If you want to sell your book and engage your readers, you need to write a first chapter that sets up distinct expectations for the reader, like what the story will be about, the type of genre it is, and the quality of your writing.
One way you can learn how to write a great first chapter is by studying books from the masters, especially in your genre but also outside of it.
In my last article on how to start a book, I reviewed seven key questions you should ask yourself when analyzing your first chapter (before sending it to readers, and especially before you query a literary agent), courtesy of literary agent and author Paula Munier’s book THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO BEGINNINGS.
These seven questions focus on the big picture, the big idea, that makes the story stand out.
Today, I’d like to teach you how to, after you’ve solidified those seven key questions and how they work in your first chapter, strengthen the structure of your first chapter’s scene (or scenes).
To do this, let’s look at, in my opinion, one of the best first chapters in a book—and that also starts a series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
To Write a Great Scene, Learn How to Analyze One
One of my favorite tools to use in order to analyze a scene and determine its quality is the five commandments, pulled from the Story Grid methodology.
I first learned these tools after reading (and later getting certified in) Story Grid. If you’re unfamiliar with the five commandments and other important elements to ask about a scene’s “workability,” you can read my article on the Story Grid scene analysis template.
As we walk through these commandments and how they work in the first scene (I think there are two scenes total) in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I will briefly explain each.
Quick Note: I completed this analysis in conversation with my good friend and a certified book coach and developmental editor, Savannah Gilbo, Savannah (as the writer) and I (as her editor) have worked closely with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone over the last two years; Savannah is writing the Story Grid Masterwork Guide for it.
Summary of Chapter One, Scene One: The Boy Who Lived
The first chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is particularly interesting because, although it’s not labeled as such, it really works as a prologue in disguise.
Part of this is because, when the story opens, Harry Potter is a baby—and babies are too young to follow a limited perspective.
For this reason, the first chapter, although still written in third person limited POV, sticks closely to Vernon Dursley (scene one, chapter one) and Dumbledore (scene two, chapter one).
Although there are two scenes in the first chapter, I’m only going to analyze the first scene today, which follows grumpy Vernon Dursley as he desperately attempts to avoid any oddities he crosses—of which there are many.
Here’s a quick summary of the scene:
Mr. (Vernon) Dursley hears and sees strange things on his way to work. He sees a cat reading a newspaper, people dressed in ridiculous robes, owls fly throughout the town—and there’s even the mention of the Potter family and their son, Harry—which stresses out Vernon.
In this scene, all Vernon wants is to go to work and think about drills. He wants nothing to do with anything abnormal, and in general, despises anything that’s out of the ordinary. But the oddities of the day disrupt Vernon’s search for average (if not boring).
After Vernon hears about the Potter family—the same last name of his wife Petunia’s sister—Vernon debates about telling Petunia. He convinces himself that he’s overreacting and that all the nonsense he’s hearing about will go away.
Of course, every Harry Potter fan knows Vernon couldn’t be more wrong.
How to Analyze Vernon Dursley’s Scene
Before we get into the five commandments, it’s important to confirm important details that will impact our analysis and how the scene changes.
- What does Vernon want and why? Vernon wants to have a normal day. This is his goal throughout the scene, and this goal becomes increasingly more difficult to achieve as more oddities get in the way.
- What conflict does Vernon face in the scene? All of the abnormalities that distract Vernon from his one-way focus on drills (his line of work). The main conflict in the scene surfaces when a person mentions the Potter family and their son Harry—this threatens Vernon because it may mean that the source of these oddities could impact his family personally.
- What changes in the scene? In order to determine if a scene works, we need to see how a scene changes. This means that something valuable to the character changes and there is a polarity shift. For Vernon, the main value that threatens him is safety—in a way, his sense of security is threatened by the potential that these oddities could impact him directly. A value change of something like normal to abnormal or unconcerned to delusionally secure could work. You could also zoom out and look at Harry’s safety level and the change in this scene even though we follow Vernon’s POV, but for this analysis’s sake let’s stick to Vernon, who is the POV driving this scene.
Now that we know some story elements that the five commandments will impact, we can understand why the five commandments unfold as they do—and why this confirms an advancement in plot and a development in character.
The Inciting Incident in a story or scene is an unexpected disturbance/event that either throws off a character’s story/scene goal or want, and therefore forces them to come up with a new approach in order to get that goal or want, or creates a scene goal or want.
An Inciting Incident is either causal (a person causes the disturbance) or coincidental (a coincidence causes the disturbance).
The Inciting Incident in the first scene in HPSS is: Vernon overhears chatter about the Potter family and their son Harry—and that they might have something to do with all of the oddities and celebratory events going on.
This Inciting Incident makes it difficult for Vernon to ignore, and is the first real disturbance that makes him unsuccessful in returning to his normal day where he thinks about drills. He now worries about the Potters, and if his family is going to be forced to deal with strange events.
The Turning Point in the scene is an action or revelation that a character can no longer ignore—even to ignore it would lead to consequences of some sort. For this reason, the TP forces a character into a Crisis Decision.
The Turning Point for the first scene in HPSS is: Vernon lightly mentions the Potters to Petunia and she snaps at him.
This is one, if not the only, time in the series that Petunia talks back to Vernon. Her reaction is sharp and abrasive, and not one that Vernon, based on his reaction, expects or wants to irritate. This throws him into a Crisis Decision.
The Crisis Decision is a choice or dilemma that the main character in the scene must make. Inevitably, their choice will result in consequences either for themselves or for a third party.
This choice is also the foundation and most important element in the scene (paired with the TP). If there is no TP and Crisis Decision, there is no scene because without a character acting on a crisis decision, there is no change in value or polarity.
The Crisis Decision in the first scene in HPSS could be phrased as: Should Vernon push Petunia about the Potters despite her negative reaction to the mere mention of them, or should he ignore this conversation and convince himself that everything will be okay?
The Climax is the action that the character makes based on their Crisis Decision. This action proves that there is either a negative or positive change in the scene—which also determines if a scene advances and if a character is developed.
The Climax is immediate, following the Crisis Decision.
The Climax in the first scene in HPSS is: Vernon decides to hold his tongue.
The Resolution is everything that follows the Climax. These actions and character reflections determine where a character is following the Climax, which further proves how the scene is changed.
The Resolution in the first scene in HPSS is: Vernon convinces himself that the Potters couldn’t be responsible for the day’s abnormal events, and that his family will be surely left alone. Vernon is delusional in this belief, which the last narrative line insinuates. Nonetheless, he goes to bed convinced nothing will change.
Writers Who Know How to Edit Become Better Writers
In order to sell and engage stories, writers need to set up and satisfy reader expectations. Studying writing and editing tools like the seven key questions to ask about first chapters (to determine the big picture and writing) and how a scene works (the scene level or small picture of a story) can help writers become better editors of stories, including their own manuscripts.
Often, the first step in polishing a great first chapter is understanding what makes a great first chapter and why. This is one of many reasons it’s so important that writers consistently read and analyze stories, especially masterworks.
The cool reality of this is that stories are, in the end, subjective. So, how I see a scene move and change based on the five commandments might be different than how you see it.
The point of using tools like the five commandments to analyze and study the structure in first chapters isn’t to come up with the same analysis (although that is nice), but rather have a sound perspective on why a scene engages a reader with important needs like advancing the plot and developing characters.
One final thought: Don’t worry if these commandments take some time to sink in!
Analyzing stories, like writing them, is a lifelong craft. Try to have fun with it, and practice these tools on other first chapters.
Better yet, share your analysis of this scene or the second chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the comments. That way, we can practice and discuss our analysis together!
P.S. If you’d like to listen to Savannah’s and my full analysis of the first chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, download our podcast episodes, found on Lit Match and Fiction Writing Made Easy.
Lit Match is a podcast that can help writers find the best literary agent for their business career and learn more about the writing craft, and Fiction Writing Made Easy is an amazing podcast that teaches writing tips with short, super applicable lessons.
Thanks in advance for your support!
Abigail K. Perry is the host of the podcast Lit Match and a certified developmental editor who specializes in Upmarket/Commercial fiction, Women’s Fiction, Historical Fiction, MG/YA fiction, and YA fantasy. Abigail holds a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Endicott College. Abigail worked as an editorial intern and the Agency Relations Assistant for P.S. Literary Agency, is fluent in book and movie quotes, and loves a long walk with good company, which includes audiobooks and two- and four-legged loved ones and buddies.
You can reach her on her podcast or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.