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First Chapters: Read Until You Understand by Farah Griffin

Abigail K. Perry takes an in-depth look at READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND by Farah Jasmine Griffin

In this special BONUS episode, Abigail uses the five commandments to analyze the structure in the first scene, and seven key questions every reader can use to determine if the first chapter will hook its readers.  

READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND is a great example of how to start a memoir that blends  other elements of nonfiction books like history and art. 

The goal of these bonus episodes is to provide writers with tools and examples to help them craft the best first chapters for their book before querying a literary agent. 



The Five Commandments: Scene Structure 

  1. Inciting Incident
  2. Turning Point
  3. Crisis Question
  4. Climax
  5. Resolution

7 Key First Chapter Questions (Beyond Structure): *taken from THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO BEGINNINGS by Paula Munier*

  1. What kind of story is it?
  2. What is the story really about?
  3. Who is telling the story?
  4. Which character should they care about most?
  5. Where and when does the story take place?
  6. How should they feel about what’s happening?
  7. Why should they care what happens next?


About Jasmine Griffin Jr.:

Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she also served as the inaugural Chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies. Professor Griffin received her B.A. in History & Literature from Harvard and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. She is the author or editor of eight books including Who Set You Flowin?: The African American Migration Narrative (Oxford, 1995), If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (Free Press, 2001), and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (Basic Books, 2013).



Farah Jasmine Griffin has taken to her heart the phrase "read until you understand," a line her father, who died when she was nine, wrote in a note to her. She has made it central to this book about love of the majestic power of words and love of the magnificence of Black life.

Griffin has spent years rooted in the culture of Black genius and the legacy of books that her father left her. A beloved professor, she has devoted herself to passing these works and their wisdom on to generations of students.

Here, she shares a lifetime of discoveries: the ideas that inspired the stunning oratory of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, the soulful music of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the daring literature of Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison, the inventive artistry of Romare Bearden, and many more. Exploring these works through such themes as justice, rage, self-determination, beauty, joy, and mercy allows her to move from her aunt’s love of yellow roses to Gil Scott-Heron’s "Winter in America."

Griffin entwines memoir, history, and art while she keeps her finger on the pulse of the present, asking us to grapple with the continuing struggle for Black freedom and the ongoing project that is American democracy. She challenges us to reckon with our commitment to all the nation’s inhabitants and our responsibilities to all humanity.


Find us on our socials: 

Twitter: @abigailkperry | @FJasmineG

Instagram: @abigailkperry | @farahjgriffinbooks

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