A tale of three prologues

A tale of three prologues

A few days ago, we began a new evening routine. At about 7.00 pm, the whole family sits in the living room and my wife reads a chunk of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the kids (two sets of twins, 7 and 9.)

This is the children’s first exposure to HP and, predictably, they’re liking it very much.

But interestingly, they didn’t immediately fall in love. Because kids are demonstrative, it’s easy simply to watch how engaged they are. More fiddling, more looking around, more playing with cushions – all those things are signs of weak or fading interest.

And what I noticed was interesting.

We all know the basic Harry Potter story. In the first book, especially, it’s mostly: Orphan goes to wizard school. Yes, there’s a whole Voldemort story being born, but the thing that grips you in that first book is the transition from boy-in-the-cupboard to student-wizard.

And the very first chapter of the very first book is, in effect, a prologue. The focus of that prologue is, initially, on the (boring, repressive, Muggle) Mr Dursley. He sees some odd things – people in cloaks, a map-reading cat, too many owls. He disapproves. He thinks about drills.

Then the chapter transitions to a long dialogue between Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid. That dialogue has plenty of sparkle and interest, of course. (Hagrid is a giant with a flying motorbike, Professor McGonagall was a map-reading cat, and so forth.)


My kids were losing interest. We’d told them that this was a great book and that they’d love it, but they were visibly losing interest.

All that changed with Chapter Two. In effect, the second chapter still has something prologue-y about it. There’s still no mention of school. The actual story (Harry goes to wizard school) hasn’t yet started. All that happens is we get to see Harry’s strange living arrangements and we learn about a trip to the zoo.

This chapter, however, did engage the kids. If the first chapter was losing its audience, the second one captured them. It did that via Rowling’s plentiful humour. It did so by shocking the kids with the basic unfairness of the Dudley / Harry setup. It did so via the bizarre escape of a snake.

Now, I’ve got a few things to say about all this. The first is that there’s something quite remarkable about JK Rowling’s pacing here. My own Fiona Griffiths stories are aimed at adults, and a pretty literate group of adults at that – but, by heck, I get my stories started in Chapter One. That doesn’t have to mean a lay a bloody corpse out for the reader’s delight (although I might), but there’s certainly a drop of blood in the water, the first tickle of story.

JK Rowling, on the other hand, writes for kids. Her chapters are longer than mine. And she gets her story properly underway, only in Chapter Three. That’s remarkable and it’s a tribute to the excellence of her writing that she gets away with it, especially here, in the opening book of the series, which couldn’t rely on reputation to get its readers over humps in the road. In effect, Rowling presents three prologues to the readers in turn:

  • Vernon Dursley’s owl-ridden day
  • Three (strange) adults talking about something momentous
  • Harry Potter takes a trip to the zoo

Observing my kids, I’d say that the first two prologues didn’t quite work, while the third one absolutely did. And bear in mind, that this is JK Rowling. She’s funny. She’s warm. She’s surprising. She’s inventive.

If she’s starting to lose kids’ interest, that’s not because her writing is flaky. It’s because there’s something structurally awry.

The first most obvious point is that Chapter One managed both to have a relatively dull central character (Vernon Dursley) and to have no central character at all – Dursley being pushed aside halfway through the chapter by the Dumbledore / McGonagall / Hagrid trio.

So who were the kids meant to be focusing on? Because they didn’t know, the answer that emerged for them was, No one. Simply throwing in flying motorbikes doesn’t solve that problem.

Likewise, the whole chapter was just too long, a total of 18 pages in the edition I’m looking at.

A third problem: the Dumbledore / McGonagall / Hagrid scene didn’t involve drama – it involved adults talking about drama. No matter how big, important or strange that drama was, people talking is still just people talking.

My kids were starting to wilt. The next evening, we kind of had to force Harry Potter on them. They’d rather have had a few minutes of telly.

As soon as Harry Potter himself entered the book, that changed. We’re still in somewhat prologue-y territory – we have a proper central character now, but still no hint of school – but the kids had someone to bond to. They had an unfair situation (boy in cupboard) to inflame them. They had some kind of conflict (Harry vs Dursleys) to watch and engage with.

Then all Rowling’s warmth and humour and inventiveness could work its magic. Although we weren’t quite in the story proper, it didn’t feel like that. The kids were off, and flying, and wanting more.

Writers often, often struggle with prologues. I have done myself. But here are some rules that don’t often go wrong:

  • Avoid them if you can
  • Keep them short
  • Don’t, for heaven’s sake, double up: Don’t jump from Dursley to Dumbledore inside one prologue.
  • Talking about drama is not drama
  • Know why you’re prologuing at all. What’s the purpose? A really bad purpose is “the first few chapters are a bit dull, so I want to tell the reader it gets more interesting later.” A really good purpose is “use the prologue to alter the way the readers understand what happens next.” For all its excess length and talkiness, Rowling’s first chapter does in fact do that: it shines a kind of lustre on Harry, that the snake-in-the-zoo chapter couldn’t do.

In the end, readers want to meet their central character sooner rather than later. They want to reach Story sooner rather than later.

JK Rowling is a wonderful writer and that first book of hers deserved everything that later happened. But the over-prologuing? In the hands of a less engaging writer, that weakness could have toppled the book before it started.

Me, I doubt if I’ll ever write a book with a prologue again. Most of the ones that cross our editorial desk here should just be deleted.

And me? Tis a frosty day with lots of sunshine. I am going outside to find an owl.

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  1. Hello. Fairly new and not posted much yet. Interesting, read that J. K. Rowling wrote the first chapter for the first book eleven times. Whether it’s true or not, the first chapter is so tricky to write.