In my previous post we discussed how Rowling’s unique plots were successful because she followed some basic novel guidelines. I specifically focused on plot points and pinch points in that post as defined by Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering. Now in this post I’m going to be referring to Brooks’ text again to look at a few more important elements of story structure.
I’m a visual learner myself so here’s a diagram of the parts I’ll be talking about:
OVERVIEW OF STORY STRUCTURE
Now for the specifics:
STORY STRUCTURE IN HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE
In Story Engineering Brooks writes that there are four major parts of a novel: The Setup, The Response, The Attack and The Resolution. Like a circle, successfully writing one of these parts determines the success of the next part – and the success of the sum of these four parts determines the viability of the entire novel.
Part 1: The Setup
Part 1 is The Setup and its purpose is just that: to prepare the readers for everything that follows. It comprises the first 20-25% of a book. The focus of Part 1 is NOT “the hook”/inciting incident (which can happen anywhere in Part 1). The mission of Part 1 is to “introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life” (e.g. backstory, stakes and character empathy). A fatal but common mistake, Brooks says, is stuffing too much story into this first part. The readers won’t care about what happens next if they don’t care about the character to begin with.
The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake – what he needs and wants in his life, and what trials and tribulations and opportunities he is facing before the arrival of the primary conflict – the more we care about him when all of that changes.
The more the reader cares, the more effective the story will be.
It isn’t until the end of Part 1 when we hit the first plot point that the story “gets its legs.” Here the hero receives his marching orders and sets out on his journey. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this is when Harry arrives at King’s Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express for the first time. But what happens before that? How does Rowling get us to care about Harry to begin with? Here it is in bite-size chunks:
- In Chapter One, “The Boy Who Lived,” we get an idea of how awful Harry’s life is. We start to empathize with him.
- In Chapter Two, “The Vanishing Glass,” we find out that Harry has some weird and interesting abilities. (How does he make that glass from the cage vanish? And why can he talk to snakes?) Now we’re curious along with empathetic.
- In Chapter Three, “The Letters from No One,” we learn that someone else seems to care about Harry – so much, in fact, that they won’t stop sending him letters, and they seem to have strange powers just like Harry.
- In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys,” Rowling pulls out the big “hook” – the inciting incident: Harry’s a wizard and will be going to Hogwarts.
- In Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley,” we get a peek into this new world of wizardy and meet some key characters.
- And finally in Chapter Six, “The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters,” we get to the first plot point.
That’s already 25% of the novel!
I want to mention something here that might seem nit-picky but is actually quite important. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the inciting incident and the first plot point of a novel. Why isn’t the first plot point in Chapter Four when Harry meets Hagrid and finally gets to read his letter? Getting our hands on that letter is what Rowling has been hanging over our heads this whole time, right? But it’s only the inciting incident and not the first plot point because it only fulfills one out of the two criteria for the first plot point. Yes, Harry receives his “marching orders” (an invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) but he hasn’t set out on his journey – not even when he visits Diagon Alley in the next chapter – because at any point he could turn back. It isn’t until he’s on that train speeding away in Chapter Six that his journey has truly begun. Now why was this important enough for me to blab on about for an entire paragraph?
Every manuscript needs to end its Part 1 with a term often coined as the point of no return. The protagonist can’t have the option of just wimping out and going home. He has to corner himself to the extent that he must see things through. And that, along with caring about the protagonist, is what keeps the reader reading.
Check back for part three, The Response, coming up in the next post!
More posts on story structure:
And check out my latest story structure analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.