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.
So, in today’s post, we’re going to look at the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 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 Harry Potter. Here’s a summary of what happens:
Harry is desperate for news after the return of Voldemort last year, but he struggles to find out anything concrete. We hear about how he’s been trying to watch the news with the Dursleys–and how they don’t let him watch their TV anymore, and then we see Harry eavesdropping on the news from outside the living room window. He suspects that any day now, he’ll be hearing something on the news about Voldemort, or the consequences of something that Vodemort or the Death Eaters have done–but so far, he’s heard nothing. While lying in the flowerbed outside the Dursley’s window, he hears a loud crack that reminds him of the sound someone makes when they apparate or disapparate, but before he can think too much about it, chaos ensues. The Dursleys come running outside and get mad at Harry for having his wand out (and for, in their opinion, causing the commotion), and Harry takes off toward the local park. As he walks, he’s thinking about how unfair it is that Ron and Hermione are “in the thick of things”—he assumes they’re together at the Burrow. And how he hasn’t received one letter this summer that’s told him anything worth knowing. Once he gets to the local park, he sees Dudley saying goodbye to his gang, and picks a fight with him to assuage his sour mood. While arguing with Dudley, dementors descend and negatively impact both boys, but especially Dudley. Harry knows he’s not supposed to use magic outside of school, but he has no choice. He has to use magic to defend him and Dudley against the dementors, so he does. He casts a patronus, and the dementors flee. Mrs. Figg arrives and helps Harry carry Dudley back home.
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 Order of the Phoenix. 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 Order of the Phoenix is a young adult fantasy novel. Harry is now 15 years old, and the conflict he has to deal with comes with much higher stakes than the previous four books. Also, there’s a lot more death in this story–including the death of one of Harry’s mentors. Not only that, but each one of the main characters has some kind of romance in this story, too.
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 Order of the Phoenix is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres, just like the previous four books in the series. However, in this book, Rowling does raise the life or death stakes higher (again) than in books one through three. We see Harry in dangerous situations more often, and one of his mentors dies.
In the opening chapter, Rowling shows us that the dementors aren’t operating under the same rules anymore–they’ve left Azkaban prison and have been sent after Harry. We also know (based on the end of the last book), that Voldemort has finally gotten his body back–so he’s more powerful than he has been in the last four books. 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 something called the Order of the Phoenix (we know this from the title).
This chapter follows the perspective of Harry Potter who is back at the Dursleys for summer break. Just like the previous four 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 Harry Potter). 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 and empathize with Harry Potter. We know that Voldemort still wants to kill Harry, and that it will probably be easier than ever now that Voldemort has his body back. In this opening chapter, we also see that the dementors have come into the Muggle world with an intent to harm Harry. This has never happened before, so it’s our first clue that the stakes have officially been raised.
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? Why are the dementors in Little Whinging? Who sent them? And things like that… Which is exactly what Rowling answers for us throughout the rest of the story.
This chapter takes place in Little Whinging, Surrey. First, we see Harry at the Dursley home, and then we see him walk to the local park where he interacts with Dudley and the dementors. Of course we hear about Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, so we can assume the rest of the story will take place there, like usual.
There are three main emotions I think we all feel when reading this first chapter–curiosity, concern, and wonder. And this is so consistent with the rest of the series! We’re immediately curious about what Voldemort is up to–just like Harry, we haven’t had any information about Voldemort since the last school year, so we want to know what he’s up to. We’re concerned about Harry because the dementors attack him in the Muggle world, but we’re also worried about what will happen once he goes back to Hogwarts. We know Voldemort will attack again–we just don’t know when or how. And finally, we feel a sense of wonder because we encounter the dementors and Harry’s patronus right away. If you consider the rest of the book, 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. 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 Order of the Phoenix (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, Harry wants to know what’s going on in the world–specifically what’s going on with Lord Voldemort. So, he eavesdrops on the Muggle news and mulls over the contents of the letters he’s received from his friends this summer. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of Harry’s goal in this scene:
So, what has changed in this scene?
The main thread we’re tracking in this scene is whether or not Harry will find out anything about what Voldemort’s been up to, or whether or not he’ll hear any news. The main conflict of the scene surfaces when the dementors attack Harry and Dudley, which causes a very literal shift towards danger. In general, Harry was already in danger sitting under the Dursley’s window, listening to the news–he will always be in danger as long as Lord Voldemort is out there, intent on killing him. But once the dementors show up, the threat to his safety and life becomes immediate.
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 Half-Blood Prince.
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 four books! Enjoy!
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