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 Prisoner of Azkaban 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 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Click here to check out the same breakdown for the first book in the Harry Potter series!
Want to see our analysis of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Click here to check out the same breakdown for the second book in the Harry Potter series!
The opening chapter of this book contains one scene, and a few different micro-beats within that one scene. Here’s a summary of the first chapter:
It’s after midnight, and Harry is working on his History of Magic essay in the dark, under the covers of his bed. The Dursleys are mad at him right now because Ron Weasley called him on the telephone and basically yelled at Vernon through the phone since he doesn’t know how to use a phone really… And because of that, Harry thinks Hermione hasn’t been in touch either. So, he’s had no word from his wizarding friends for five weeks. That being said, there are a few improvements over last summer–1) he’s allowed to let Hedwig out to fly around, and 2) he got birthday presents! Three owls deliver gifts from his friends. Ron sent him a newspaper clipping from the Daily Prophet that talks about his trip to Egypt and a pocket Sneakoscope that can detect dark magic, Hermione sent him a broom cleaning kit, and Hagrid sent him a book about monsters. He also gets his Hogwarts letter that includes a permission slip for trips to Hogsmead on certain weekends IF they can get a parent or guardian’s signature.
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 Prisoner of Azkaban. 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?
Just like books one and two, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a middle-grade fantasy novel. Knowing that, I’m on the lookout for three things in these opening pages–1) elements of fantasy or wonder, 2) humor, and 3) a middle-grade aged protagonist. And again, Rowling gives us all three of these ingredients in this first chapter. We learn that Harry is 13 years old, and that he’s a wizard who is looking forward to going back to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Also, we get dropped into Harry’s world as he’s working on his History of Magic essay–the topic of which is, “Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless–discuss.” From a reader’s perspective, there’s no doubt that this will be a fantasy story (if that wasn’t already clear from the back cover copy!).
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 Prisoner of Azkaban is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres.
In the first chapter, Rowling reminds us of Harry’s past experience with Voldemort, and we know that Voldemort is still out there, hoping for another chance to finish Harry off. So again, we have the perfect setup for an action/worldview story–a) there will still be life or death stakes in this story, b) Voldemort will still be present (although the final confrontation in this book does not take place between Harry and Voldemort–this is different from books one and two), and c) Harry will still have to come to terms with what it means to be “The Chosen One.”
Only this time, we also know that the story is going to involve someone who has been in Azkaban prison because of the title. So, although Rowling doesn’t mention Sirius Black in this first chapter (she does mention him via a news report in chapter two), she does introduce us to Scabbers (via Ron’s letter) and the idea of the Hogsmeade visits. And if you’ve read the book, you know that Hogsmeade is where a lot of the important plot stuff takes place.
Just like the second Harry Potter book, we dive right into Harry’s perspective in this opening chapter. Again, Rowling gives us the feeling of zooming into the Dursleys house from an omniscient perspective, and drops us right into the scene with Harry. The rest of the story will follow Harry Potter from a limited third person perspective.
Harry Potter! Not only are we in his perspective throughout the book, but also, Rowling has done a great job of making Harry relatable in this first chapter. It’s his 13th birthday and he’s missing his friends from Hogwarts–but this year, they do send presents! And we get to see just how much his friends care about him through the cards and presents they send. Also, when Harry gets the permission slip for Hogsmeade, we are instantly on his side, hoping that he’ll get to go to Hogsmeade just like all of the other kids.
As readers, we’re wondering things like… Will Voldemort show up and try to kill Harry again? What’s going to happen to Harry when he goes back to Hogwarts? What’s the deal with Hogsmeade? And things like that… In the next chapter, we get more insight into who the titular “prisoner” is, and how the threat of his escape impacts Harry. But for now, these are all great questions to be asking in chapter one!
This chapter takes place in Little Whinging, Surrey. However, we’re also reminded of the idea that there are two separate worlds–a muggle world and a wizarding world–and we know Harry is going back to Hogwarts very soon. We also get our first introduction to the little town of Hogsmeade where some of the key events in this book will take place.
This opening chapter evokes curiosity, concern, and wonder just like books one and two. We’re curious about what will happen to Harry once he goes back to Hogwarts. We’re concerned about whether Harry will get his permission slip signed (and whether or not Voldemort will come back–because, let’s face it, he probably will). And we feel wonder because there are reminders of the magical world everywhere in this chapter–the sneakoscope, the broom cleaning kit, books that want to bite Harry, etc. As readers, we can’t wait to go back to Hogwarts (just like Harry!), and we’re wondering what kind of trouble Harry and his friends will get into this time.
Unlike books one and two, Harry has had a pretty darn good birthday this year! So, we’re not really feeling bad for him–but we are a tiny bit worried that he won’t get his permission slip signed and that he won’t be able to go to Hogsmeade like the rest of his classmates. It’s obvious that Harry will run into some trouble asking Uncle Vernon to sign the permission slip, but we can only guess how that conversation will go. Beyond all of that, we know Voldemort is still out there, so as readers, we’re definitely worried about when and where Voldemort will come back. Based on the title, we know there’s likely going to be a threat from the “prisoner of Azkaban,” but we don’t know how that will turn out just yet. Because of all that, we keep reading to see how everything will turn out for Harry and the rest of the Wizarding World.
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 Prisoner of Azkaban” (from the title), and we know that another confrontation with Lord Voldemort is inevitable.
Now, let’s dig into the structure of each scene within this 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 do his History of Magic homework without getting caught. He has smuggled all of his books upstairs and he knows he’ll be in big trouble if Uncle Vernon catches him with all of this stuff in his room. 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 manage to do his homework without getting caught by Uncle Vernon. The main conflict surfaces when the three owls arrive carrying Harry’s birthday presents. Although these presents are a good thing, they do serve as “complications” in terms of Harry being able to accomplish his scene goal. When Harry reads that he’ll need to get a parent or guardian’s signature to visit Hogsmeade, he’s dead set on making it happen despite the discomfort he’ll feel when it’s time to ask Uncle Vernon. What Harry doesn’t know is that going to Hogsmeade will open him up to all kinds of danger. Therefore, this scene does track on the global life and death stakes of the action genre–and this scene moves him just a little bit closer to “danger.”
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: out analysis of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
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