Friday, June 17, 2011

The Mystery of the Backstory

Continuing in our First Chapter Series of posts, I've decided to combine both mystery and backstory into one. The reason: in chapter one of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, the backstory IS the mystery.

Here's what JKR had to say herself about her first chapter, especially concerning the mystery and backstory:

There were many different versions of the first chapter of 'Philosopher's Stone' and the one I finally settled on is not the most popular thing I've ever written; lots of people have told me they found it hard work compared with the rest of the book. The trouble with that chapter was (as so often in a Harry Potter book) I had to give a lot of information yet conceal even more. There were various versions of scenes in which you actually saw Voldemort entering Godric's Hollow and killing the Potters and in early drafts of these, a Muggle betrayed their whereabouts. As the story evolved, however, and Pettigrew became the traitor, this horrible Muggle vanished. (from

In an earlier post, I talked about how the great agent Donald Maass says, "Backstory is called backstory because it belongs in the back of the story." In becoming experienced novelists, we must learn to control the urge to overload our beginning with the new writer syndrome of The TMI of Backstory. However, we must not leave our reader confused, therefore SOME backstory is absolutely required. What can we learn from JKR's example?

One, rewrite until you get it right. The importance of the first chapter cannot be overstated. And two, backstory is closely linked to your novel's mystery or story question. Readers are compelled to continue because they identify with the character and want to know what happens to her. This latter part of this equation, the mystery or story question, necessitates withholding information from your reader. If the reader knows all up front, there is no compelling urge to go forward.

But, you never want your reader to be hopelessly confused, nor do you want her to feel cheated when your final answers are revealed. You must play fair all along.

Let's see what JKR did and did not reveal in "The Boy Who Lived:"

Part of Backstory Set Forth:

  1. Voldemort killed Harry's parents
  2. Voldemort tried to kill Harry
  3. Voldemort was "gone"
  4. "Young" Sirius Black lent Hagrid a motorbike (but notice how subtly that was woven in, with just a short, one-sentence reference from Hagrid and nothing more said.  No reaction to draw attention to this sly reference that will be incredibly important two books down the line).

And that's it! That's all JKR reveals in this first chapter, which leaves the reader to wonder:

  1. Why would such a powerful and dark wizard want to kill a baby boy?
  2. How will that scar prove useful one day, as Dumbledore suggests?
  3. What are these dark powers which Voldemort possessed that Dumbledore was too noble to use (a detail nicely woven in through dialogue, I might add!)?
  4. Why does Mrs. Dursley not want to have anything to do with her sister?
  5. What did Dumbledore reveal in the letter he left with Harry?
  6. And why DID Harry survive?

First, notice how JKR drops in most of the backstory as conversation between McGonagall and Dumbledore. In fact that's the real reason for McGonagall's presence on that wall -- to question Dumbledore and thus interestingly inform the reader of all that has happened. Well, not all.

Think of how much more effective it is to have McGonagall voice shocked surprise that "After all he's done...all the people he's killed...he couldn't kill a little boy?" (p. 12), than to begin with a narrative voice revealing pure backstory. The reader accepts McGonagall's surprise and absorbs it better because we have seen the lengths she will go to to get this info and have come to know her.

Similarly, earlier in the chapter, JKR gave the biggest hint of the mystery when she wrote a tiny old man in a violet cloak hugging Mr. Dursley and telling him to rejoice, "for You-Know-Who has gone at last! Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating this happy, happy day!"

So, what backstory that is not revealed in this first chapter?:

  1. The prophecy
  2. Snape's involvement in revealing the prophecy to Voldemort
  3. Snape's love of Lily
  4. James' and Snapes' hatred for each other
  5. Wormtail's betrayal
  6. Wormtail's framing of Sirius
  7. The Fidelius Charm
  8. The Potter's involvement in the original Order of the Phoenix
  9. That James died trying to protect his family
  10. That on Snape's request, Voldemort offered Lily the chance to live
  11. That Lily sacrificed herself to save Harry
  12. That this sacrifice gave him protection from Voldemort
  13. That this protection can live on in his skin and also protect him in the house of his aunt
  14. That Voldemort's act of murder created a Horcrux which attached to Harry
  15. That Voldemort had created many Horcruxes before to safeguard his life, or
  16. That Wormtail, after cutting off his finger and framing Sirius, escaped into his animagus form and went to live with a family of a boy who will become Harry's best friend.

See the difference?

All this withheld backstory became key mystery components in later parts of the series. All became story questions that kept JKR's frenzied fans speculating and guessing and writing their own fanfiction with their own hypotheses until the final revelations. And all because of her masterful withholding of backstory and her sly method of dropping a trail of breadcrumbs for her readers to follow.

And she's still at it. Look at what she's doing in these last few days with this news announcement regarding Pottermore, whatever it is. Does JKR, like any other sane author, just come out with a news announcement that says "I'm doing xyz and here's the website for it up and running"?


JK Rowling must plot and plan, spreading her trail of clues among ten fansites in various languages from all over the globe, each with a snippet that has to be pieced together to only reveal one word -- a clue in itself. That word is then used to unlock a mystery website, still not fully revealed, where each day for a week, I suspect, some new clue will be released until the final revelation.

All of which will drum up her fans into a fevered pitch so much more so than a simple press release would have done.

And you can do it too!

No, you can't start off with the type of rabid fan attention which JKR receives when she simply opens her mouth, but she didn't start there either. She began with one chapter. One chapter which she revised until she got it right. One chapter in which she hacked and sawed, rewrote and re-envisioned until she had just the right balance of backstory revealed for the reader to go forward to tantalizing mystery hinted at to keep her fans eager to know more.

Now, some would argue that this whole first chapter is complete backstory, and not only that, it's a prologue! And some would have a valid point. But that's all for an upcoming post, the final one in this First Chapter Series: "'Mistakes' JK Rowling Made and How She Got Away With Them!" -- which will be after the posts on voice and stakes.

Final fun note: Did you catch JKR's sly nod to the Hitchcock plot element called the McGuffin? Notice the weather man bringing Mr. Dursley the news of the shooting stars all over the country, Jim McGuffin. JKR's toying with the reader. From the start she's telling you -- I've playing a mystery game with you here and I'm dropping clues in subtle ways. You've got to have your wits about you!

What key reader question do you leave with your reader at the end of your chapter one?

Tag!: So, Lisa Gail Green tagged me with the following prompt:

1) Do you think you're hot?  I'll answer like Lisa -- I live in North Carolina. So not only am I hot, I'm also humid!

2) Upload a picture or wallpaper you're using: my kitty Crookshanks, taken by my daughter

3) When was the last time I ate chicken meat? Yesterday, chicken salad, though not as good as my grandma's used to be! :-(

4) The songs that I listened to recently: I took a stroll down memory lane from when I lived in Turkey and watched a sweet Mustafa Sandal video, which I love: Jest Oldum and if you like that one, try Araba as well. Lovely views of Istanbul!

5) What were you thinking when you were doing this? How can I keep Crookshanks out of a planter that he's recently decided to use as a hammock?  He's killing my plants!

Tag, you're it!
Brooke Johnson
Laura Pauling
Jami Gold


  1. I've always liked the first chapter in The Sorcerer's Stone for exactly the reasons you mentioned. It provides enough information to get me invested in the story, and leaves open many interesting questions to make me continue and find the answers. It's a brilliant opening.

  2. I think so too, Laura. And she has such a lovely tone to it as well!

  3. I love any first chapter that has hidden layers. It means one thing to us when we read it the first time but we can read it later and it means so much more. Good advice for any opening chapter!

  4. He he! I love your answers, and Crookshanks is adorable. :D Great quote from JKR. Interesting. I can't wait to see what you say in the mistakes she made and how she got away with them post. I have a MS that I keep redoing the first chapter too. Not to compare to JK but you know.

  5. "One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours' time by Mrs. Dursley's scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley... He couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: 'To Harry Potter -- the boy who lived!'."

    Think about how hard this passage hits you upon re-reading, now that you know everything there is to know of Harry's struggle. I can never get through this paragraph without tears. That's the power of this first chapter, that upon first read you didn't quite know what made this boy special or what was going to happen to him, but when you revisit it, the significance of these words hits you HARD.

  6. Laura -- Stories that are even better on subsequent read-throughs are priceless! Thanks! :-)

    Lisa -- I can't wait to see what I say either since I haven't like, ya know, written it. :-) Just notes. And good luck getting your first chapter just right!

  7. You're so right, Starlight. And thanks for posting that beautiful ending to chapter one! Sometimes JKR has such a lyrical way of writing that I envy.

    I also think the part McGonagall says about one day every child in our world will know his name hits much harder now! :-)

  8. I just saw the trailer for Deathly Hallows Part Two - WOW! I love a first chapter that builds a foundation filling my mind with questions. It makes me a loyal follower of the story from the get go. My kids and I decided our audio book for our summer car trip will be a re-listen of "Sorcerer's Stone." Time to go back to the beginning with all we know now.

  9. This is such a great technique to drop in only what's needed to create sympathy and curiosity in the reader. Thanks so much for this. It'll really help me as I dismantle and rewrite chapter 1. Again.

  10. What fun, Leslie, to listen to the audio as a family. I know a family who listened to the whole series that way when making a cross-country trek. You'll probably pick up on a lot of clues and references by re-reading. Enjoy!

  11. Thanks Julie! And happy revising. :-)

  12. I loved this post! So much excellent and helpful information - thanks, I'm a new follower :)

  13. Harry Potter for Writers? Um...coolest idea for a blog ever! I wish I'd thought of it...but since I didn't, I'll just follow you! :)

  14. Welcome Lady Gwen and Hannah! I'm glad you found your way here. Hope to chat with your more. :-)

  15. I've been reading your blog for about a week till now and I must say I really like it, especially because it's so systematic. I've always been looking for HP books analysis like yours and also studied it myself a little, but there was always something I didn't manage. Anyway, I'm glad that I have three months off school now so I can dig myself into it a little more and read your posts parallelly :). And this is one of my favourite posts. Keep up good work ;)

  16. Thanks Sam! That's what these posts are here for, to be of some help. Come back as often as you can! :-)