Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time-Turning Back Seven Books

Where did the magic begin? Is it possible to go back and look at the inception of Harry Potter to discover exactly what technique it was that, with a flick of her wand, made JKR's story rise so far above all those other magical fantasy stories which had come before? As writers, we are told that we either win or lose our audience within a few first pages. Can we look at JKR's first 17 (23 from Bloomsbury) and find that extra savory morsel that lured her readers in with such large numbers?

This post started out as a long analysis of chapter one of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone as it is here that the world-wide publishing phenomenon began. That is not to say that the WHOLE reason for why Harry Potter achieved the heights that it did can be found here, but rather the seed. From this seed, as JKR enhanced her craft and deepened her tone, Harry's story sprouted roots and shot forth, encompassing an ever-widening audience, until it blossomed into the phenomenon that it still is today, even four years after the release of the last and final book.

However, in writing this post to cover the whole first chapter, I quickly discovered that there was way too much to say to burden one blog-sized post with. So, I have broken the analysis down into six upcoming parts:
  1. characterization
  2. world building
  3. mystery
  4. stakes/conflict
  5. backstory
  6. voice
Usually, when I give workshops or otherwise analyze the series, I say that I believe the key to JKR's success rests on the first three key qualities above:
  1. her quirky, fun, full-bodied cast of characters
  2. her fully developed, magical, I-so-want-to-live-there world building, and
  3. her trail-of-clues mysteries that engaged the reader and spanned all seven books
With Harry Potter, and in particular this first chapter, it is hard to decide which is greater -- the world building or the characterization. Both are freshly and genuinely developed and draw the reader into the story, but neither of them are at full-force in "The Boy Who Lived."

For example, while the characters that are introduced in chapter one -- the Dursleys, McGonagall, Dumbledore and Hagrid -- are all creative and larger-than-life or comically exaggerated characters, we don't even meet our hero Harry.  Well, not until the end and he is asleep. But we hear about him.

As for the world building -- we don't enter the wizarding world full-blown in this first chapter either. We are given tantalizing snippets of it through Mr. Dursley's eyes and how it intersects the Muggle world.  So, in reading anew this very first chapter, I think it was a different element than the three mentioned above that ignited the spark.

Overall, knowing that the initial audience for this book was children -- the adult audience only grew later -- I think what drew them in from the very beginning was the tone JKR used for this first chapter. You will notice that it is not a tone which she continues throughout the series. But the tone she employs here is very conversational, engaging, and fun that includes tantalizing lures of childhood fantasies such as the maligned and misunderstood orphan and a journey to a magical place where they become the star.

Let's look at the tone first.
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
then later:
When Mr and Mrs Dursley woke up on the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country.
From the beginning, JKR talks directly to her young reader in a conversational tone: "thank you very much," and "our story starts" are two examples of this.

Then, in omniscient POV, she tells us straight up what's to come, nothing "to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country."

Telling is bad, right?

Still, here it gives the reader a heads-up that is then followed with concrete, fun examples: a cat reading a map and keeping post by the Dursley's house, owls swooping about everywhere in broad daylight, people in cloaks on the city streets, huddled together talking excitedly, and shooting stars in numbers that should not have been.  And throughout all of this, the Dursleys are depicted as small-minded people that the narrator obviously disdains.

Then for the child fantasies, juxtapose McGonagall's protestations to Dumbledore:
"You couldn't find two people who are less like us.  And they've got this son -- I saw him kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets."
against her prophetic statement (really she could give Trelawney a few lessons) a couple of paragraphs later:
"These people will never understand him!  He'll be famous -- a legend -- I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in future -- there will be books written about Harry -- every child in our world will know his name!"
Even before McGonagall's prediction became reality, I think this early intro of Harry played very well to JKR's target audience. Children love to think of themselves as different than those around them and smarter than their elders.  With her conversational tone, JKR brought her young readers into an intimate circle as separate from and looking down on this family of Muggles and those in their real world and thus set her readers up to be a part of the "in crowd" with the wonderful, wizarding characters to come. What child reader is not going to readily identify with Harry rather than the Dursleys?

From the editor's daughter that pestered her father to buy the unpublished manuscript, to the word of mouth generated from playground to playground, children were drawn into Harry Potter and wanted more of it.  All the elements we will be discussing through this series of posts focusing on "The Boy Who Lived" chapter came together to engage the reader from the start.  But overall, I think the initial engagement was the pull into an exciting and magical world where characters were larger than life and ultimately where that child was (with a wink and a nod) to be included as one of the magical.


  1. This is an excellent - and timely - post. It was the first chapter that set the scene and moulded my opinions. :)

  2. I agree with you about the three key qualities to the HP series success! I know for me it was definitely the quirky characters and the unique world building. JK Rowling has such an amazing imagination!

  3. Thanks Elaine and Laura! And I totally agree with you, Laura, about her imagination. :-)

  4. I watched Deathly Hallows P1 last night, and I thought of you. I asked the kids in my class why they love Harry Potter so much. My favorite answer was, "He thought something was wrong with him, and then he learned there was something beyond awesome about him." I thought that summed up what a lot of kids going through adolescence feel. Thank you, Harry.

  5. I agree with you. And yes it started with telling but it's excellent telling which is the highest and hardest form of writing to get right. It's on of those rules to break but only if you can do it right.

  6. I always love your analyses. Seriously, they ring so true. I think it's also a good opportunity to point out that SOMETIMES telling vs. showing is preferable. :D

  7. Leslie -- you pinpoint exactly what I was trying to say with this first analysis. Most kids at this age worry that something is wrong with them, that they're not good enough and the fantasy of becoming a super star of some sort is greatly appealing. From the beginning, JKR pulled them in with this lure -- you're going to read about a kid who discovered his special powers and you're going to be a part of it!

  8. Laura and Lisa -- thanks so much! One of the posts I'm going to do at the end of this first chapter analysis will focus on the "mistakes" JKR made and why they worked for her. It will be fun!