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

I mentioned in my previous post that a book’s middle is one of the main deciding factors in its overall success (or failure). And how couldn’t it be? The middle comprises 50% of a book’s pages! But what exactly determines if a middle will fail or succeed?

Simply put, successful middles had authors who understood that the middle of a novel actually has two parts – and between those two parts there’s something vitally important called: the midpoint.

We’ve already covered the specifics of the first part of the middle (The Response) which comprises 25-30% of a novel: Here the protagonist is a wanderer, trying to find his place and making many mistakes along the way. Then halfway through the book at the midpoint there’s a “big fat unexpected twist,” as Larry Brooks says in Story Engineering. And this twist “empowers the hero to transition from Part 2 wanderer to Part 3 warrior.”

If an author doesn’t breathe new life into her plot with a midpoint twist, the entire story will feel sluggish. The characters will continue dealing with the same problems over and over, resulting in the story driving itself into the ground. The plot needs to be injected with something fresh.

So what does Rowling do at the midpoint of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

On page 163 – exactly halfway through the plot – Harry realizes that the grubby little package Hagrid had taken out of vault seven hundred and thirteen is hidden in the forbidden third floor corridor (under a giant three-headed dog named Fluffy!).

From here on out, Harry isn’t on the defensive anymore. He’s on the offensive. He knows things – highly sensitive secret things – that very few others know about; thus he transitions from a wanderer to a warrior. This is where the story moves into Part 3, The Attack, “where the hero literally fights back, hatches a plan, enlists assistance, demonstrates courage, shows initiative.”

Look at the next few chapters after Harry’s realization and see how Rowling lets him take the initiative and start succeeding:

  1. In Chapter Ten, “Halloween,” Harry follows Snape because he suspects Snape is trying to sneak into the forbidden third floor corridor. Harry also successfully fights off a giant troll (much to everyone’s surprise, including his own).
  2. In Chapter Eleven, “Quidditch,” Harry discovers that Snape has been bitten by Fluffy. Harry believes Snape is trying to steal whatever that dog is guarding and Harry wants to stop him. Harry also wins his first Quidditch game by catching – er, swallowing the snitch, even though he was nearly thrown off his broom by a dark incantation (Snape of course is the main suspect).
  3. In Chapter Twelve, “The Mirror of Erised,” Harry gets a mysterious Christmas present, an invisibility cloak, which allows him to get into even more mischief, including breaking into the library and later on discovering a mirror that shows him his family for the first time.
  4. In Chapter Thirteen, “Nicolas Flamel,” Harry finally figures out that the thing hidden in the third floor corridor is the Sorcerer’s Stone – a stone that “makes gold and stops you from ever dying.” Now more than ever Harry wants to stop Snape from stealing it. Harry also wins another game of Quidditch, after which he eavesdrops on Snape who appears to be trying to threaten Quirrell into telling him how to get by Fluffy.
  5. In Chapter Fourteen, “Norbert the Norweigan Ridgeback,” Harry takes charge even more by hatching a plan to get rid of Hagrid’s illegal dragon. With Hermione’s help, Harry manages to get the dragon out safely, only to get caught by Filch (although Filch only suspects them of being out of bed after curfew).
  6. In Chapter Fifteen, “The Forbidden Forest,” Harry serves his detention, and the reader comes to the second plot point (“the final injection of new information into the story”). Harry realizes that it’s actually Voldemort going after the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Hagrid, in a drunken moment of gambling, gave away the last bit of information Voldemort needed to steal it. Now of course Harry has to take action. It’s his life at stake – and everyone else’s if Voldemort succeeds. And this final piece of vital information segues the reader into the fifth and final part of the novel – The Resolution  . . . to be discussed in the next and last post for this topic.

More posts on story structure:

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

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

And check out my latest story structure analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

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

  1. Absolutely fascinating, can’t wait for part V. Interestingly this also overlaps with the Hero’s journey and Nigel Watt’s 8 point arc.

    One question I have is, can the story structure/architecture be applied to the overall story?

    [SPOILER ALERT]

    As in, if you put all the books together you get a ‘larger’ story, whereby Tom Riddle learns about horcruxes, rises to power, attempts to kill Harry’s parents, fails, languishes in almost dead territory before being resurrected and then finally facing Harry in the ultimate showdown.

    Does that still follow Brook’s structure?

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  2. You are clever! I´ve learned so much from these posts. I love Harry Potter as much as you, so this has been a wonderful learning experience, not to mention a very cool ride.
    Can´t wait for the last installment.
    And how is your writing coming along? Have you been able to move forward at all?

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  3. Thank you, Isobella and Claudia!

    Isobella, I haven’t yet studied in-depth the overarching story structure of all seven Harry Potter books, but from what I can tell, I believe it does follow Brooks’ story structure (e.g., in one book Harry finds out Voldemort wants to kill him, in another he finds out why, and then in another he finds out what he must do to stop him, etc. They all build on each other. Rowling is just so good at knowing precisely how much and where to put tension in her story to keep her readers reading.)

    Claudia, I’m plugging away at my writing as usual! It’s a very slow process but I’m enjoying it and trying to learn as much as possible as I go. Right now I’m trying out a computer program specifically designed for novelists. It’s called Scrivener. I’ve been using it with their free 30-day trial and so far absolutely love it. It really caters to a more organic way of writing (as opposed to just trying write everything out on a basic word processing program). If you’re interested you can check it out here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/

    Thanks again for all of your encouragement and insights. It’s much appreciated!

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  4. So to clarify, you are saying the the two parts of the middle are The Response and The Attack and the midpoint is sandwiched in between those two parts? (i.e. response and attack are the two parts you’re referring to). Is that right? Thanks!

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