Why Open with the Dursleys?

Discussion in 'J K Rowling' started by Cli-Fi, May 22, 2015.

  1. Cli-Fi

    Cli-Fi Well-Known Member

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    In studying what publishers and agents are looking for for my own novel. As well as the openings of other novels. Her opening makes no sense. The way she opened the book may also be part of the reason why she got so many rejections. She just didn't start with any main characters. Which is what you should be doing according to most industry standards. Instead she spent a lot of the first chapter focusing entirely on Vernon Dursley and his basic thoughts about magic. It seems to me that she spent more time with the Dursley's in Chapter one than during any other part of the entire series. Then, in seemingly proper fashion, she goes ahead and starts each Harry Potter book with him being at the Dursley's and they have little to do with the rest of the story/mythology.

    In my opinion the movie had a better beginning.
     
  2. TheDustyZebra

    TheDustyZebra Inspired. Or possibly insane. Could go either way. Staff Member

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    The books I have (US) start with the same thing as the movie -- the first one begins with the scene on Privet Drive, McGonagall as a cat and Dumbledore doing the put-outer thing with the lights, and Hagrid delivering Harry. I take it the UK ones didn't have that scene?
     
  3. Cli-Fi

    Cli-Fi Well-Known Member

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    wow I am in the US and I must have not read the US version then lol.
     
  4. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    I'm confused now. I remember the start being as you describe, but I've just looked on Amazon UK and the opening is the one cli-fi has. However, I think this must be the US opening, because for some reason the look inside feature seems to link to a US book (with the "sorceror's stone" title). So are you sure you don't have the UK book?

    Anyway, I think even the opening cli-fi is talking about works reasonably well, as the opening to a children's book. It introduces a couple of grotesque characters, then says they have a secret, and adds a lot of mysterious goings-on which are meant to excite the reader about the main character before he appears. Given that Harry Potter isn't actually that charismatic a person, this is a good strategy, and I think it's a classic ploy to build up a main character through the eyes of others first.
     
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  5. AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Confuddled

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    I thought it worked well but I read the "Philosopher's Stone" before the "Sorcerer's Stone." Ultimately that's all that matters - that it works.
     
  6. Ray McCarthy

    Ray McCarthy Sentient Marmite: The Truth may make you fret.

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    I can't remember. I think I dropped my UK copy into the pensive. Or Dementor's ate it. I can't find it.
     
  7. TheDustyZebra

    TheDustyZebra Inspired. Or possibly insane. Could go either way. Staff Member

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    I definitely have the Sorcerer's Stone one. I'm also apparently lying, which is disconcerting considering how recently I've reread the first book AND seen the movie immediately following. It starts with the Dursleys and then goes to the movie opening scene, in the same chapter. I guess I just forgot the Dursleys being at the start because it's so forgettable. :oops:
     
  8. Cli-Fi

    Cli-Fi Well-Known Member

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    Yeah, it's there. But I don't really think it's forgettable. I just think it's an odd start.
     
  9. Cli-Fi

    Cli-Fi Well-Known Member

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    I can understand what you are getting at, but Harry Potter is not shown in some miraculous way. He is shown under the stairs in a little dingy room! Yes, that's unique, but it's not until chapter 2 when we learn of possible potential powers Harry might have. Which is of course Rowling's classic long-winded writing style. By book five? The Dursleys are no longer in the story and the over exaggerated badness with them. I guess since things in the magic world are now so bad. Harry doesn't need bad people at home too.
     
  10. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    I have to admit, I only read the first few pages as I was relying on the "look inside" feature on Amazon. (I borrowed the book when I originally read it.) So my argument might not have been watertight.

    I wonder if the Dursleys' absence in later books is as much to do with the move to a more adult style as anything else. The way she starts the first book does strike me as a classic children's opening (though my memory's too poor to name other examples).
     
  11. AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Confuddled

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    I always assumed it was about Harry becoming his own man and out from the shadow of the magic created by his mother and Dumbledore.
     
  12. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    But the opening is really funny -- and that's what Rowling is really brilliant at, especially in the first three books. It opens in a recognisable way with a recognisable (if exaggerated and grotesque) family.

    And the opening paragraph where she emphasises their normality and says: "...They were the last people you would expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense." hooks the reader because it tells you that very soon, the Dursleys are going to be involved in something strange or mysterious, and you spend the rest of the opening anticipating that and the effect it will have on their lives.

    The reason they couldn't use the opening in the film is, I'd guess, because it's pretty much all voice ("...Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck...") -- you're being lured into JK Rowling's world and into her sense of humour. Nothing much really happens until Dumbledore and the puter-outter.

    I don't think she broke the rules but even if she did, it obviously worked. Some people can make anything work, I suppose.

    (and I thought her agent was trying to sell a series of 7 books -- several of which had not been written yet -- which is why it took a few submissions to find someone willing to take the risk and publish it)
     
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  13. AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Confuddled

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    I understood she sold it really quickly after changing the opening but with JK Rowling it could be myth. The book she had trouble getting someone to take on had a different opening.
     
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  14. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    So far as I understand it, the original opening was a conversation between someone from the Ministry of Magic talking to someone from the British Government about the increasing danger of magic to the Muggle world. IIRC, she may have ended up re-using in book 5.
     
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  15. hopewrites

    hopewrites I'm not jaded, who said that!?

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    My opinion is that it's because it's a story in the genre of Magical Realism. I agree with Hex that an author doesn't go to the trouble to point out someone is normal unless that normality is going to have weight in the story. My favorite thing about Magical Realism is that it makes the impossible probable.

    I think the first paragraph sets a firm emotional hook. How many of us feel that we don't fit in with people who are "perfectly normal, thank you very much." and "don't hold with such nonsense" as we get into when attempting to discover who we are?

    In the third paragraph we are introduced to the fact that the Dursley's are not as normal as they so firmly believe they are. This hints to us that the narrator is sneaky, and will present what the characters think of themselves, even when that isn't true.

    I feel this sets the hook deeper. How many of us knowing such people also know that they are not as "normal" as they desperately wish to appear. It reconfirms my personal believe that people who feel abnormal will fight hardest to present a normal face to the world. Such persons will not show emotion, unless it is socially expected to do so. Not socially normal, Expected. They are ridged and fearful. Having grown up around such people I am disposed to sympathize with characters who find themselves oppressed by the strict normal face that Mr and Mrs Dursley will insist all around them present to the world. Such feelings set me up to sympathize with Harry before I've even met him. Imo, that's good writing.

    Why start with the Dursleys? Well, imo it works well to establish the environment that Harry will be familiar with as he grows up while hinting to the reader that there is a wider world out there. Each of us is familiar with our home environment, and has that itch in the back of our mind that whispers insidiously that there is more to the world than we know about. The series as a whole scratches that itch, so I appreciate the time and effort taken to acknowledge it and the mood making woven into the part of the story that transitions us from normality to suspended disbelief.

    While it is clear from word one that Mr and Mrs Dursley will never accept Harry for who and what he is. While it is predictable (realistic) that they would raise Dudley to think and feel the same way. I enjoy that he is able to overcome his parents prejudices and try to mend the bridge with Harry. That it didn't work out the way he planned because Harry was caught up in his own thoughts and feelings and suspected the peace offerings to be alarms also fits with my experience of reality. I've been on both sides of that door, setting out what I hope will be recognized as a peace offering, seeing it go untouched or tripped over in disgust, or misinterpreting someones intentions because I was so caught up in what was going on in my life at the time. I like to think that Harry had a better relationship with his cousin that his Aunt had with her sister. I don't imagine them ever being close enough to call each other friend, but I suspect that nether would be ashamed to admit kinship to the other, or deny the other help out if called upon.

    As Mr Dursley's day progresses, we get hints and shadows of a wider world. A world the Dursleys want nothing to do with, but will ultimately be forced to confront. This also works to make the story we are being drawn into more compelling. It's not just the story of one boy growing up and saving the world (two worlds really) while he works out who he is as a person. It's a story about how those two worlds interact with each other. Such stories are the type that inspire others to express who they would be in this a duel society.

    One could make an argument that the Dursleys are what make the series great! Not because of who they are, or what they represent. But in the way that Harry is forced to make do with them in his life. Sparking hope in those of us who are odd, that although we may start out in a world that rejects our oddities, that doesn't mean we have to give up being who we are. The melding of the two disparate worlds encourages tolerance between ourselves and those who fail to comprehend us, as well as opening an invitation to find a world that fits our personal oddities.
     
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  16. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    Nice post, hope.

    I think also that the Dursleys start as the outer edge of the magical world (as far from magic as you can get, sort of), so from a position of "normality", we get funny things happening to Harry -- rather like Matilda -- and then he's plunged directly into the world of wizards and Hogwarts. It's a gradual move from normality to magic.
     
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  17. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    I found the Dursleys off-putting, over-done, and clichéd, and if I hadn't heard interesting things about the books otherwise I doubt that I would have continued. I wonder how many people who like the opening are looking at it in retrospect and seeing how well it sets up the rest. Did you love it the first time you read it? (Maybe you really did.)

    Of course we might say that any book that sold that well must have been brilliant from the very first word and there is nothing that the author could have done better. But I don't think any of us here are that naive. No book could possibly be brilliant enough to match those sales. It was hype that drove the sales to such astronomical heights. Of course the book had to have a great deal of appeal for a great many readers to start that snowball rolling, but I think there is room for criticism of certain aspects of the story.

    For me, the Dursleys were definitely one of the weakest parts. As was the fact that the school kept sending Harry home as long as they did even though they knew he was being abused. I find that an appalling message to abused children: don't tell your teachers or the parents of your friends what is happening to you, because they will be unable or unwilling to help you. Eventually, of course, the adults did find a way to help Harry, but it took a number of books to do so. What happened to the children who were absorbing that message in the meantime? Everyone gives Rowling credit because so many children say that Harry inspired them to bravery in other situations, but if she gets credit for things like that, I think there should be some acknowledgement that there were some parts of the story that had the opposite effect.
     
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  18. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    I did like the Dursleys the first time I read them -- they reminded me of the adults in books like James and the Giant Peach (and Matilda). I loved some of the descriptions of them -- especially when Uncle Vernon is getting stressed about the letters and closing up the letter box.

    I agree I was never really convinced about the need to keep sending Harry back to the Dursleys in the holidays, but it's not the only thing in the books that doesn't really stand up to careful analysis so I classified that as one of those things. And to be fair,
    the Weasleys did come and rescue Harry in Book 2, so telling them was not useless. But Dumbledore's inaction was one of the things I could never really forgive (and was never really properly justified).
     
  19. Ray McCarthy

    Ray McCarthy Sentient Marmite: The Truth may make you fret.

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    I thought that was odd.
    Later Dumbledore gives an explanation, which rather smacks of Rowling trying to patch up what was her mistake. If I'd been writing it I'd never have let him go home again.

    I started reading them before she was properly famous, I just came on book1 in the bookshop and bought it. I liked them but was bemused by the circus about them. I'd read much over the years that was much better, though A wizard of Earthsea did manage to be part of the curriculum in Irish Schools which amazed me.
    I do think they are better than the Darren Shan books or Artemis Fowl and on a similar level of quality to Harry Potter. The Potter series could be argued slightly lower quality than Anthony Horowitz's "Alex Rider" series, which seems to be recently re-marketed with new covers. Anthony Horowitz overall is much cleverer, better quality, much more capable and versatile author than J.K. Rowlings, though his "Power of Five" series is closer to the flavour of Harry Potter, perhaps a bit darker. His Foyle's War TV series treats racism better than Rowlings manages, though obviously one of her themes in Harry Potter.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2015
  20. hopewrites

    hopewrites I'm not jaded, who said that!?

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    The first time I read it my mom shunted me off to the living room with her copy and said imperiously "read this." not "hello dear" or "good to see you after so long" not "welcome home" ... I tried to put up a protest that I should at least say hello to everyone first, but no. My husband's arm was taken and he was pulled bemused into the kitchen to be interrogated over sweets while I was virtually locked in the front room with a book that was apparently going to change my life.

    This colored my impression of the book. And I suppose, the Dursleys as well.

    On first reading? No on first reading it took me at least half way to stop resenting the circumstances that put it under my nose. The second and third were summarily thrust upon me. By the release of the 4th I'd wised up and purchased it before trying to visit my family so that I could say I'd already read it and enjoy their company. By the 6th I had my own opinions and enjoyed the world enough to anticipate the release of the next.

    Reflecting several years distant from those events and circumstances, I can see that the book was a tripped over peace offering. My mom was always trying to pry my nose out of books when I was living at home, so it must have made sense to her to place me in the way of a book I could at least talk to my family about.

    I think this is a valid concern. I dont know that we can credit Rowling with all the trepidation abused children feel about exposing their hardships to others. It's clear she doesn't condone their behavior. When confronted with their treatment of Harry the Magical adults in his life do chastise the Dursleys for it. I always took for granted that Vernon just made everyone (except perhaps his sister) feel helpless against him. I think it casts a light on how little adults do undertake to do when confronted with the oppression someone else's children put up with.

    Can it be said that Draco's parents would not have done the same if presented with a muggle nephew?
     
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