If you want to write a novel that hooks a reader’s interest, then you had better write an engaging first chapter. But how exactly do you do that?
Since I’ve already provided resources on how to write a solid set of opening pages, and the big mistakes to avoid when writing your opening pages, I thought it would be fun to step back and analyze a first chapter of a popular published novel.
In today’s post, we’re going to look at the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. And we’ll look at the chapter in two different ways:
This way, you’ll be able to see the first chapter from a big picture lens and well as on the smaller, scene level, too. Ideally, you’ll be able to implement some of what you learn into your own first chapter as well.
A special note for listeners of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast: In the episode that goes along with this blog post, I’m joined by an extra-special guest, and the host of the LitMatch podcast, Abigail Perry. If you want to hear our full discussion of this opening chapter, you can tune in on either one of our podcasts.
Want to see our analysis of the first chapter of the other Harry Potter books? Click here to check them out!
This opening chapter includes one complete scene that follows the Muggle Prime Minister. Here’s a summary of what happens:
In this scene, the muggle Prime Minister is waiting for a call from the President of a distant country, and he’s reading memos at his desk. His week has been TERRIBLE because there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on, and he’s getting blamed since he’s in charge of the country. He hears a cough coming from a portrait on his wall, and long story short, the Minister of Magic is coming for a meeting, whether the Prime Minister likes it or not. So, the Minister of Magic, Fudge, shows up and we get some context about their relationship over these past few years and how Fudge has been showing up a little too much for the Prime Minister’s liking lately. But anyway, Fudge is here with some news–Voldemort is back, and he’s the one behind all the bad things and chaos that’s happening right now–well, him and his Death Eaters and the dementors. Fudge also tells the Prime Minister that the world is officially at war now that Voldemort’s back. But then, to make matters worse, Fudge has been sacked! And now there’s a new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimegor. And oh, by the way, Fudge says, he’s about to come through that portrait to meet you right now, too. So, he does, and the Prime Minister and Scrimegor meet. And finally, the Prime Minister explodes and says, why can’t you guys sort this out! You can do magic! And Scrimegor ominously replies that the other side can do magic, too.
Now, when analyzing any opening chapter, whether it's from a published novel or a messy first draft, the first thing I look for is a glimpse of the big picture. So, what is this story really about?
As writers, we need to set expectations in the beginning of our stories, and then work to deliver on those expectations throughout the middle and end. In other words, we need to show readers exactly what kind of story they’re in for, and then deliver that story scene by scene.
Let’s take a look at how J.K. Rowling did this in this very first chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And to do this, we’re going to use seven questions from Paula Munier’s book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.
I like to look at genres two ways–commercial vs. content genres. For this first question, I usually think in terms of the commercial genre. So, where would this novel sit on a shelf in a bookstore? And how does this first chapter set up the readers’ expectations from a commercial genre standpoint?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a young adult fantasy novel. Harry is now 16 years old, and the conflict he has to deal with has escalated yet again from the previous five books. In this opening chapter that follows the Muggle Prime Minister, we get a recap of everything that Harry (and the Wizarding World) has had to deal with these last five years–especially now that Voldemort has officially returned. And just like in the last book, there’s a stronger emphasis on romance than in the first four as well.
For this question, I like to look at the content genre of the story. So, what is the story really going to be about? And Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres, just like the previous five books in the series. However, in this book, Rowling manages to raise the stakes even higher than the previous five books! Harry gets into dangerous situations more often, and many more characters die–including Dumbledore!
In the opening chapter, Rowling shows us that all hell has broken loose now that Voldemort, his Death Eaters, and the dementors essentially have free reign. It’s a dangerous world out there, not just for Harry and the wizarding community, but for the muggles, too. The world is officially at war, and no one is safe. And once again, we have the perfect setup for an action/worldview story–a) there will still be life or death stakes in this story, b) the final confrontation will still occur between Harry and Voldemort, and c) this time, the story is going to involve someone called the Half-Blood Prince (we know this from the title).
This chapter follows the perspective of the Muggle Prime Minister who gets forced into an impromptu meeting with Cornelius Fudge (and then Rufus Scrimegor). Just like the previous five books, Rowling starts with a more omniscient narrator and then zooms us into the point of view character that we should be following into the scene (which in this case, is the Muggle Prime Minister). The rest of the story will follow Harry Potter from a limited third-person perspective.
Rowling has set up this chapter to make us care about so many different people! Of course, we always care about Harry Potter (since he’s the main character), but also–it’s pretty hard not to worry about Harry after all he’s been through in books one through five. Voldemort still wants to kill Harry, and now he’s even more motivated by the prophecy he learned about in book five. Not only that, but Voldemort and his followers are attacking both Wizards and Muggles alike–so, in this chapter, we start to worry about the larger world (outside of Harry, Ron, and Hermione), too. Beyond that, we also feel a little bit bad for Cornelius Fudge (he got fired) and the Muggle Prime Minister (he’s getting a lot dropped on him at once). That’s a lot to accomplish in one chapter!
As readers, we’re wondering things like… When will Voldemort show up and try to kill Harry? What’s going to happen to Harry when he goes back to Hogwarts? How far will Voldemort go to take action on the prophecy? And things like that… Which is exactly what Rowling answers for us throughout the rest of the story.
This chapter takes place in the Muggle Prime Minister's office in London. Through Fudge’s recap of recent events, we hear about places in the larger world, including Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. At this point in the series, we can assume the rest of the story will take place at Hogwarts, as usual.
There are three main emotions I think we all feel when reading this first chapter–curiosity, concern, and wonder. This is consistent with the rest of the series, however, we feel much less wonder in this opening chapter than in previous books. The primary emotion in this scene is concern–we’re worried about Harry (and the entire world) now that Voldemort is on the loose, causing chaos. We’re also worried about Harry because of the prophecy in book five that says, “either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…” We know we’re approaching a huge faceoff between Voldemort and Harry–we just don’t know when or how it’s going to happen. If you consider the rest of the book (and how much darker the series has been getting), these are the perfect feelings to evoke in readers from page one.
We care about what happens next because we know Voldemort wants to kill Harry Potter. Again, it’s not a question of if Harry will come face to face with Voldemort, it’s more a question of when. Based on the setup in this opening chapter, we worry for Harry and hope he’ll survive yet another encounter with the Dark Lord–especially now that Voldemort has a) heard the prophecy, and b) has amassed a large amount of followers. Because of all that, we keep reading to see how everything will turn out.
So, as you can see, Rowling definitely gave us a glimpse at the big picture of this story–we know that it’s going to be about a young wizard named Harry Potter, we know it’ll have something to do with the Half-Blood Prince (from the title), and we know that another confrontation with Lord Voldemort is inevitable.
Now, let’s dig into the structure of the scene within this first chapter so we can see how and why everything works. To do this, we’re going to use the scene structure I laid out in this article. If you’re a fan of The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, you will recognize this structure.
In this scene, the Muggle Prime Minister wants to get through some reports or some paperwork while he waits for his next meeting to start. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of his goal in this scene:
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with the Prime Minister and this meeting he’s waiting for. The main conflict surfaces when the Minister of Magic rearranges the Prime Minister’s schedule and takes the meeting for himself. The Minister of Magic updates the Prime Minister on EVERYTHING bad that’s happened lately and says that Voldemort is back and we’re at war. So, learning this news has informed the Prime Minister of the danger he (and the rest of the world) is already in. This closes the loop on all the questions the Prime Minister was asking himself at the beginning of the chapter re: why all these terrible things are happening. It also tracks on the global value spectrum via the information that gets relayed.
Can you see how this scene moves the plot of the story forward and impacts Harry? And how ultimately, this first chapter does everything that a first chapter should do?
I encourage you to look at your first chapter through this macro and micro lens to make sure that you’re delivering enough of the big picture to your readers. This is also a fantastic exercise to do with the opening chapter of your favorite novels, too. You will learn so much and your writing will improve as a result.
Coming soon: our analysis of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Want to check out our analysis of the first chapter in each of the Harry Potter books? Click here to see the exact same breakdown for the other five books! Enjoy!
If you liked the tips in this article, you can get plenty more of them by signing up for my mailing list. Once you sign up, you'll get a new writing or editing tip delivered straight to your inbox each week. You'll also be the first to know about new blog posts, courses, free resources, and more. Unsubscribe at any time!
Enter your name and email address below to sign up! I hate spam and promise to keep your information safe. If you don't like the content headed your way, you can unsubscribe any time!