In ‘The First Spell: Philosopher’s Stone Part I’, I discussed the expertise of the Scholastic’s layout job, and how Jo begins her story on a plane we (as uninitiated Muggles) can understand. She then gradually transfers our interest – our support – for characters from the Dursleys very quickly to their severely oppressed nephew, Harry. Now I need an entire post to converse about the inciting incident.
Touching back on layout, I would like to bring up another important writing rule (guideline, really): Your inciting incident should occur sometime in the first three chapters OR fifty pages of the novel. As it happens, at the bottom of the fiftieth page of Stone, Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard! Apparently, if an agent/publisher/reader is going to invest in the story, it’ll be decided by page fifty. There are many contributing reasons to this “rule.” Ultimately, I think it comes down to what the inciting incident does that makes it a good idea to have it fairly early in the story.
The inciting incident is the catalyst for the conflict.
In my dissection of the early parts of Stone to locate the inciting incident, I came to find it in multiple parts.
Initially, the first part I thought might be towards the end of Chapter Two. We see the first “spell” Harry casts in real time, not in exposition: the Vanishing Glass. Of course after further reading up to page fifty, the inciting incident was designed to be Hagrid telling of Harry’s identity. However, while the reader (and Harry) finding out that he’s a wizard is exciting and guaranteed to ensnare our interest (which it did), delivering the message isn’t really what starts the conflict for Harry. If the Vanishing Glass was the first part to this theorized catalyst, then the arrival of the owls to number four, Privet Drive is sure to be the second. “[N]o one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would? He had no friends, no other relatives” (34). The phrasing of Harry’s reaction signals to us this is a significant moment in his life.
Our curiosity has peaked – glass vanishing and letters for Harry when there wasn’t anybody he knew to write to him? Both anomalies are followed by extreme retaliations by the Dursleys. They generate conflict: From Mr. Dursley nailing the letterbox shut all the way to skipping from place to place, effectively trying to outrun people who don’t rely on Muggle means of transport. What is more, both anomalies are prerequisite to the Big Reveal at the Hut on the Rock.
At this point in my examination of early Stone, it appears I have found three inciting incidents! All three events cause some kind of conflict, which carries the story and the reader effortlessly on. And that is just so, for at the moment we know what Harry is (after Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid drop baby Harry off) and when it is confirmed by Hagrid in the Hut on the Rock, we are just as excited as Harry to discover a world folded into our own. A world of magic, danger, and adventure.
The layout of the text, the slow transition from Muggle world to Wizarding, and the three inciting incidents all contribute to this the first spell from Jo to her readers. But there’s one more thing. Like Harry, everyone wants to feel like they are special, unique. I’m not talking about being the Chosen One. It’s very much simpler than that. We all want to have some kind of escape from the Muggle World. Even though we can’t dive into the pages ourselves, we live Harry’s experience through Diagon Ally, the Hogwarts Express, all the way up to Hogwarts Castle itself. We can imagine ourselves into Harry’s shoes. That is our own brand of magic. As Jo said in her 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech “we do not need magic to change our world. We carry all the power inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.” So when you find yourself trying to wrap your head around how this story could have touched so many lives, remember that it reminded us of the power of imagination.
***This post is part of my Perusing Potter – a series of exploring the known and not-so-known aspects of the Harry Potter Series***