(This is also available as a video essay on YouTube.)
I’ve been reading the opening chapters of great books from recent years. I want to learn what makes them effective at grabbing readers, and see what I can apply to my own writing. That’s led me to the first Harry Potter book, and to some interviews about its creation and publication.
The mythology around J. K. Rowling is pretty familiar by now, but let me recap it. In the mid-1990s, she was a single mother who struggled to hold down a job, all while trying to finish her first novel.
She sent the first three chapters of her book to literary agencies. The man who eventually became her agent, Christopher Little, later talked about the manuscript in an interview with the news program 60 Minutes:
These things can sit in a pile for ages, you know? They’re known as the “slush pile.” And just by chance, we picked up this pile, and inside I started reading about Harry Potter, and, you know, my toes curled.
He signed J. K. Rowling as a client and tried to sell her book to publishers. Eventually, the manuscript landed at Bloomsbury Publishing, where book editor Barry Cunningham read it and then bought it. Here’s what he told the BBC:
People often say, “How much do you have to read before you know something’s good?” I think you know after two or three chapters. I was gripped by Harry’s situation.
Something in those chapters got J. K. Rowling’s foot in the door, and I want to learn what that “something” is. So let’s dive into those first three chapters, and look at the magic that is (and isn’t) in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
“Almost the whole plot is explained”
I’m writing a novel right now, and cranking out draft after draft of my first chapter. Lots of articles and books about writing say how pressed editors and agents are for time. If you want to grab their attention, it has to be in the first chapter, and even in the first paragraph.
Somewhere along the way, I came across an interview with J. K. Rowling where she talked about the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. She said:
I reckon I must have got through fifteen different alternative chapters of Book 1. The reason for which I discarded each of them were they all gave too much away. In fact, if you put all those discarded first chapters together, almost the whole plot is explained.
I’m not fifteen rewrites deep into my chapter, but J. K. Rowling’s reflection on her own work has given me plenty to think about. Have I been giving too much away? Am I stuffing in too much extraneous world-building? Am I cramming in setups that only confuse the reader with what isn’t relevant? Am I spoiling some of the mystery? Is my opening striking the right tone? And does the writing have the power to make people’s toes curl?
I wondered what other wisdom I might find in the early chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone. So I cracked open the book and re-read it with a critical eye.
Plot summary of the first three chapters
Chapter 1: The Boy Who Lived
In a little English town, there’s a boring, bourgeois man named Vernon Dursley; he’s a manager at a drill factory. He thinks about drills and not much else. In fact, he pretty much tries to avoid thinking about anything else. He kisses his equally bourgeois wife and shrieking infant son, then heads out to his car to start another workday.
At the end of his driveway, he sees a cat…reading a map. He dismisses the sight and drives off. He later sees strange people in cloaks all around town, and he hates people who dress differently. Something funny’s going on. The weather report is on about shooting stars all over England, and owls flying everywhere. A passerby on the street even mentions a name — Harry Potter. It’s the name of his nephew from his wife’s side of the family, the family they never talk to, because that family is, well, not normal, not like the Dursleys.
Mr Dursley heads home after work and tries to forget all about the weird sights and sounds of the day.
Outside the Dursley home, an old man with a long white beard walks down the street and uses a hand-held gadget to extinguish all the street lamps, providing him with the cover of darkness. The strange cat is still lurking about, and it turns into a woman in a cloak. Then a giant riding a flying motorcycle dives out of the sky and lands beside the woman and the old man.
They’re here to deliver a baby to the Dursleys, an infant by the name of Harry Potter. His not-normal parents have been killed by a mysterious figure named “Voldemort.” Somehow, though, the infant Harry survived, and Voldemort vanished.
Harry now has no family except the Dursleys, so the visitors leave Harry at the doorstep to be raised by his uncle and aunt. Then, they disappear into the night.
Chapter 2: The Vanishing Glass
It’s ten years later. At the Dursley house, Harry lives in a cupboard like a domestic slave. Meanwhile, it’s his cousin Dudley’s eleventh birthday, and the spoiled brat whines because he’s only received 37 gifts.
His parents are taking him to the zoo and, since they can’t find a babysitter, have to take Harry along, even though he apparently always ruins things. Odd events tend to happen when Harry’s around, and he can’t explain how or why that’s the case.
When they get to the zoo and to the reptile house, Harry stops at the boa-constrictor display; he can actually hear the friendly snake talk to him. The glass on the boa-constrictor display suddenly vanishes when Harry approaches, and the snake gets free and makes a break for Brazil. There’s a huge panic at the zoo, which ruins Dudley’s special day.
Even though he didn’t do more than look at the snake, Harry’s blamed for the escape and, at home, he’s promptly sent back to his cupboard.
Chapter 3: The Letters From No One
A few months later, Harry’s eleventh birthday approaches. A letter addressed to Harry arrives in the mail. It’s his first letter, ever, which is especially curious since he doesn’t have friends or any other relatives. Harry’s Uncle Vernon hides the letter before Harry can read it, but won’t explain why.
Then another letter arrives, and another, and another, through the mail slot, delivered by owls, down the chimney, and even inside eggs. Someone desperately wants to reach Harry, and his uncle tries even more desperately to keep the letters from Harry.
Uncle Vernon drags the family out of the house and sets them up in a hotel, and eventually at a remote shack by the sea. No one will find Harry there, he assumes. But that night, as the family gets ready to turn in, with the clock striking midnight on Harry’s birthday, there’s a pounding at the door.
Someone has found Harry Potter.
And that’s where Chapter 3 ends.
I put the book down and realized something: The words wizard and magic don’t appear even once in those first three chapters. I guess J. K. Rowling really meant what she said about not giving things away too early on.
I mean, I’m not writing a Tolkien-esque high-fantasy saga, or the next Star Wars. I’m not writing a franchise with encyclopedias worth of world-building.
But, still, I do have what writing guru John Truby calls “the ghost.” The ghost is that stuff that happened before the first page of the novel and that still haunts the characters. And I thought, yeah, I need to make that ghost really present to the reader, before anything has even happened.
It’s sort of that same temptation as world-building: it’s about trying to persuade the reader that the story is fully realized.
And maybe there’s a lack of confidence behind that. I must not be completely sure the chapter can stand on its own, or that it will mean anything to anyone. So it needs the support of a backstory, whether that’s in meaty prologues or little narrative asides and character recollections. Otherwise, everything feels too ordinary, or maybe too opaque, like a conversation I’d overhear on the bus.
Then I realized that instead of saturating her story with expository details, J. K. Rowling parsed a lot of those out. What filled in those parts of the story, instead, was her narrative tone.
Now, here’s an unoriginal observation: there’s a strong Roald Dahl feel to the early chapters of the book. There’s a little of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, maybe, but a lot more of Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.
Yeah, there are plot similarities: all the protagonists live in neglect and abuse with uncaring parents or relatives. They live in some humdrum or remote town. The protagonists are underdogs, and yet they hold on to their big imaginations and secret powers, hoping one day it will all make sense. The three stories go in different directions after the first few chapters, but, yes, the plot similarities are there.
I’m actually more interested in the writing style, though. Here’s the first line of The Philosopher’s Stone:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Let’s compare that to the opening of Matilda:
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
And then early parts of James and the Giant Peach:
Their names were Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, and I am sorry to say that they were both really horrible people. They were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all.
In the Roald Dahl stories and in Harry Potter, the narrator has what I’d call a moralistic tone: The narrator judges the world while telling the story. The narrator is clearly on the side of the hero. The narrator makes snide remarks about the antagonists: “thank you very much” and “disgusting little blister” and “really horrible people.”
It’s a tone that’s often found in fairy tales, and even in some modern magical realist or fantasy stuff that’s trying to emulate fairy tales.
So instead of genre elements such as descriptions of kingdoms or the varieties of dragons, the right narrative voice actually does the heavy lifting of setting up the story.
If it sounds like a fairy tale, that immediately tells us that magical things will happen in the story, without having to actually explain them to the reader.
In The Philosopher’s Stone, that narrative voice tells us that magic and proper moral character are going to be key themes. And that’s actually pretty useful in the first chapter, maybe more so than backstory readers don’t yet care about. Readers don’t care about information. They care about people, about characters.
So whether you fondly remind readers of Roald Dahl or someone else, or you have your own strong voice, that’s up to you. But it’s the narrator’s job to weave that literary spell, more than to deliver information.
And that’s one of the things I wasn’t doing in my early drafts: weaving a spell. I was lost in the nitty-gritty details, formulas, structure, information, setups. I lost sight of the emotional feel, the way the story feels in the ear.
Action and character
But at the same time, I think back to all that advice about front-loading your best stuff into the first chapter, and I compare that to The Philosopher’s Stone.
You know, nothing exciting happens in the story early on. Instead, those crucial opening pages are all about Mr Dursley’s intentionally boring existence.
It’s even kind of interesting that the movie version completely left all that stuff out. Maybe the filmmakers thought it wasn’t a strong opening. The twenty-odd publishers who rejected J. K. Rowling’s manuscript probably would have agreed.
So, from a purely structural perspective, the stuff with Mr Dursley might feel like dead weight. And yet, it’s written with charm, and it’s about an oddly interesting character, even one who’s comically extreme in trying to not be interesting.
J. K. Rowling actually does plenty of world-building in the early chapters, but not about Hogwarts and the history of the four houses and all that. She does world-building that’s relevant to the character now, in the action and scene, as opposed to five chapters from now, or decades earlier.
It’s the aliveness of the now — the scenes, character moments — that leaps off the page, and makes readers curious to see where all the words and sentences will lead.
Mystery and pay-offs
And I’m reminded again of what J. K. Rowling said about giving too much away. That’s about mystery and suspense. Even in a non-mystery story, you’re working toward emotional pay-offs. I’m still figuring out how to balance a strong opening with not spoiling the pay-offs that come later.
I think what J. K. Rowling does well, though, rather than spoil the surprise, is to ask interesting questions. Sure, there are lots of questions about Harry and his past that come up in the early chapters. But the question of what’s in those hundreds of letters that bombard the Dursley home is maybe the biggest one of them all. What’s so explosive that his uncle is willing to relocate the family again and again? And do those weirdos in the cloaks have anything to do with all this? And what’s with the owls?
Readers desperately want to get to the bottom of these nagging questions. And when that’s tied to the hero’s own existence, when it’s driven by longing and unresolved emotion, it’s that much more powerful.
Harry Potter — both the book and the character — explores the world just like we do. Like us, he starts his story as a baby. He knows nothing about the world. He picks up information as he goes along in life. Some things don’t make sense, and others do. Just as we do in our own childhood, he slowly puts the pieces together and finds his place in the world. It’s that relatable character arc that’s baked into J. K. Rowling’s early chapters, and it has to be one of the reasons so many readers got so hooked on Harry’s story.
I am planning on looking at other books that take wildly different approaches in their early chapters. Meanwhile, I’m still writing and rewriting my own first chapter. And if J. K. Rowling’s fifteen rewrites are any indication, I have plenty of work ahead of me. I have plenty to learn from other novels in other genres.
For now, I’d love to know if this look at The Philosopher’s Stone gave you new things to think about for your own writing.
If you’re a Potter-maniac, what’s your memory of reading The Philosopher’s Stone for the first time? When did you know you were hooked?
Leave a comment, or share this essay with some of your fellow writers, so we can all learn together.
And follow me for my upcoming essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books.