Prologues and Harry Potter: Clever or Clunky? Part One

If you’ve been around the fiction writing world for a while, you’ve probably heard this one more times than you’d Two parallel stacks of books on blue backgroundcare to remember. If it’s new to you, trust me, it will come up a ton: NO PROLOGUES.

This maxim is one of a number of writing “rules” broken all the time by big name authors, yet many agents and editors (and many writers too) warn newbies against it. The idea is that prologues can be confusing and distract from the story. Also, allegedly, many people skip them. (I say allegedly because I’ve never wanted to skip a prologue in a novel and don’t know why anyone would. Am I alone?)

But how bad are prologues really? Aren’t they a well-established literary tradition? It is true that many best-selling authors use them, yet the real question is whether prologues are acceptable after all or whether these folks are getting away with a sloppy practice. In the next few posts, let’s have a look at mega-success J.K. Rowling and the many Harry Potter prologues. (She may call them Chapter One, but a great deal of her first chapters actually function as prologues—i.e. before the story or from a point of view other than Harry’s).

Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone

The prologue happens ten years prior to the main story and mostly from Uncle Vernon’s point of view. It’s especially interesting for two reasons:

  • Uncle Vernon is an adult setting the stage for a children’s book.
  • Uncle Vernon is horrendously nasty the whole rest of the series, and this is the only time we get to know what’s really going on in his head and to sympathize with him. In this prologue he’s just a bewildered family man feeling the approach of things he doesn’t understand and trying his best to make his world logical again.

Looking back as a grown-up writer and editor, I marvel at how deftly Rowling wove in a theme that rises to the surface many times during the series: People are more than how they present themselves. It would be easy to write off Vernon as a cartoonish villain if not for this one glimpse of his inner personality. He’s flawed, sure, but he’s also a human. Rowling’s choice of his perspective to begin the series is profound.

Still, the big question is “Does it work?” Does it work for a new reader? For a child reader? I first read this at fourteen, a bit older than the intended age group, but for me it did work. It worked because of Rowling’s great opening lines (Who can resist reading on after “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much?”), and it worked because it was totally unexpected. I had to see where this story led. Perhaps a newer reader might have a more valuable perspective.

More Harry Potter prologues will be discussed in next week’s post!

What do you think about this prologue or prologues in general? Did this one draw you in or did it feel off topic? Share in the comments.

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan, Creative Commons

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