How Rowling Sustained the Suspense (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt II)

In our last post we discussed how Rowling hooks her readers with a short, fast-paced Chapter Three in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Now the question is how she sustains that suspense for 250 more pages. Ironically, in order to sustain suspense, you need to vary it. Having too much suspense for too long is just as bad as not having enough.

Look at how Rowling varies the intensity (i.e., the pace) after Harry finally gets to read his letter: The two chapters after Chapter Three are long and have relatively little action but a lot of dialogue. They’re basically the exact opposite of Chapter Three.

  • In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys,” Rowling has Hagrid fill Harry in on a lot of wizarding stuff he’s missed out on in the past eleven years. It’s most definitely not action-packed (except for Dudley acquiring a pig’s tail, but even then Rowling only spends three paragraphs on it).
  • In Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley,” Rowling introduces us to Harry’s new world, which involves a lot of description and dialogue. She has him get a wand, visit Gringotts, meet Malfoy . . . again, not much whizbang action here.

It seems like Rowling is slowing things down in order to introduce new characters and set up her fantasy world – and that’s true to a certain extent – but if that were all she was doing, her story would’ve sunk there. It might not look like it, but Rowling still has suspense on every page. Just like the definition of “pace” is often misunderstood, so is the definition of “suspense.”

Suspense: What it is and what it is not

When you hear “suspense,” it’s easy to fall back on examples from Stephen King or John Grisham; but if “action-packed” was the sole predictor of suspense, then quieter books like Pride and PrejudiceThe Help and Charlotte’s Web wouldn’t be blockbuster bestsellers. The real definition of suspense can be boiled down to two simple things:

  1. Questions
  2. Answers

Creating suspense in a story is all about asking questions and making readers care about the answers to those questions (and making them care is almost entirely based on effective character development – but that’s another topic for another time). Having no questions means there’s nothing new to learn and that’s where readers will shut the book.

When Rowling relieves the suspense by finally letting us read Harry’s letter, she immediately piles on another truckload of questions. Here are just a few of them:

  • What’s in the secret package that Dumbledore has Hagrid retrieve from Gringotts?
  • What house will Harry be placed in?
  • Will Harry fit in at Hogwarts?
  • Why was Hagrid expelled from Hogwarts?
  • Who exactly is Voldemort? Why is he so bad? And why couldn’t he kill Harry?

Rowling snuck in all of that suspense while introducing characters and describing her new fantasy world in those two “slower” chapters.

Creating and sustaining suspense sounds pretty easy now, doesn’t it? Just make sure the reader always has unanswered questions, right? But what separates the good books from the great ones are these two vital components:

  1. Where the questions come from
  2. How the writer presents them

Check back for that explanation in part three of “Pacing in Harry Potter”: How Rowling Used the Components of Suspense to Write a Seamless Plot.

More posts on pacing:

How Rowling Became a Master of Creating Suspense (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt I)

*Photo by Jesus Ignacio Bravo Soler @ 500px / CC BY