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First Chapter Analysis: Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows

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 Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. And we’ll look at the chapter in two different ways:

  1. Macro: How does this chapter give readers insight into what the story is about? 
  2. Micro: How does each scene advance the plot and character development?  

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!

 

 

Chapter 1 Summary

This opening chapter includes one complete scene that follows Voldemort as he meets with his Death Eaters. Here’s a summary of what happens:

In this scene, Snape and Yaxley apparate onto the Malfoy’s property (Malfoy Manor). It seems as though they are both here to report some kind of news to Lord Voldemort, but neither are willing to give the other one details until they step inside the house. Once they get into the drawing room, Voldemort assigns them seats and chides them for being “very nearly late.” There is an unconscious human figure hanging upside down over the table (as if suspended by an invisible rope), and nobody pays much attention to it except Draco Malfoy. Snape and Yaxley give Voldemort conflicting information about when and where Harry Potter will be moved from Privet Drive. Snape says the Order of the Phoenix will move Harry on Saturday next, at nightfall. Yaxley says that he heard Harry will not be moved until the thirtieth, the night before Harry turns seventeen. Snape elaborates on what he heard and says that there’s little chance of them taking Harry once he’s been moved to the home of one of the Order members, so they have to act by next Saturday. Yaxley also reports he’s put an Imperius Curse on Pius Thicknesse (who is the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement), but unfortunately this isn’t enough to sway Voldemort one way or the other. Voldemort debates everything he’s heard and decides that he will need to deal with Harry himself, stating that there have been too many mistakes where Harry Potter is concerned. To do this, Voldemort needs a different wand, so he takes Lucius’s. When it seems that Lucius expects Voldemort’s wand in return, Voldemort almost loses it. He picks on the Malfoys and then Bellatrix Lestrange (just because the opportunity presents itself), and then he kills Charity Burbage and feeds her to Nagini, his snake.

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? 

 

Big Picture Macro Analysis

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 Deathly Hallows. And to do this, we’re going to use seven questions from Paula Munier’s book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings

1. GENRE: What kind of story is it?

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 Deathly Hallows is a young adult fantasy novel. Harry is now 17 years old, and the conflict he has to deal with has escalated yet again from the previous six books. In this opening chapter, we finally get to see things from Voldemort’s perspective–and he has some pretty big (and dark) plans. Mainly, he wants to kill Harry Potter once and for all, and he wants to be the one to do it himself. As we know from books five and six, nobody’s safe–any character can die (and many will in this book). This is as dark as the series get–and what better way to show that than by starting with Voldemort’s perspective (and a cold blooded murder).

2. PLOT: What is the story really about? 

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 Deathly Hallows is a combination of the action (external) and worldview (internal) content genres, just like the previous six books in the series. However, in this book, the stakes are at an all time high. We know (from previous books and the prophecy) that only Harry or Voldemort will make it out alive–neither can live while the other survives. This is the big climactic showdown we’ve been waiting for, but not everyone will survive.

In this opening chapter, Rowling shows us just how cold-blooded Voldemort is. He will not stop until he kills Harry Potter himself. We also see firsthand how much Voldemort hates Muggles (or anyone that isn’t a pureblooded wizard)--and how he has no issue killing Charity Burbage and feeding her to his snake, Nagini. It’s clear that no one is safe from Voldemort, even those who are his most loyal followers–he will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.

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 Deathly (we know this from the title).

3. POV: Who is telling the story? 

This is the most omniscient-leaning chapter we’ve seen so far. In the beginning of the chapter, it seems like we will follow Snape’s point-of-view, but the primary character is actually Voldemort. This choice makes sense because Rowling couldn’t have kept the full truth about Snape (and his loyalties) from readers if she let us into his perspective. So, the point-of-view remains a bit distant, yet we see that Voldemort is the one making decisions and driving the action of the scene forward. The rest of the story will follow Harry Potter from a limited third person perspective.

4. CHARACTER: Which character should they care about most?

As readers, we definitely care about Harry Potter since he’s our main character–but also, it’s pretty hard not to worry about Harry after all he’s been through in books one through six! Voldemort still wants to kill Harry, and now he’s even more motivated by the prophecy he learned about in book five and the intel that Snape and Yaxley brought him in this first chapter. Beyond that, we feel a lot of sympathy for Draco Malfoy who seems to be caught in a pretty impossible situation. He was born into a family of Death Eaters, but clearly, he’s uncomfortable with the role he’s being forced to play. This was a smart set up on Rowling’s part because she needs readers to care about Malfoy for certain events (at the end of the story) to pack an emotional punch. 

At the end of this chapter, we’re wondering things like… Will Voldemort get Harry when he leaves Privet Drive? Or will the big climactic moment happen somewhere else? Will Harry go back to Hogwarts? Will the prophecy come true? Who will survive? Harry or Voldemort? And things like that… Which is exactly what Rowling answers for us throughout the rest of the story. 

5. SETTING: Where and when does the story take place? 

This chapter takes place at Malfoy Manor, a few weeks before Harry’s seventeenth birthday. Specifically, Voldemort and his Death Eaters gather in the drawing room to discuss Harry Potter. At this point in the series, we can’t be sure how much time Harry and his friends will spend at Hogwarts–especially now that Dumbledore is gone.

6. EMOTION: How should readers feel about what’s happening?

The primary emotion evoked in this scene is concern. There is very little wonder or curiosity evoked because a) there’s barely any magic being used, and b) we know Voldemort is going after Harry sometime in the next few weeks. We are literally seeing his plan develop right there on the page. Also, because we’re following Voldemort and his Death Eaters in this scene, we get to see just how cold and evil Voldemort really is. He hates Muggles. He wants to rid the world of mudbloods. Given that this is the last book in the series, and that the final face off between Harry and Voldemort is going to happen in this book, concern–and shock over Voldemort’s behavior–are the perfect feelings to evoke in readers from page one. 

7. STAKES: Why should readers care what happens next? 

We care about what happens next because we know Voldemort wants to kill Harry Potter, and now we know he has a specific plan for doing it! Over the previous few books, Voldemort and his Death Eaters have been infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, so we can assume that either Snape or Yaxley have the correct info–and because of this, we are greatly worried for Harry. We have to keep reading to see how everything will turn out–especially now that we know only one of them can survive.

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 Deathly Hallows (from the title), and we know that the final confrontation between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort is inevitable. 
 

Micro Scene Structure Analysis

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.

Chapter #1 - Scene #1: Voldemort

In this scene, Voldemort wants to hear reports from his Death Eaters (specifically Snape and Yaxley) so that they can make a plan to kill Harry Potter. So, let’s look at the conflict that gets in the way of his goal in this scene:

  1. Inciting Incident: Snape and Yaxley arrive (very nearly late) with news.
  2. Turning Point: Snape and Yaxley have different reports about how and when Harry Potter will be moved from Privet Drive.
  3. Crisis: Should Voldemort trust Snape or Yaxley’s intel? Should he even let his Death Eaters go after Harry and risk possible failure (again)? Or should he go after Harry himself per the prophecy?
  4. Climax: Voldemort doesn’t confirm whose intel he will act on, but he does say that he will go after Harry himself.
  5. Resolution: Voldemort knows he needs to use another wand to face Harry, so he borrows Lucius’s wand. Voldemort humiliates the Malfoys and Bellatrix Lestrange (just because can); he kills Charity Burbage and feeds her to Nagini. 

So, what has changed in this scene?

The main thread we’re tracking in this scene has to do with Voldemort’s plans to kill Harry Potter. The main conflict surfaces when Snape and Yaxley report conflicting information about how and when Harry will be moved from Privet Drive. Voldemort realizes he will need to attack Harry while he’s on the move, before Harry gets to the Order’s safehouse. We don’t see whose intel he plans to act on, but we do see that he plans to go after Harry himself. The change in this scene tracks along the global value spectrum because we know that a) Harry will be more vulnerable than ever once he leaves the protection of Privet Drive for the final time, and b) Voldemort has intel and a specific plan for killing Harry. In other words, by the end of this scene, Harry is in even more danger than he was when the scene began.

Final Thoughts

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. 

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 six books! Enjoy!

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