This dissection is specifically looking at how best to construct an opening chapter of a novel, in this case for children. I should say first that I am not a big reader of middle grade books and will be approaching this first chapter the same as any other in the series (other books I’ve analysed can be found here: Chapter One Analyses), with a view to taking it apart to see what works, what doesn’t (and how she got round that), which conventions are used well, and which are broken to good effect.
Clearly this is one of the most famous and most revered books in children’s literature but I have attempted to approach it objectively, aided by the fact that I have never read any of the books in the series. It should also be remembered that chapter one in a published book as written may not have been chapter one in the original manuscript, or may have gone through many edits.
The original Harry Potter book was published in 1997 after being rejected by numerous publishers. The first chapter, thirteen pages, is a little different to the rest of the book, being in omniscient POV, very much in the narrator’s voice. The following chapters appear to switch to a more conventional third person POV from Harry’s perspective (although I don’t know if this remains so for the rest of the book).
The ‘when our story begins’ tone of this opener is a little grating, reminiscent of the English kids’ books of yesteryear that I found quite irritating even as a child. This made it feel like it was aimed at very young children, younger even than ten I would say. Any thoughts?
There is a lot of point blank telling by the narrator directly to the reader, and the introduction of the Dursley family is quite slow. The description of them is pretty broad comically speaking. He’s fat and she’s bird-like, and the tone is: Oh, children, they were so very, very horrid... A fairly humdrum start, so why keep reading?
I’d say the first clever thing here is the chapter subtitle: The Boy Who Lived. I think it has an intriguing quality that captures the imagination far more than the Dursleys. It also underlines the main theme of the book, death.
As I said earlier, there is a lot of telling here, what people think, what kind of people they are, what you should think of them. But also quite a lot of showing, In fact many of the points she tells the reader, she then goes on to illustrate. So, for example, she says the Durselys thought of their son that 'there was no finer son anywhere', and then shows him acting up and them doting over him. Normally you wouldn’t need to tell us that and then show it, you would just show it. She does this a lot, even in following chapters. It suggests to me that for children this spoonfeeding approach is more the norm (although I do not know if this is true).
In fact things are laid on quite thick at all times, if you are expected to notice something odd, you get the chance to do so many times, while being told how odd it is repeatedly. This makes for quite a slow paced read at times.
I’d say the first sign of a real imagination at work is when Mr D notices a cat reading a map. Up to that point it felt like an average kids’ book. Even though there’s no real action, the image of a cat reading a map is quite arresting, and sort of jumped out.
Technically the writing style is quite juvenile, simple sentences and not shy of using an adverb or thirty six, but she does get a lot of information across in an easy to understand manner. Possibly this is useful for this age group. I am tempted to read one of the later books to see if the style and complexity changed over time. Anyone who's read the more recent stuff have an opinion on that?
The first chapter is basically split into four section:
Meet the Dursleys. All telling here, they are horrible.
Off to work and noticing weird things going on. Here we are shown some stuff, but it’s laid on quite thick. However, Mr D’s panic and general denial about the Potters everyone seems to be talking about does build up some tension.
Dumbledore and McGonagall discussing Voldemort. The arrival of the two magical characters is nicely done. They then participate in a great deal of exposition and backstory, while leaving a few elements unclear. However there is some sense of emotion and regret at the deaths. I would say in story terms this bit was quite pedestrian, but emotionally it works quite well.
Arrival and leaving of Harry. Hagrid adds a certain frisson and heightens the emotion.
A big part of this chapter is making sure the reader knows that Harry is special. Mostly this is done by everyone constantly telling each other how special he is. Again, quite heavy handed.
I should point out that just because the author uses a lot of ‘telling’ doesn’t mean you can’t use this to ‘show’ stuff (how to use ‘tell’ in order to ‘show’ is discussed in greater depth here: Advanced Show, Improved Tell).
If she tells us how terrible the Dursleys are as a family and as people, and then leaves baby Harry on their doorstep do we really need to be told what this means for the poor child? Apparently yes. Professor McGonagall argues against leaving the child with these muggles who she describes as ‘you couldn’t find two people less like us’ without giving any real reason why she thinks so low of them. I mean she’s right, but she doesn’t make much of a case. Dumbledore’s argument that he’d find it hard growing up under the spotlight of fame and adulation is also quite flimsy. Not that it wouldn’t be tough, but worse than living under the stairs with people who hate him and who don’t believe in imagination?
So, as a first chapter the main purpose here appears to be to set the scene and fill in the background. It’s quite heavy handed and repetitive, and for a children’s book maybe that’s okay (although I don’t know if you were to do this in your MG book whether publishers would be fine with it). Certainly the ‘tell it and then also show it’ approach does make a kind of sense, as long as what you’re telling and then showing is quite interesting.
Some of it was quite good, some of it was less good (everyone walking around in cloaks just sounded silly) but the thing that stood out was the death of the parents and the orphaned child who was left with the unbearably awful family. That idea is well done (although not that original, had a very Cinderella feel to it) and emotionally you do feel something. Hagrid’s howl of despair, a physical manifestation of that feeling, really helped, I think.
It was also interesting to note that the first section of this chapter was the author telling the reader directly that the Dursleys were unpleasant people. When she later explain the stuff about Voldemort and the role Harry played, this is handled differently, a conversation between Dumbledore and McGonagall.Gave the chapter an oddly inconsistent vibe, for me.
As you can probably tell I wasn’t very impressed with this opener on a technical level. It never felt like I was in the hands of an assured pro who was deliberately doing it this way, it felt much more haphazard than that. The tone veered from caricature to melodrama to surreal flights of fancy.
Ultimately this age group does require more direct explaining of what’s going on, but I think the creation of images is also important. Owls everywhere, cats reading, a donut in a bag, a giant on a flying motorbike, a baby throwing cereal, a scar shaped like a map of the London Underground... whether magical or mundane she does manage to punctuate the exposition with these pictures and they are what held the chapter together for me.
At its heart I think what makes this story stand out though is the way it taps into the greatest fear of all kids, losing their parents. It’s not just part of the backstory, it’s really hammered home, from the sub-heading all the way to the last line of the chapter. Harry Potter – the boy who lived.
I'm not sure how much there is to learn here, it feels like quite a one-off and it was hard for me to tell what the aim was; far harder than any of the other books in this series of posts. I would be very interested to know how people more familiar with the genre, the age group and the books feel about my comments and how you see the opening chapter.
BTW if you'd haven't read it and would like to, to better grasp what I'm talking about you can find it online here.