Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Creating a Diagonal World

Continuing in our First Chapter Series of posts, I now enter JKR's delightful and amazing portal to world building. Before Hagrid takes Harry to Diagon Alley, JKR shows the reader through this first chapter that the exciting, enchanting wizarding world is only diagonally separated from the Muggle. Here is a fantasy where reality and the imagined world co-exist, but are not mingled as one. The secret world, the shadow realm, is a place hidden away in enchanted castles, inner-city streets, and all-wizarding villages. Still, when momentous events occur, the colorful spells shoot like stars into the air, the messenger owls fly to and fro, and the odd and cloaked wizards hug unsuspecting and unappreciative Muggles on the city streets.

So, what techniques did JKR employ in this first chapter to gently introduce her reader to the full-blown wizarding world which awaited in the chapters to come?  We'll look at the following craft techniques:

  1. Introduce the Magic
  2. Stir the Cauldron
  3. Use References to Carry You Further Afield
  4. Name Your World
  5. Imbue with Meaning
(Please note: I have numerous posts on JKR's world building in this blog that cover far more details on how she creates her worlds overall. This post relates only to the first chapter.)

1) Introduce the Magic:

Whether to drop your reader full-force into your created world, or gently nudge them in that direction as JKR did, will depend on your genre, story and tone. While stories set in your readers' contemporary real world have less foreign elements to introduce, the writer must still uncover the unique details of the specific location her characters inhabit. On the exact opposite end of the world building pole, writers of entirely created fantasy realms have an entire arsenal of details to acquaint their reader with.

The unifying technique which both sets of writers can glean from studying JKR's first chapter is to start with the comfortingly familiar and gradually introduce your reader into the more exotic elements. By starting with the familiar Muggle world, JKR immerses her readers into what they could readily identify with, thus allowing them to become full participants in the action to come.

This technique worked very well for many readers who did not normally read fantasy, such as myself. She clued us in from the start that here was not a world totally removed from our own, but rather one that breathed and existed alongside or diagonally connected to it, at times intersecting in odd and exciting ways. However, as our feet never left the solid Muggle ground of Privet Drive in this first peek into her magical realm, we were not overwhelmed with a place or people we had no part of.

2) Stir the Cauldron:

"The Boy Who Lived" chapter is masterfully orchestrated to build from the incongruous sight of a cat reading a map -- the first sign of the magical world -- to the onslaught of weird people in cloaks, oddly behaving owls, and shooting stars all over the country.  All this preliminary lead-to culminates with Albus Dumbledore's appearance on Privet Drive.

Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.

Albus Dumbledore didn’t seem to realize that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.

Because of JKR's carefully-crafted build-up, the readers' tension and expectation is at a high-pitch when Dumbledore finally makes his entrance. If JKR had started with Dumbledore's entrance, it would not have had quite the same magical effect because we would not have known how unusual for this world that he was.

Think of how many story themes JKR is able to hit upon with Dumbledore's apparance because she built up to it: the contrast between Magicals and Muggles (especially the Dursleys), the hint of secrecy and shame for those who are different, and the unique and powerful charm of Dumbledore.

Had JKR started with the lines above, as many of us writers would have as a result of being taught to "start where the action happens," we would not have this more powerful effect. Breaking rules, when done well, can work a powerful charm -- but that's an upcoming post! ;-)

3) Use References to Carry You Further Afield:

Even in a chapter which does not stray from the Muggle world, JKR uses references to widen the experience for the reader. Although Hogwarts is not (deliberately) mentioned, we have two professors and thus must know that a wizarding school needs somewhere to be nearby. Likewise, with Dumbledore's reference to the widespread celebrations which he passed on his way to Privet Drive and the shooting stars as far apart as Kent to Dundee, the reader understands that magical people are everywhere, not just locked off in some dark hamlet.

When you cannot carry your reader everywhere you want them to go in one scene or chapter, you can hint at what wonders await through the words and references of your characters.

4) Name Your World:

As Adam named the animals and Isis sought out the secret name of Ra, words have power, especially names. In the hands of a skilled linguist like JK Rowling, names are also quite fun. JKR has said in interviews that she collected unusual names. She obviously put tremendous amount of thought and research into what appellations she bequeathed her creations and characters. Not only are her names creative and unique, but they also carry a deeper meaning. I have a whole blog post on the meanings behind JK Rowling names, so I won't overlap too much here.

However, in this first chapter, I want to point out one dud -- the Put-Outer. Let's be honest -- "Put-Outer" is a fairly lame name for what will ultimately be called the Deluminator (a way cooler name) in Deathly Hallows. seems that JKR had not quite refined her talent for naming her creations. Either that or she didn't want to hint at what the Deluminator truly was this early in the story.

Still, we are introduced to the sour Dursleys and the spoiled Dudley, contrasted against a sweet-loving Dumbledore and a wild Hagrid. Those unusual wizarding names helped introduce the reader to characters who promised not to be as boring and unimaginative as the Dursleys.

5) Imbue with Meaning:

As writers, especially those of us who write in fantasy-style genres, we have fun creating our worlds. We want them to be full and bustling and richly detailed. We spend days, weeks, months of prep time creating every aspect of our villages and cities, our vampires and our fairies. The temptation then is to throw it all out at the reader from page one. But, like with character development, a little goes a long way. Don't overwhelm the reader in your first chapter with everything you know about your world. Introduce elements as necessary when their import is clear. When weaving in your details, make sure each one is indeed important and well-thought out, not just flung out as a colorful detail.

For example, in this first chapter, JKR makes no mentions of flying brooms and Quidditch -- though we know how important these elements are to the later story. Likewise there is no direct mention of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, dragons, or even wands. JKR was not in such a rush as to get it all out there from the get-go. She had time.

She had time and meaning. What is written into this first chapter is placed deliberately for a purpose, and every world building item mentioned has its deeper meaning. As mentioned above, think about the fact that in this first chapter JKR did not write in a broom or wand, even though the opportunity for both arises. Dumbledore could have used his wand to put out the street lamps and Hagrid could have ridden in on a broomstick (as could have Dumbledore).

But the fact that JKR chose a magical motorbike for Hagrid and the Put-Outer for Dumbledore carries significant meaning to the upcoming story. Through Dumbledore's question of where Hagrid got the motorbike, we know it is unusual, and Hagrid's answer gives an opportunity for the slyly-placed reference to Sirius Black. Whereas for Dumbledore, the Put-Outer hints at an enigmatic wizard whose office is filled with silver instruments and who possesses magic beyond his wand.

So, craft your world well.  Put all that fun time and energy into molding and shaping your worlds of complexity and delight.  But when it comes to editing down your first chapter, remember to keep it simple, important, and above all -- enchanting!

What other world building techniques do you see JK Rowling using in this first chapter?  What tricks have you used for creating and releasing your own world?


  1. Wow! I especially love this point: "you can hint at what wonders await through the words and references of your characters." Very true. AND the point that Dumbledore wasn't introduced until we'd been teased and prepped for it. Beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Lisa! You know, sitting down and examining the construction and techniques forces me to notice things I glossed over when just reading for pleasure.

  3. I love reading books and then going back and finding the hidden references in the first chapter that I didn't know about! Awesome post! As always. :)

  4. You are so great at quantifying the magic! I also love the world within the real world JKR creates with Harry's closet under the stairs that shows his disconnect with what we perceive as "real."

  5. Thanks Laura and Leslie! And Leslie, such an interesting perspective of the closet under the stairs. I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks!

  6. Oh man, this makes me want to go back and re-read that first chapter.

  7. Thanks Juliana! Welcome to the blog! :-)