I’ve recently started work on my third novel. Or my forty-third, if you count all of the notebooks with 10 pages of cramped handwriting and then an eternity of blankness. I am bad at finishing things.
One of the many things that I haven’t finished is a writing exercise in which I decided to go through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone word by word, line by line, and make notes on the writing style, plot, and character development. I made it to Chapter Seven, The Sorting Hat, before I got distracted. But what I really want to talk about is Chapter One, The Boy Who Lived. If you’ve got the book handy, follow along!
When you’re writing a novel, it’s vitally important that you get the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter exactly right. If the first chapter isn’t perfect, an agent or a publisher might overlook it. An antsy 10-year-old might put it down and go play outside for a bit. The first chapter has to lure you in, make you curious, and convince you to stay. And boy did The Boy Who Lived ever do that!
Most Potter fans can quote the first line of The Sorcerer’s Stone by heart.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
OK. I’m hooked. Why would we think they weren’t?
There’s Something Strange in the Neighborhood
We’re then given a concise description of the extremely ordinary Dursleys and the already infuriating Dudley, and an intriguing allusion to the disreputable Potters. And then, despite the Dursleys’ fervent wishes, things start to get strange. Owls flutter by. A cat reads a map. Strange people are standing around wearing robes. Poor Vernon nearly gives himself a stroke trying to ignore the weirdness.
But we aren’t looking away from those strange folks in cloaks whispering excitedly. We’re leaning closer, straining to hear what they’re so hyped up about. Darn it, Vernon, why couldn’t you ask someone? But Vernon is a Very Serious Businessman and doesn’t talk to people in cloaks.
He should have, though, because it turns out that whatever these folks are gathering about, it has to do with the Potters. And while Vernon might be able to convince himself otherwise, we, masters of foreshadowing, know better. Luckily, we don’t have long to wait to find out just what has people in such an uproar. You-Know-Who is gone! Hooray? Hooray! Like Vernon, we don’t know quite what to make of the man in the violet cloak, but unlike Vernon, we’re happy right along with him.
The Curious Case of the Cat on the Wall
The cat is still there when Vernon gets home. I’d have invited it in and had to apologize profusely to my husband. Five cats is too many. Especially stern cats who read signs. At home, Petunia is still nosey and Dudley is still annoying. Those characterizations, while not very complex, are here to stay.
The news confirms Vernon’s worst fears: something strange IS going on in Britain. He steels himself to mention it to Petunia, who confirms that the Potters’ son IS named Harry. Damn. This is getting serious. Ah, but surely the Dursleys couldn’t possibly get drawn into whatever is going on. Are you raising an eyebrow here? I would if I knew how.
When Vernon is finally sleeping, we go back to the cat. Seems kind of important, this cat, as it sits resolutely on the wall. Curious. And then comes Albus Dumbledore. He is old, fashionable, twinkling, and appears to have been in a fight or two. We immediately want him to be our grandfather.
“I should have known,” he says to the cat. Should we have known, too? Albus Dumbledore then clearly DOES MAGIC. You guys. Those people in the cloaks. Those were wizards! Vernon Dursley is going to be so, so very upset.
But what is the magic for? And why, as it turns out, has a woman named Professor McGonagall been sitting on a wall disguised as a cat all day? (Wizards can turn into cats? There is a fortune to be made on the internet! Also, what is she a professor OF? Who are her students?) What does You-Know-Who have to do with Albus Dumbledore and Vernon Dursley? (These names are all excellent, by the way. They are both very believable and extremely easy to remember.)
McGonagall the Tabby is stern and proper, and she wishes a little that everyone else was too. And there’s that word again: Muggle. What’s a Muggle? Vernon Dursley certainly seems to be one, which makes me hope that I am NOT one.
“We’ve had precious little to celebrate for 11 years.”
Uh-oh. You-Know-Who seems to be a pretty bad guy. But hey, Dumbledore has lemon drops, so it’ll all be OK now, yeah? And here, finally, we get the exposition we’ve been dying for. You-Know-Who’s real name is (whisper with me) Voldemort, and the only wizard he’s afraid of is Albus Dumbledore, who carries lemon drops in his pockets.
It turns out Vernon was right to worry. The rumors are that Voldemort has killed Lily and James Potter, and we don’t have to wait for Dumbledore to confirm this one. Stern, stiff McGonagall turns out to not be so tough after all. It’s clear that she cared for Lily and James. A world is unfolding before our eyes and we haven’t even quite noticed, because what we want to know is: what about Harry?
Oh, Harry survived. (Hello chapter title!) And he somehow—destroyed Voldemort? This is astonishing. If McGonagall is stunned, we certainly are too. Dumbledore checks his magical watch and confirms that Hagrid is late. Ah, that’s who we’re waiting for. It turns that Hagrid is bringing Harry to live with his aunt and uncle.
Um. Maybe they ought to have done some research first? This is not going to go well. Dumbledore doesn’t want him to grow up famous, but the Dursleys’ are really, really awful. Maybe some other Muggle family?
And then we get some character development for Hagrid, who seems is trustworthy but maybe a bit bumbling. I have to agree with McGonagall here that it seems a little concerning to trust him with the life of a baby. This concern is heightened when he shows up with the baby ON A FLYING MOTORCYCLE. Awesome, but not terribly safe. No car seats on motorcycles.
Hagrid is “too big to be allowed, and wild” but carefully cradling a baby. We love him immediately, as we are supposed to. And it turns out that someone named Sirius Black lent him the motorcycle. (It took me several rereads to discover that detail! Rowling has clearly planned out Harry’s family tree long in advance.)
“He’ll have that scar forever.”
And we’ll all get temporary tattoos of it for Halloween parties. Now Hagrid is crying, and we’re crying too. If Dumbledore is our grandfather, Hagrid is our favorite uncle.
And then, despite their obvious misgivings, the three leave without even ringing the doorbell. I hope it was a warm night. Harry Potter sleeps on, and we frantically turn the page to Chapter Two.
So, how did she do?
One thing that Rowling handles extremely well in this first chapter is balancing what we know and don’t know. At first, we know very little, but we don’t feel bad about that, because Vernon doesn’t know either, and at least we’re paying attention. As details become available, we feel like we see an image gradually becoming clearer, and we don’t feel at all as though we’re the butt of an inside joke.
Rowling also puts a great deal of effort into characterization. If she didn’t know these characters inside and out when she was writing the first draft of the first chapter, she certainly did by the final draft. Everything they do and say gives us important information about their basic character, and those characters persist throughout all seven books.
And then the problem is introduced. Harry can’t possibly stay with these people. They’re terrible. McGonagall takes our side, so we don’t feel that our concern is unheard. But in the end, Dumbledore gets what he wants, and we just have to hope that maybe it won’t be so bad. The brief description we have of Harry being found doesn’t give us much hope.
And that’s what leads us on to the next chapter. Here is a vibrant, interesting cast of characters. Here is young Harry Potter, whose parents have died, and who is obviously beloved by three magical adults. But they’ve made a gigantic mistake in leaving him with the Dursleys, and we’re desperate to read on and make sure that he is all right. We’re also hopeful, if we’ve read the blurb on the back or a friend has recommended the book to us, that we might, very soon, be vicarious students at a school of magic. And that request, at least, will be granted.