Well Begun

by Robbie Fischer

Many experienced writers would agree that a key cause of “writer’s’ block” is the problem of how to begin their story. One mistake that many beginning and amateur writers make is to insist on starting at the beginning and writing straight through, whether it be a novel or a short story, a symphony or a research paper. When the perfect opening, or the way into the subject matter, does not immediately present itself, they are paralyzed.

Professional, working writers, on the other hand, often write their works in pieces, all out of order; then they collate the parts together, insert transitional passages. It may not be until the very end that they craft an opening sentence or paragraph or chapter to fit the all-but-completed work. This is certainly how the most prolific authors and musical composers have worked — those people who can say “I write so many words or pages per day” — whether or not those pages end up being part of the finished work, or completely rewritten many times. This is also apparently how J.K. Rowling writes.

JKR has admitted to wrestling with the opening chapters of some of her books, often rewriting or rethinking what she had earlier planned to do. Clearly, the first chapters of her books serve as more than just a departure point, from which everything follows. Each first chapter was crafted to begin the book in such a way that we would be pulled in and compelled to accompany Harry on each of his perilous journeys. Ms. Rowling’’s first chapters “hook” us with tension, humor, mystery, sympathy, surprise, and most importantly, the wonderful magic that fires our imaginations.

The First “First Chapter”: “The Boy Who Lived”

I would submit that the first Harry Potter book, Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, has not one but two “first chapters.” The first two chapters both serve the purpose of getting us into the action, each in a different way. Perhaps chapter 1, “The Boy Who Lived,” could be viewed as a prologue to the book, or even to the whole series. Nevertheless, what we may forget around the twelfth re-reading is that “The Boy Who Lived” does everything a first chapter should do, and does it perfectly.

I call it a prologue, rather than a real “chapter 1,” for several reasons. First, “The Boy Who Lived” is one of those few chapters in which the point-of-view does not stick limpet-like to Harry himself. Second, though it does contain details that will be good to know later on, this chapter is not strictly necessary to the structure of the book. PS/SS could have easily started with the chapter titled “The Vanishing Glass” with hardly any loss to the narrative as such. Third, “The Boy Who Lived” explains the background of the story, rather than setting events in motion. Much of that background is repeated later in the book, in a different form.

Nevertheless, I would never say that “The Boy Who Lived” is an unnecessary chapter. The background that it establishes is vital to understanding, and accepting, the things that Hagrid, Dumbledore, and other characters reveal later in the book and the series as a whole. Having this chapter up front creates a kind of first-person “memory” of the night Harry became an orphan, validating or clashing with things Harry hears and experiences later (such as the sneers of Lord Voldemort, or the hallucinations caused by the dementors).

But the most important reason Book One must start with this chapter that, breaking the pattern of all the other books, does not actually take place in “Year One,” is that it casts a spell over the reader, leading us irresistably onward.

“The Boy Who Lived” opens the series by depicting the polar opposite of the magical world where Harry belongs: the Dursley home. In their zeal for being normal, the Dursleys have gone so far from being magical as to become abnormal. In their studiedly bland, suburban lifestyle they are not just ordinary, but grotesquely common. Their ill-natured, self-conscious abstention from all things odd and magical makes them appear, by contrast, twisted and unwholesome. By opening with a portrait of the Dursleys, JKR immediately prepares us to wish for, and believe in, something magical.

Already in the very first pages of the book, the world of magic is positioned as the healthy, normal alternative to the unpleasantness of Dursleyism. So when the first hints of magic show up in about paragraph 5, we greet them with a thrill of joyful recognition. First comes the glimpse of an owl (not seen by the Dursleys). Then, a few lines later, Mr. Dursley spots a cat reading a map. Even with evidence of magic before his eyes, Dursley remains true to his nature and dismisses what he has seen.

The tickly, goose-pimply tension builds as Dursley goes through his day. We see people in robes, more owls in broad daylight, the whispers about Harry Potter, and a collision with a wizard I like to think of as Dedalus Diggle. Then the cat turns up again (and gives Dursley a “stern look”). The crescendo continues through the evening news and peaks with Dursley reaching the conclusion that the “Harry Potter” he had heard about earlier was, indeed, his wife’’s nephew.

Then the curtain is pulled aside and we see the magic world behind it all. Away with tantalizing glimpses! Now we meet Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid, and we hear for the first time about Voldemort. After meeting the Dursleys, you sympathize with the grief these wizards feel in leaving young Harry on their doorstep. We have seen a put-outer, a giant on a flying motorcycle, and an animal-human transformation. We have heard mention of the difference between wizards and Muggles, the fate of Harry’’s parents, what Voldemort did to Harry’’s parents, and what he tried and failed to do to Harry. We have seen that while wizards and witches vary in temperament from the reckless Diggle to the stiffly upright McGonagall, the good ones at least have sympathetic hearts (Hagrid in particular) and, in Dumbledore’s case, a streak of humor and wit. We have learned enough about the magical world to guess that something very special is in store for “the boy who lived” — but little enough that the chapter’s ending is as mysterious as it is touching. And there it is: a first chapter that does everything a book needs its first chapter to do!

The Other First Chapter: “The Vanishing Glass”

I think there could an interesting experiment in handing some first-time readers a version of PS/SS that begins with Chapter Two, “The Vanishing Glass.” I have a hunch that they would be quite engaged, and would miss very little of the real first chapter. This is because “The Vanishing Glass” also does many of the things a first chapter should do. Plus, it is really the beginning of Harry’s seven-year journey.

This is the chapter that establishes Harry as a sort of “Cinderfella” who is despised at home, even though we already know that he is admired by many people he has never heard of. This is the chapter where we learn that Harry doesn’’t even know he’’s a wizard.

JKR cleverly pays out the information about the way Harry lives at the Dursleys’ house. We first learn that they don’’t take pictures of him or dote on him, as they do with their son Dudley. Aunt Petunia’’s shrillness is completely out of character with the picture of domestic peace and affection that the pictures in their living room gives. Nearly two pages go by before we learn that Harry’’s bedroom is the cupboard under the stairs, but by then we are prepared to believe any injustice the Dursleys might perpetrate against Harry.

The contrast between the way the Dursleys treat the bloated, spoiled Dudley and poor Harry is so extreme that, once again, the point is made: the Dursleys are not merely living without magic, but in a willful rejection of magic that transforms their ordinariness into something sick and wrong. As JKR will continue to make clear throughout the series, the source of Harry’’s misery at home is not that he lives with Muggles, but that the particular Muggles he lives with take their intolerance to the point of paranoia.

But up to this point, Harry doesn’’t even know that magic exists. The events of this chapter and the handful of chapters that follow it gradually reveal to Harry his own nature, and the nature of the world in which he belongs. But at the stage of “The Vanishing Glass,” Harry is understandably miserable and confused. He is starting to notice things that do not fit into the worldview the Dursleys have brutally pounded into him. And the only way he can explain to himself why the Dursleys mistreat him, is to implicitly believe that anything different about him must be bad.

The trip to the zoo epitomizes this. For no apparent reason Harry is threatened, yelled at, nearly deprived of the zoo trip and the ice cream treat, and generally shown to be deprived, distrusted, and desperately lonely. So instead of being sinister, Harry’s conversation with the Brazilian boa constrictor comes as a ray of comfort, sparkling with mischievous fun. It even seems to be worth the punishment he suffers for it (that, and the disappearing glass, of course). Why? Because it gets Harry thinking about what he is, what the snake incident and other portents might mean, and what is really different about him. The chapter leaves Harry thinking about his loneliness and his (so far disappointed) fantasies of something better coming his way. So it prepares him for the magical news that, over the next couple of chapters, will be maddeningly withheld from him and finally (after its magical nature has become so obvious that there is no point hiding it any longer) revealed.

Chapter Two of PS/SS carries out many of the essential tasks of a good first chapter. Its ending, however, is unusually low-key and ineffective, as JKR’’s chapter-endings go. In fact, it almost seems as if JKR’s train of thought ran off the tracks here, or as if it was meant to continue without a break into the next chapter, until something else was inserted. Someday, perhaps, high-level scholars will unpick the seams where JKR stitched things together, and show us the different pieces she wrote and the connecting parts she added to hold them in place. Until then, I’’ll just say that Chapter Two is a “first chapter” that, in its final form, demanded the better and more perfect first chapter that now precedes it.

Second Book, First Chapter: “The Worst Birthday”

In her very next book, Ms. Rowling earned another “perfect 10” in the category of First Chapter. Chamber of Secrets opens with the chapter titled “The Worst Birthday,” which charges directly into the absurd, whimsical territory where the world of magic and the Muggle world intersect. Instead of building slowly to the discovery of magic in modern-day suburbia, JKR smacks us in the face with it, jolting the unprepared reader in the first two paragraphs with the bizarre fact that Harry Potter has an owl in his bedroom.

A page later, the explosion resulting from the phrase “”You’’ve forgotten the magic word”” re-establishes the “baseline” of the non-magical side of Harry’’s life, in which the Dursleys’’ pathological hatred of magic comes into focus. Shortly afterward come the two paragraphs that tell everyone who read PS/SS what they already know, and that let any other readers in on the joke: Harry isn’’t a normal boy. He’’s a wizard!

Cue a page and a half of tightly worded re-exposition, making sure that anyone who has forgotten Book One, or skipped it entirely, can follow what’s going on. Now I understand that some people find all the bits, where JKR reviews what happened in the previous books, to be unnecessary and tiresome. However, I think this is an essential part of her storytelling genius. In a few words, appropriate to Harry’’s situation in the new story and quite entertaining in their own way, JKR makes sure we know the very stuff we would be scratching our heads over if she hadn’’t told us. I’’ve read at least one series in which the author did not do this, and when there was a gap of months or years between the books (during which I read many other things), it was more than I could do to recall the background from the previous book. This seriously affected my ability to enjoy the new book. JKR not only avoids this problem, but she swiftly re-establishes the magical world of PS/SS in these crucial, early paragraphs of CoS.

Then Vernon gets Harry’’s hopes up by saying something about today being a very important day. Harry’’s hopes rise, then collapse again as it turns out Vernon is referring to the dinner party with the Masons. Here we see depicted, once again, the extreme disparity between Dudley and Harry in their treatment by the Dursleys: the one blindly indulged, the other cruelly put down. Only after a scene of inspired absurdity, in which the Dursleys rehearse their dinner plans, do we find out what Harry was hoping to hear about this very special day: “Happy birthday to me…” Sympathy kicks in. Then another bit of re-exposition, followed by the creepy mystery and sense of foreboding that begins when Harry notices the hedge staring back at him.

Pathos and black humor wind the chapter up to its final, unexplained surprise: when Harry enters his bedroom, someone is already there. And with that, we are hooked for another new adventure!

Book Three, Chapter One: “Owl Post”

A browse through the Table of Contents of Prisoner of Azkaban shows that the first chapter, “Owl Post,” is intentionally book-ended with the last chapter, titled “Owl Post Again.” So now, in case any of us have missed the clues so far, we have solid evidence that this book is part of a continuing series. And now, in yet another inspired First Chapter, JKR launches directly into Harry’’s life on the borderline between Muggles and magic. In the very first paragraph, she reveals several whimsical, unusual things about Harry, concluding with the observation that “he also happened to be a wizard.”

Every time I re-read this series, it is this first paragraph of Book Three that always strikes me as the series’ most perfect opening. I can’’t help but grin when I read it. The next few paragraphs then proceed to put flesh on the bones of Harry’s very unusual situation. Like many ordinary children, we find him reading by flashlight under his covers at night. But what he’’s reading is school work –— and magical school work at that.

Soon afterward, we are told that Harry’’s foster parents have a “very medieval attitude toward magic,” in interesting description that delivers a ton of information in the briefest terms. Then comes the obligatory first-chapter re-exposition of things established in previous books, only this time it is ingeniously mixed with humorous anecdotes such as Ron’’s attempt to reach Harry by phone, and the uselessness of the owl named Errol. The package of birthday letters and presents combines a bit of backstory with foreshadowing of things to come (such as the Sneakoscope, and the Monster Book of Monsters). Looking both backward and forward, combining humor and sympathy for Harry’’s tiresome situation, the chapter completes its mission with the third-year Hogwarts letter, awakening anticipation and tension (how will Harry get the Dursleys to sign his permission slip?), and closing with a remark about Harry being like any other boy his age –— completing a circle with the start of the chapter. Brava!

Book Four, Chapter One: “The Riddle House”

The first chapter of Goblet of Fire, titled “The Riddle House,” ventures into new territory by adopting the point of view of a different character: the ill-fated Muggle named Frank Bryce. Certainly, in the final sentence of the chapter, it turns out that Harry Potter witnessed the events of this chapter in a dream. Nevertheless, this chapter steps outside the narrow perspective of most of the series thus far. And this is very appropriate, since this book marks a sudden shift to a much broader narrative scope.

Most of what this chapter accomplishes is a tantalizing foreshadowing of an ominous and mysterious kind. We know that Wormtail has rejoined his master, and that the Dark Lord is on his way to returning in the flesh. We know that torture, betrayal, and murder are on Voldemort’’s dance card, but he still hesitates to step out because of the vigilance of Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic. We even get a gruesome hint about what You-Know-Who has in mind, when he tells Wormtail that many of his followers would give their right hand to be in Wormtail’’s place.

Magic is certainly in this chapter, as well as tension, mystery, surprise, and sympathy (on Frank Bryce’s part). There is very little humor to hook us into the oncoming adventure, which is part and parcel with the fourth book’s darker and more serious tone. This is no longer just a tale told to amuse the kiddies. There is serious and dangerous stuff looming ahead. And the terrifying bit that compels us to turn the page to Chapter Two is that Harry Potter, a kid we care about, is in the most serious danger of all.

Book Five, Chapter One: “Dudley Demented”

Once again, JKR hooks us into another new adventure with a first chapter full of shocks and surprises. In Order of the Phoenix it is a thrill to see that Harry is no mere passive victim, but a boy of action and power. It is also impressive to see the “formula” of Harry’’s summers with the Dursleys, separated from the world of magic, instantly shattered in such a dramatic way. Lest the predictable sequence of books (year five follows year four, yawn…) become tiresome, the author shakes things up right at the start.

Unfortunately — and this criticism applies to the whole fifth book in general –— more editing would have done this chapter good. Some of the conversations in it go around in circles, and Harry himself is at an unappealing stage in growing up; the broader pace means more extensive scrutiny of his volatile emotional state, which soon becomes a bit obnoxious. This is more evident on a second reading, however. The first time through, the level of detail seems impressive, and helps to convince us of the surprising and unlikely events that take place.

What is more surprising and unlikely than Harry seeing Dudley, Petunia, and even Vernon in a more sympathetic light? What is more shocking than the signs of neglect and even outright hostility that Harry is picking up from the magical world, where he was (and still should be) widely admired? And what could be more unexpected than encountering a life-or-death climax in Chapter One; encountering fiendish, magical creatures in the neighborhood where the Dursleys live; and finding out that one of the neighbors is somehow connected with the wizarding world?

Besides all this surprise and tension that the chapter “Dudley Demented” generates, there is also a lot of humor. Yes, it’’s back, people! From Harry’’s sarcastic answers to his aunt and uncle to his exchange of cutting remarks with Dudley (who, surprisingly, holds his own pretty well), right down to the batty appearance of Mrs. Figg whose chapter-ending words are so astonishing that they might make you laugh out loud, this chapter is as funny as it is scary. And even though the dementors have gone, they leave behind an earthshaking situation for the young hero, meaning that we just HAVE to turn to the next chapter and see what he does!

Book Six, The Book With Three Beginnings

The first chapter of Half-Blood Prince, titled “The Other Minister,” was reportedly based on an idea JKR had for opening one of the earlier books. It works nicely in Book Six, but at the same time, it has so little to do with what happens in the book that it might as easily be called a Prologue as a Chapter One. In a new way, Ms. Rowling creates a sense of the odd, non-geographic boundary between magic and the Muggle world, which can only be crossed by people from the magic side. She shows an educated, accomplished modern Muggle struggling to deal with the elementary principles of the magical world that intersects with his own. And it shows how the return of Lord Voldemort has grown into a crisis affecting both worlds, even so far as to change the “formula” that has held up until now (e.g., Cornelius Fudge is no longer the Minister for Magic). This reminds me of the “first” First Chapter of PS/SS, in which the First Voldemort Crisis has just passed.

Then comes “Spinner’’s End,” which in a way is another prologue chapter, modeled perhaps on Book Four’’s “The Riddle House.” Ominous magic, dreadful portents of things to come for Harry, agonizing uncertainty about Snape’s loyalty, and even a bit of black humor set up another mystery that will unfold inexorably as we turn every irresistible page that follows. Both of these first chapters have a mixture of mystery, horror, and humor, but this one brings it down to a much more personal level while “The Other Minister” paints it on the broad canvas of what is happening across Britain. We learn here that first Draco Malfoy, and then Snape as well, have a doom laid on them and if they want to live, somebody else has to die. We’’re too busy wondering how Snape is going to get out of his Unbreakable Vow to kill Harry to consider whether he intends to get out of it, or whether Harry is indeed the target. It’’s a brilliant feat of deception.

But it isn’’t until Chapter Three, “Will and Won’’t,” that Harry himself comes into the story. Once again, magic penetrates the Dursleys’ scrupulously magic-proof home, as Dumbledore finally confronts them face-to-face. Things seem to be back on the right footing between Harry and Dumbledore and the magical community in general — though appearances can be deceiving. Lingering questions about whether Harry will return to Privet Drive and what will become of Grimmauld Place and its house-elf are (seemingly) answered, and the tension of the meeting of Dumbledore and the Dursleys finally propels Harry and his mentor out into the night and the adventure that it holds.

What we don’’t necessarily realize at this point is that Dumbledore is “setting his household in order,” as it were. My reading, and re-reading, of this chapter, picks up on hints suggesting that Dumbledore does not expect to see the final chapter. He is scrambling to make what arrangements he can before the need comes that he may not be able to supply.

Once again, I suspect that Book Six could have started very effectively with the chapter “Will and Won’’t,” and the few plot holes that would result could be easily patched up. However, I stand by JKR’’s decision to preface it with “Spinner’’s End,” because it sets up a sense of dread foreboding and “Will he or won’t he” guessing that thrums, like a high-tension wire, all the way through the book. Prefacing the preface with “The Other Minister” serves the narrative purpose of the opening shot of a movie in which the camera dolleys over the landscape and finally zooms in on, say, Harry Potter’’s bedroom. The crisis is afoot. It has something to do with Snape and Draco Malfoy. And it has something to do with Harry and Dumbledore. What will it be? For the answer to that, you must turn to chapter four and beyond.

Every book has a beginning, but some beginnings are better than others. Without a good beginning, we might never reach the middle or the end. One of the most profound testimonies to J.K. Rowling’’s storytelling power is her virtually unerring ability to craft the right first chapter to lead us into each of her books. I can hardly stand to wait to read the first chapter of Book Seven. While there is much more to each of her books than you can find in their respective first chapters, you can tell by reading these first chapters that they are stories worth reading, and indeed, hardly possible to stop reading until the final chapter!