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
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.
- gets his first glimpse of Snape,
- he feels the scar on his forehead ache,
- he notices the new turban on Professor Quirrell’s head,
- 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!).
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 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).
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.”
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.