene, because when we're defining scenes Savannah and I at least we like to use the five commandments of storytelling, so we're looking for that structure and we're trying to ask ourselves is there actually a value change in the scene? And a value change occurs because of character is faced with a crisis decision that is going to make them. Basically, they have to make this decision, even to not make this decision results and consequences, and I don't really see a change in this scene. I think that you could argue that there might be a change if you were to zero in on Madd's perspective, because she does have to go through. Is she going to hide the note or not? But that doesn't even really feel like a crisis to me, because she's doing this in secret and also we have the POV that is alternating between with Zop we are starting with her and then with Madd as well. So that's something that I want to be looking at. I do think that it gives us a taste of what we're going to look at in the future and it establishes the narrative voice extremely well. So it's doing a few things here because it's grounding us and Elizabeth Zod as the character and this is the key here it makes me question. Not only are we depressed, but we're permanently depressed. So that's a defining factor. But what's so interesting about Elizabeth Zod is she's like I'm permanently depressed, but this is just the way it is. So it's unlike the opening of something, say, the Midnight Library with you have Nora Seed, and she's extremely depressed in her first chapter. But she doesn't want to be depressed and her next action is to do something about that. Well, elizabeth Zott seems to have no plan or even desire at this moment to change her circumstances, because she's very practical, she's very logical and her life is what it is because she needs it to be that way in order to sustain a good livelihood for her daughter. That's why she's made the decision that she's in. So you do start to have that question of why is she permanently depressed, and that made me, as a reader, curious to learn more about her character. At the same time, the point of this chapter is setting up the tone and the voice and it's creating the central question of the story. So that central question, savannah and I have gone back and forth with, in my opinion and in Savannah's opinion, is what is going to make Elizabeth Zott break, because she is depressed but she doesn't seem broken yet and is there a breaking point for Elizabeth Zott and what is challenging her to break as well, which we'll get more of in the second chapter? What do you think, savannah? Anything else to add?Speaker 1:
Yep, I totally agree, and I see some people in the chat saying that they're kind of doing something similar, and so I think if you're doing anything that you know maybe like because you see the advice out there like never use prologues right, but obviously we see a lot of these little prologues in disguise Just think about why you're doing it and if you have a valid reason, then it's probably okay. If your reason is because I want to tell my reader all this information before the story even starts, probably not okay, right, because we don't want to be info dumping. So I always just like to say to fact check yourself, think about why we would do it and, if you know, you might have some reason similar to what Bonnie Garmas did with this book. So yeah, okay.Speaker 2:
So, taking that and going forward, we will now want to go look at Chapter Two, because Chapter Two, I do believe, completes a scene and we're in a little bit of a different time area here, because in the first chapter she already is the star of the show Stuff Art Six. And in Chapter Two, before we jump into the past timeline where we're going to meet Calvin, we get to see what is going to be one of the major places of profession for Elizabeth Sot, where she's going to be working and we're going to kind of get this taste of where the story eventually will take us to. But we're getting it early on so that we can be curious as to what has put her in this position of being permanently depressed, and really that one of the roots of that depression is because she is the star at Stuff Art Six. You know, most people who would be the star of something would not be depressed about it, but she is, so it causes us to be curious of that. Okay, so here's the summary of Chapter Two. 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 teaches the entire nation to make food that matters. That's something that Elizabeth Zott brings up. Although hesitant because she is a chemist and not a cook, elizabeth Zott accepts, admitting that it would give her higher pay. That would help her support Madd better Suffer at six to fuse 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 and the reason for that is, of course, because of Calvin Evans Right. So a lot of huge expectations are set in that first chapter. But before we do that, we'd love to hear from you why do you think the author didn't start with this chapter? Why do you think they started with the prologue?Speaker 1:
in disguise and we've got some reasons. But we want to hear from you guys Because, again, we want to be able to troubleshoot our own writing. Like, if we want to do something like this, how do we start training our brains to think of what an agent or a publisher or your editor might say? Let's see, I'm just looking in the chat to see if we have anybody yet. So we don't yet. That's okay, take your time. But we think part of why she did this was there's a few reasons, but one of them is imagine, we don't have that prologue and there's kind of not that voice to ground us in the character. We don't have that kind of setup. We're just kind of thrown into Elizabeth's life when she's confronting a man about school lunches. Is that as interesting as what we got in chapter one? Probably not. So we've, like Abigail said, we've kind of been seeing this happen more in stories and it's almost because we need a the flavor of what we're going to read, but also that interest factor in the beginning to pull us in some stories I mean, probably most stories can get away with doing both in one chapter, but sometimes you just can't because you know your story needs to start at one place, but maybe it's not the most interesting scene ever for your opening.Speaker 2:
What I think is really interesting too is we mentioned this with the prologue in disguise. It really does stir up this question. That is the main question of the story, what we're going to be following. So the second chapter reinforces how we get to that main question, but we're more zeroed in in the actual action itself. So we're we are dealing with a question will she or will she not take the job of the show, which we'll talk about in a little bit. But ultimately the big picture question, the expectations that we can expect going forward into the story, are established fairly, you know, I guess I would say extraordinarily well, in that prologue in disguise, because we are seeing the taste for what the tone is of the story. We are understanding who this character is and getting into her mindset, but questioning why she has made the decisions that she has. And we're also seeing that. One of the most interesting things to me about the prologue in disguise is when Elizabeth Zott writes these letters to her daughter that are encouraging her to do exactly what Elizabeth thought. I don't think she would, you know, maybe admit this at the time, but isn't really following that advice necessarily herself. So she's, she's kind of giving this wisdom about what she sees and how she works and how she observes the world. But then she goes off to work and she is, you know, very much, and she will defend this over and over again in the book. She is a chemist. Right, she is a chemist. I am not a celebrity chef, I am a chemist. So it's interesting. This is a very curious character with an extremely strong voice and I know like for me, I really am drawn to voice, so that hooked me immediately. I wanted to read more just for that, but there's a lot to do with expectations and how we move forward, and then I think the second chapter starts to satisfy some of those expectations in an earlier way.Speaker 1:
And in the chat too. Z says I like how we see the relationship with her daughter first, before getting into the other plotlines. Julie says the second chapter wasn't quite as engaging as the first. Melissa says second chapter was missing the worldview, the time and the place. True. Michelle says the prologue and disguise raised more questions than this chapter did, which isn't as intriguing. Totally true. Erica says to give readers insight into the protagonist, her style, her feelings about her daughter, the feminist in her and the strength. And then Jeanette said I feel like some of the conventions in this story were indeed like the show Miss Maisel. Yeah, I love that show, so we can talk about that later too. Amber says the first chapter establishes a humorous tone. If she starts complaining about work it's not as interesting. That's true, because you could take it wrong, right. Also, knowing she has a daughter humanizes her and makes you understand why or how you could feel badly for a TV star. Yeah. And then Brooke says because it hooks you right away. It gives you insight and keeps you curious before starting. The story Also feels similar to a TV episode formula. Yeah, which is really cool. Right, because some of these things like the point of view techniques we're going to talk about later, this prologue and disguise. Whether you liked them or you didn't, it's kind of like the execution is pretty smart, because if you feel like you're watching a TV show and she's a TV star, pretty cool right.Speaker 2:
Now we'll go ahead and we'll move into the structure of the second chapter. So, as I mentioned just a little bit ago, savannah and I, when we're looking at structure, we love to use the five commandments of storytelling. We think that these are five elements of fiction that have happened in a scene and can confirm how a value changes happen. So Story Grid uses these, robert McKee uses these. They're really, I think more time you spend with them, they're easier to grasp and the more that you use them, you can spot when they do or do not exist. And the most important commandments for me that I'm looking at are where's the turning point and how is it creating the crisis? Because ultimately, that is what determines that there is a change, if there is a value shift, because it's forcing the main character at hand to have agency. And all the commandments are important, but that's really what I see is what the scene revolves around.Speaker 1:
Yeah, and we'll talk about let me interrupt real quick. We'll talk about what each of those are, because some of you I'm like it's looking at, you, look at the screen and you're like turning points, commandments, right. So we'll explain what they are, and also just a cheat sheet, if you like to think, because she's saying value shift too. So what's a value shift? A meaningful arc of change. So it's not like I went to the store and ate a sandwich and now I went from being hungry to full. That's not that meaningful. We'll kind of get into this later, but that's what she means by value shift is something meaningful. Let's go ahead, abigail. Yeah.Speaker 2:
And also when I'm saying because all stories are about change and scenes need to be about change as well the way that I determine if a change is meaningful is my question of does it develop the character? Does it advance the plot? Because ultimately we want to see how scenes in a story are causing a cause and effect trajectory of change and if they're not moving the plot forward in a way that is that cause and effect, and if the plot's not moving forward, the character is definitely not being developed, then there's going to be a stall in the story and it's usually something that, as when you're editing your own you know. Just going back to the troubleshooting as a writer, when you're editing your own work, if you can't defend a change in a sense of movement in the story because of the scene, usually you have to question does the scene need revisions or does the scene need to be taken out? So, as we go forward into that, before you even look at the commandments, savannah and I both like to say what is the character's goal? Because ultimately, how these commandments work is that they're going to create or challenge this goal, and whether or not we move closer to or further away from that goal is going to further help us understand if a change exists on the page. Okay, so the goal in this scene for Elizabeth Zott is that she is going to confront Amanda Pine's father about school lunches. So she wants to challenge him and basically she wants her daughter to be eating her own lunches, right? So, looking at an inciting incident, what is an inciting incident? This is an unexpected disturbance that either creates a goal in the scene or changes what the goal is, or changes how the character is going to approach trying to achieve their goal. Okay, so it kick starts the scene and for the in-setting incident in this scene and we'll have some discussion about this we said that Elizabeth realizes where Mad's lunches are going. Okay, so that you can see, establishes the goal. It creates the goal of Amanda Pine's father about school lunches. Now Savannah and I have talked about and I just want to make a quick note about this that some people might see the in-setting incident. This is something that I had thought about and I was like I have a reason why I don't choose it as Mad losing weight, because that is going to be something that makes her question even where the lunches go. But we picked the in-setting incident to be when she realizes where Mad's lunches go. Because if you look at the text, if you look at the copy, when Elizabeth's thought is reflecting on Mad losing weight and why, she starts questioning why that might be and has a very, of course, logical approach to her questioning, that's all backstory and it's woven in her narrative of what gets her to the point of figuring out that Amanda Pine's is eating her daughter's lunches. Okay. So when I'm looking for an in-setting incident and I think, savannah, you would agree with this we're looking for something that's happening in the scenes moment, in the present Right. We're not looking for something that happens in the backstory, right. So while weeding backstory is really important in stories, it probably isn't going to command your or command your commandments, as they say. Move your commandments Right. Next, we look for the turning point. So between the inciting incident and the turning point, there's a series of what people can sometimes call progressive complications, or you can just think of them as many conflicts. Okay, because conflict is going to force us to change, to move forward. At the peak of those conflicts, those progressive complications, there's something called a turning point, and this is an action or a revelation that forces a character into a crisis decision. So that's why I really see them as interceptor. You can't separate them, because I think that the turning point causes the crisis, where other conflicts you can kind of sign, you know, pass over and not suffer the consequences that you would with a crisis, but in a turning point it's going to cause a crisis that, even to ignore it ends in either positive or negative consequences. Okay, so I'm just going to pull up crisis and then explain them both here. A crisis is a best bad choice or an irreconcilable goods decision, with the inverse of a best bad choice. So basically, two equally weighted options that a character must make a decision between, and they're either going to result in positive or negative consequences, depending on if it's best bad choice negative consequences, irreconcilable goods positive ones. Okay, so in this scene we have Elizabeth Zott moving. She's going to question Walter Pines and the turning point is when Walter Pines offers Elizabeth Zott a job posting a brand new TV show called separate six. That's going to put her into a crisis of should she take the job and have higher pay because she's not having a super high paying job right now, even though it's a step away from what she really wants, which is as a global story, as a big picture story, to be a chemist, to be a respected chemist, actually. So you can see that if you look closely at the scene itself, there's a lot that happens between the inciting incident and the turning point in this situation. There's the whole fun banter between Elizabeth Zott really putting Walter Pines in his place and he doesn't even know really how to respond to what to do with this and there's her whole really like demanding of course you would want to be cooking healthy meals for yourself and for your daughter. And out of that conversation with Walter comes really the comment Shouldn't all people know how to make nutritious meals, good meals for their family? That triggers this idea in Walter Pines and causes the question of would you want to be this TV show host? Okay, now it's a crisis because again it's going to be pulling her away from what she actually wants in life and the climax is when we see the character take action on their decision. So it's pretty quick. Actually, it's not going to be a lengthy climax. It's not a whole section itself, it's just the immediate action that someone takes on the crisis. So in this case, elizabeth Zott reluctantly accepts the job and the resolution is everything that happens after a climax, the aftermath. It really grounds us in what has changed. Where's the character now internally and where are we with the movement of the plot as we go forward? You know, another way of saying resolution might be Dana Ma. So it's basically what has happened after the climax and how is that moving us forward into the story that caused the factor directory now at work? Anything to add we have?Speaker 1:
some questions. So Kate says the turning point seems to happen offstage. We don't see him offering her the job. It's implied that it comes next. So can you talk about that a little more?Speaker 2:
So I think that when you look at that we are looking at this scene and how it works, is not not every scene is going to work that way. Sometimes it's going to be more on the page and you'll see that. In this case, it seems like there's an expansion of time in the scene, which for me is okay, because the when you start defining scenes this way, you're not necessarily restricted by time and place and it's more based on the character and they're making their decision, and I see that all is encapsulated in this chapter, because we're not I'm not restricting my analysis of the scene to the time and the place. What do you think, samantha?Speaker 1:
Yes, and there's also a lot of, you know, the typical scene breaks in the chapter where you see the blank space between the two pieces of text. So we're ignoring those and we're looking at it based on the goal and how the arc of change unfolds. So that's one thing. The other thing is that it can be an inferred crisis because the stakes are set up. So it's not like we don't understand Elizabeth's choice when it's not literally told to us on the page. We understand how she's feeling, what options she's weighing between, because those have been set up, if that makes sense. And yeah, kate says it's a great way to eliminate clearly unneeded dialogue and it helps the pacing. Yes, I agree. Okay, take it away, abigail.Speaker 2:
Okay. So once we have seen these commandments happen, then we can ask ourselves what has changed in the scene. Okay, in this case we say Elizabeth's thought does what's necessary to provide for Mad, even though it's a step away from what she wants. So we have a positive to negative. She goes from respect and recognition for being a chemist to further away from that. But I think that ultimately, what's interesting is that how much respect and recognition for being chemists does she really have in this moment? And that really is also again setting up expectations for what is the main value shift that we're dealing with on a big picture level and how can scenes speak to that? Constantly, always influence that, even if it's not necessarily the priority in the scene itself. It is the priority in this scene. But on a scene level like, for instance, when we have love subplot scenes with Calvin, a love value shift might take precedence, but we should always be able to defend why that change in that scene also influences big picture. Okay, which is really interesting, because the last line of this chapter is about how did I get here? Calvin Evans.Speaker 1:
So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgobocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.