Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Chapter One: Harry Potter

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm a great admirer of the HP septology.

The first couple of books were enjoyed by children as young as seven or eight; whether or not JKR was advised to make the first book more Year 1 and 2-friendly, I don't know, but there is a strong whiff of "I'm going to tell you a story" about the first one. It's simplistic and written with a fairly broad brush, although there are touches in it that, seen from the viewpoint of Book VII, hint at darker things, and show that the whole storyline was clearly envisaged before a word was written.

But it's nonetheless a children's book with the narrator strongly present in the first chapter. Book II is still an obvious children's book although -- Harry being a year older (12) -- the tone is slightly older.

However from Book III onwards (when the appeal for adults was acknowledged with adult versions of the dust-jacket) the storyline becomes progressively more complex and darker. I felt that, having produced two best-sellers, JKR was given the green light to write the books exactly as she wanted them with no publisher-imposed nod to the sensibilities of younger readers. (I believe she has said she would have liked to rewrite the first two books to reflect the style of the later books and make them more attractive to an adult audience.)

Books VI and VII deal with quite horrific matters: a man who tries to make himself immortal by secreting parts of his soul in artefacts -- the ripping of the soul achieved by murder. Throughout the septology the reader is confronted with death, abandonment, treachery, betrayal -- not the stuff of kiddies' books at all.

The first book is, as you say, very visual and contains enough jokey imagery and enough caricature to ensure the book translated well to film. And it's interesting to see that (in my opinion) the films get worse as the series progresses while their counterpart books get better -- a case of the imagination being far more effective than any amount of CGI.

As you say, Moody, the recurring phrase "The Boy Who Lived" is a terrific hook -- particularly as, from the age of 11, he has a hard job remaining the Boy Who Lived.....

Richard Maitland said...

Sorry, I should have signed that post.


mooderino said...

Thanks Richard, that was very illuminating for a layman like myself. Very glad you commented, helps me see the bigger picture.

CBame13 said...

I am a gigantic Harry Potter nerd, so I feel like I may be able to answer a few of the questions you have posed. The first book or two are definitely pretty heavy handed with the telling and belaboring certain points, but that serves a purpose with younger children. Since the idea of Hogwarts is that kids are selected when they are eleven to go makes it definitely make sense that Rowling was writing to a younger audience. The later books do expect more out of the readers.

As far as his accommodations, if Harry was in the wizarding world from the get go he would end up pampered and spoiled. This is important nearer to the endof the series as he has to be very selfless and be able to empathize.

The people walking around in cloaks serves to set up the mentality of the wizarding community as a whole. They are very much separated from the "Muggle" community and as such have developed a very different style of dress than one would consider normal.

I absolutely love these books even now, but I accept their juvenile feeling as part of the energy of the books. Throughout the series, Rowling has proven to be a bit erratic especially as she didn't know how it was going to end when she began it. It is definitely worth reading the series as a whole especially since the opening chapter does not do the book justice.

Just my two (or significantly more than two) cents

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I haven't ever read the Harry Potter books but your analysis seems spot on.

Michael Di Gesu said...

I am a super HP fan. I've read these books countless times before becoming a writer and afterwards. Before ... I loved every word of the first novel as well as the later books.

NOW, however, you hit on all the points that make it less than spectacular. She does tell A LOT... tons of adverbs, as you pointed out.

My first novel is an m/g fantasy. I did many of the things Rowling did in her first novel and I was massacred! TOO much TELLING, TOO MANY ADVERBS, TOO MANY NAME TAGS. Etc. All the things that were found in HP. I don't think this would cut it in today's market. The story's strong, but it would have to be edited to be active not passive. And all would have to be changed to showing.

As you stated the first book is very much geared to a younger audience. From the second book on she does change her style and her writing does become more sophisticated as the years pass.

I love the charm of the first book, but my true favorite is the third book.

Thanks for a great post Mood.

Laura Josephsen said...

I think others have pretty much said what I was thinking. One thing I love about the Harry Potter series is how it grows with the characters. The first book sounds very, very young, but as others have said, that changes as Harry grows. The storylines become incredibly interwoven and complex. There are things set up in the early books that end up being incredibly important later on--sometimes just as short facts or lines that you wouldn't think would be important. I love the whole series, but I've reread all or parts of the latter books far more than the first couple. My copy of book 3 was read so many times it's been taped back together. ;)

I'm actually reading the first book to my kids now, and it's really interesting to go back to it, as it's been years since I reread it, and see how the voice was then as opposed to the way it was in the latter books.

Brent Wescott said...

I don't think I can add anything more than what's been commented on already. First two books more for children. Get more grown up as Harry grows. I think Rowling was finding her way at first, but her writing really does get better and better.

mooderino said...

@cbame13 - thanks for the info, I I ahve to admit the books never struck a chord with me.

@Michael O - I guess we're the last two.

@Michael DG - I'm still not sure if standards were different back then or if she just managed to be the one person who got away with it. She has something of a unique career in publishing.

@Laura - it's been quite a phenomenon. Wonder what her next book will be.

@Brent- I wonder if she planned that change in voice or if it just grew as she did as a writer.

The general consensus so far seems to be that her style changed a lot over time. But in terms of helping an aspiring MG writer, clearly this was a first book that really took off so something about it was special and worked. Possibly in spite of the writing rather than because of it.

Sophia said...

I actually borrowed the book from a friend when the second book came out and when she gave it to me she told me to start at chapter five, I want to say, when Harry first enters the wizarding world via Diagon Alley. When I read the book the second time from the beginning I had to admit that for me the story only really got going then since up till that point we are mostly learning about how bad Harry's got it and how hard the Dursleys fight to keep him from his heritage. All necessary stuff, of course, but nowhere near as entertaining as Harry at Hogwarts.
- Sophia.

Matthew MacNish said...

Personally I read all the HP books BEFORE I became a serious writer, so I never had the chance to analyze them on this level, but if memory serves you are essentially right about all of this.

I will say that the later books get more complex, and the writing does seem to evolve along with them, but never to the point where it is highly sophisticated.

I don't write MG, but I do think it was the strength of the premise, the character, and the uniqueness of the tale that made the first book take off so much, more so than the writing. It simply had not been done before, and such a thing is very rare in literature of any genre.

mooderino said...

@Sophia - i think the early chapters set in the real world don't really work, you can't relaly tell if it's supposed to be our world or some fantasy creation where people randomly find a holiday shack on a rock in the middle of the sea. I felt the start was quite Roald Dahk influenced, but without his knack for selling his vision.

@Matthew - the point of these posts is to look at how great writers managed to sell their first book (something most of us are looking to do) and I've found something of ise in all of them so far, but this one really flummoxed me. I wonder if this was the original opening and how much influence the editor had.

Talli Roland said...

Dare I admit I've never read an HP book? I know, I know...

mooderino said...

@Talli - you can dare, I think JK won't mind too much, she has all the gold and diamonds she needs (for now).

Anonymous said...

I noticed the first chapter was Omniscient POV but that's okay. I don't mind the author taking a few liberties to set the stage for the reader. The story kept moving and for me that is what's important.

Libby said...

It has been a LONG time since I read that, way back in 2002 I think. I remember thinking I would hate the series and immediately falling in love with it, that's all I truly remember.

Lydia Kang said...

I found the beginning of HP very slow, but by the time they were in Diagon Alley I was hooked. I had my son read it too, who wasn't happy about it--he thought it was boring. So I made him finish the first fifty pages before he gave up and by that time, he was hooked.

mooderino said...

@Stephen - i do think readers are more forgiving than publishers make out to novices. Lots of good books have slow starts.

@Libby - 2002 only seems liek yesterday to me...

@Lydia - that's interesting. Thanks for the field research, good to know what the actual demographic thinks.

Arlee Bird said...

I really enjoyed your indepth analysis of this first chapter. I haven't read any of the Harry Potter series, but I'd almost like to read at least what you've talked about here just to get some perspective. I guess whatever flaws in technicality have been overlooked by fans due to something the book had going for it.

Good job in delving into some specifics of the writing.

Tossing It Out

Talei said...

Hello! I have an award for you at my blog, please do pop by when you can! ;-)

Suze said...

Not an HP fan, but I did read the first two books and 120 pages of the third. I don't recall having such disparaging reactions to the first book as those you have written. I read it on a three-hour layover + plane ride + the rest in bed that night after getting home. Can't have been too bad. And I was 28 at the time so it's not like I was the target audience.

Think I'll check out some of your other analyses to see how you handled those by comparison.

Charmaine Clancy said...

The first Potter book was on my reading list for a uni course I took, but have to admit it was the first chapter that made me put the book down and decide I couldn't plough through. I found it dull and too simplistic. I am quite happy to admit many people have pointed out the err of my ways, but eh, that was my take.
Now for the really embarrassing admission. Recently the series came out with a new cover in Australia and I loved the covers so much I bought the boxed edition - and I can't wait to read it! I know!
There's no helping some people :)

mooderino said...

@Lee - cheers, have addewd a link to the chapter available free online.

@Talei - thanks for the award!

@Suze — certainly wasn't meant to be disparaging, I try to put personal feelings aside when doing these. A syou can see from the other comments I'm not alone in my conclusions, even big fans concede this book was a little weaker than the others.

@Charmaine — at this point it's a cultural phenomenon so ideal research fodder for a children's author. and I hear it gets quite good.

Thanks for all the great comments. Will have to think long and hard about what book to do next for this series. All suggestions welcome.

Suze said...

Great, lots of people agree with your conclusions. I felt they were at least moderately disparaging-- which is not necessarily an emotionally-charged descriptor.

Two. Cents.

mooderino said...

@Suze - Lol, moderately disparaging is a bit like slightly demolish. I don't think I tried to affect the reputation of the book or the writer, mainly because it wouldn't be possible. It's place in literary history is assured. I was just trying to glean anything applicable to other book openings and didn't find anything. I see it as a unique phenomenon rather than a standard template.

Margo Berendsen said...

Great analysis! I remember feeling that the first chapter of such an amazing best selling series was a bit odd, esp. since the rest of the book (and series, with only a few exceptions) is firmly in Harry's perspective. I think it might possibly be a sign of Rowling's inexperience in the beginning - in other words, fantastic ideas and characters, but writing skills not yet fully developed.

You pointed out some great details though: I liked the point about Hagrid’s howl of despair, a physical manifestation of that feeling. It really pays to work over first chapters with a fine tooth comb.

Suze said...

I've a suggestion for your first-chapter analyses and didn't know where to submit it so I've done so, here.

How about, 'This Side of Paradise,' by F. Scott Fitzgerald? (For a comparison of pacing, description and dialogue with fiction of the last thirty years.) Or perhaps just a portion, since it's quite long. At any rate, the book is segmented in a fairly non-traditional manner and avails itself of uncommon devices within a single chapter.

Just a thought.

Suze said...

Just noticed your other response while looking to see if you had responded to the Fitzgerald suggestion.

I still contend that you can have moderate depreciation. I don't think disparaging a work is equal to demolishing say, a building. I wasn't insinuating that you 'lightly razed' the publishing industry's sacred cow.

At any rate, you've made it plain what you were trying to accomplish. I'll leave the topic be.

mooderino said...

@Suze - sorry I missed that Fitzgerald post. Not familiar with that book. I try to not do older books because the difference in styles back then makes it harder to take away many lessons (other than be brilliant and marry a nutter). It's hard to give advice to people writing literary fiction because it's a more personal approach (and they bloody well won't listen).

As for the other point, disparaging has a bit of a negative connotation, as in being dismissive and attacking someone's reputation, which is not how you meant it, but it's more fun if I pretend you did :P

Suze said...

Re: Fitzgerald, I cut my teeth on 'Tender is the Night' as a moony-eyed seventeen-year old. Right as I was falling 'madly' in love with Holden Caulfield and skipping merrily on to Zooey. Though I maintain an analysis would be wildly interesting, I quite see why it wouldn't be the best fit for the aims of this blog and its readers. (Back off on the fragile Zelda, there, moods.)

Perhaps we can chalk up the differences between disparaging and demolishing to British philosophers and American sorcerers. I'd venture to say, like so much else, it all 'boils down' to semantics-- which can indeed make for a lively spar.

Unknown said...

i have read almost all the harry potter books.they are intresting and insightful.I loved this book for the beauty of the writing..
Accredited High School Diploma Online

Anonymous said...

i love harry potter. its my fav book of all time. whats better than wizards!!!!:)

Anonymous said...

harry potter is so good, that, since its my fav book, im doinbg a book review on it. harry potter s an intriguing book, with lots of twists and turns. it makes you wanna be a character yourself. it is one of tha many "sit on the edge of your seat" book ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:)

Anonymous said...

I know it has been a while since you wrote this post, but I could not command myself to not post.

Harry Potter's first chapter is indeed a little slow compared to the rest of the story, but provides the reader with information that will be of use, not only for the rest of the book but, for the rest of the story.

I remember seeing a post of an interview with Rowlings where she mentions that as practically the whole series is from Harry's POV, the language in which it is written evolves as the character matures, and that the first chapter had to be from a different POV due Harry being a baby whom could not comprehend what was going on around him.

My eldest sister gave my a set of the first three books on a Friday and, as I was not reading anything at the time, I started to reed and did not finish until I did not put them down until the last word of the third book, by Sunday afternoon. I do have to add that my family spent a fantastic weekend in which I did not participate. I've read the series four times, in English of course, although the Spanish translation is not bad and have started to read it to my children.

Did you ever get to read the other books?

mooderino said...

@emilio-I don't think it's just that she adjusts the writing to suit Harry's age, I think she also improves as a writer as the series progresses. You can feel her trying to lay all the groundwork at the start of the first book, which is something that's necessary but it's quite obvious that's what she's doing.

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