Story Structure in Harry Potter: How Rowling Became a Billionaire by Following the Rules (Pt I)

The Harry Potter series was groundbreaking in many ways—its length for YA, its depth of character, its intricate plot and fantastic settings—but the foundation of Rowling’s success is her reliance on basic story structure.

Below I mapped out the first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, using story structure as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering.

Story Structure of Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

NOTE: I subtracted chapter one from my analysis because it is a prologue and does not advance the plot.

First Plot Point

The first plot point, as defined by Brooks, is when the hero receives his marching orders and sets out on his journey. This should happen about 25 percent of the way through the novel.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, 25 percent is page ninety (again, not including chapter one). And what happens on page ninety? Harry arrives for the first time at King’s Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express.

It is the point of no return, the moment when everything changes for Harry.

First Pinch Point

Next is the first pinch point. Here we get a glimpse of the antagonist, or in other words, who our hero is up against. This happens around three-eighths of the way through the story, which in Sorcerer’s Stone is page 126.

Here Harry:

  1. gets his first glimpse of Snape,
  2. he feels the scar on his forehead ache,
  3. he notices the new turban on Professor Quirrell’s head,
  4. and Dumbledore warns that the third floor corridor is off-limits.

We now have our eye on both the mystery (what’s in that corridor?) and the bad guy (or so we think!).

Midpoint

Next up is the midpoint, which as the name implies, is placed halfway through the novel. Brooks defines the midpoint as “a big fat unexpected twist.”

In Sorcerer’s Stone, the midpoint is at the end of chapter nine when Harry realizes that the grubby package Hagrid had taken out of vault seven hundred and thirteen is hidden in the forbidden third floor corridor.

Second Pinch Point

Now we’re at the second pinch point, five-eighths of the way through the novel, where we’re reminded of the antagonistic forces at hand.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry catches Snape showing Filch his bitten, bloody leg. This discovery is quickly followed by a scene where it seems Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at a Quidditch match (but of course no one notices Quirrell muttering under his breath as well).

We believe that Snape will stop at nothing to get rid of Harry and steal whatever is in that grubby package.

Second Plot Point

Last in Brooks’ story structure is the second plot point, where he has some very specific qualifications:

[It is] the final injection of new information into the story, after which no new expository information may enter the story other than the hero’s actions and which puts a final piece of narrative information in play that gives the hero everything she needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, the second plot point starts with Harry realizing that Voldemort is actually the one that wants the stone stolen, although Harry still believes Snape is Voldemort’s henchman. Then Harry discovers that Hagrid, in a moment of drunken gambling, had accidentally told a disguised stranger how to get by Fluffy.

Now Harry has to take action—it’s his life at stake (and everyone else’s) if Voldemort succeeds.

The Caveat

The second plot point is typically 75 percent of the way through the novel, but Rowling’s is twenty-five pages late. Why?

Because Rowling had six more books rolling out after Sorcerer’s Stone. She had to squeeze in much more information than if she was simply wrapping up a stand-alone novel. In those twenty-five pages we’re introduced to:

  • the concept of dragons (which plays an important part in both Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows);
  • we walk into the Forbidden Forest for the first time (which plays a large role in pretty much every book thereafter);
  • and we meet Firenze (who becomes an important character in Order of the Phoenix).

The Result

Out of the 259 pages in Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling nails four out of the five story structure points, with only the second plot point deviating by twenty-five pages. 

Rowling had an incredibly unique story to tell, but ironically, her success stemmed from knowing “the rules.”

What’s Next?

Once you’ve written your plot points and pinch points, you need to figure out how to fill in the gaps between them. That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next few posts.

(For part two, I’ve created a handy graph for everything we’ve talked about thus far.)

More on Pinch Points

I’ve been asked since publishing this post why Snape is the pinch point and not Quirrell (or even Voldemort). Because this explanation is very important for understanding story structure, I’ve devoted another post to it.

If you’re writing your own novel, especially one with a twist ending, I highly recommend reading it.

Want more story structure? Check out my analysis of Order of the Phoenix.

How Rowling Cornered Harry at the Point of No Return (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt II)

How Rowling Created Obstacles for Harry’s Character Development (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt III)

How Rowling Kept the Middle from Dragging (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt IV)

How Rowling Wrote a Satisfying, Cathartic Ending (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt V)

21 thoughts on “Story Structure in Harry Potter: How Rowling Became a Billionaire by Following the Rules (Pt I)

  1. As always, i have enjoyed your post immensly. Thank you for taking the time to share this insight with us. I don´t about everyone else but these posts are really helping me to shape my story. Many karma credits to you!

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  2. It must be hard having your own little “Fred and George” to deal with! Keep on mommying! I´m curious, Is there a part 2 to this story structure? I mean, are these the only point you´re supposed to hit? Or are there more?

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    1. There are a few more plot points. I left them out of this post because they aren’t at a specific spot in a novel (like 25% of the way through or 75% or whatever), but I’d be happy to do a follow-up on them.

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  3. I’d written 4 novels by the SOP method or with only a few outline notes. Story Engineering opened up a whole new world. Once I had milestones to shoot for, the book became easier to manage. I wasn’t just meandering through a story now. I’ve since taken my 4th novel and rewritten it to align with Larry’s structure. It is clearly much stronger. I’m still working out some bugs (like a word count that needs to be reduced by about 20k), but I’m more confident with my plot and overall flow. By the way, there’s no such thing as the “sagging middle” now. Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish in that part of the book, it’s easier to write and it’s just as interesting as the beginning and end of the book.

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  4. Great job on the deconstruction. It’s been so long since I read those books and I had no clue about story physics when I did. It fits perfectly. Nice job, very helpful.

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  5. Ah, another devotee of Larry and his wonderful structure. He/it changed my life. Literally. I’m releasing book number 8, over a period of four years, ONLY possible because of his teachings.

    I’ve done some movie deconstructions on my site, but I think I’ll have a crack at a couple of books now…

    Thanks for your inspiration.

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  6. Love the post and Larry’s theme, structure, characterization, scene execution, writing voice, art and craft instruction are so clear and spot on, it’s almost incomprehensible. Meanwhile, can you repair the links to the rest of the Potter analyses, please. Part III links to Part IV; there is no link to Part III; and you have Part V twice. I find your writing exceptional and would like to read Part III, as well. Thank you.

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    1. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, H. Max (family road trip – woot, woot!). I’ve edited the article above so that it’s easier to move from one post to the next in this series. I hope that helps. Thanks again for checking out my blog – your encouraging words are much appreciated!

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  7. Omg, this is so wonderful. I’ve read nearly almost everything on here and look forward to reading more. Is there a chance you could do this story structure but based on Prisoner of Azakban? It’d be a fun read and a great help 🙂 It’s my favourite book out of the Harry Potter series.

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    1. Thanks so much, Idil, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Unfortunately, I have a lot of posts I want to write this year with limited time to write them, so I’m not planning on doing another story structure analysis of Harry Potter. But I do have so upcoming posts that deal with other interesting aspects of Rowling’s writing techniques, so I hope to hear from you again soon!

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  8. I think you may be my new BFF… I am a freelance editor and I use Harry Potter as an example for just about every story structure/element/etc. point that I make to clients (or on my blog, though I haven’t been nearly so thorough or prolific as you on the topic). Just discovered your blog and I’m going to devour the whole thing!

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  9. If you are going to use Larry Brooks as a source then there may be some merit in looking seriously at Dan Wells. Dan did five YouTube Videos you can study and there is a host of other materials on the following link as well that will put things to do with structure in the right order – the first source for this idea is Star Trek, and Dan Wells acknowledges that.
    This is a good first link – https://www.google.com/search?q=dan+wells+7+point+story+structure&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

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  10. I would love to see a series grid done on part or all of the Sorcerer’s Stone…..like the grid Rowling made public for parts of Order of the Phoenix.

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