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

For those of us still fighting our way to publication, we tend to believe – or at least we want to believe – that publishing our first beautiful book means we’ve finally crossed the finished line. We’ve won. We’re now authors. But the truth is that the race has just begun. One of the biggest things that will determine if you’ll be a one-hit wonder or a lifelong author is how you leave your reader feeling at the end of your book. As Larry Brooks says in Story Engineering:

[The ending] is where the protagonist earns the right to be called a hero. The more the reader feels the ending through that heroism – which depends on the degree to which you’ve emotionally vested the reader prior to [this] – the more effective the ending will be. This is the key to a successful story, the pot of gold at the end of your narrative rainbow. If you can make the reader cry, make her cheer and applaud, make her remember, make her feel, you’ve done your job as a storyteller. If you can cause all of those emotions to surface, you just might have a book contract on your hands.

The ending of a novel is called The Resolution and it’s the fourth and final cog in the story structure wheel. (Remember the first three? The Setup, The Response, and The Attack.) Lucky for us, there’s only one rule for writing The Resolution:

No new expositional information may enter the story after the second plot point that commences it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters – no newcomers allowed.

Why is this rule so important? Because readers hate being duped. If they find out that you the writer have been withholding information from them that would’ve allowed them to solve whatever looming questions you’ve posed in your story, the honeymoon is over. Readers want to feel like they’re in on it. So if you do want to put a twist at the end of your story, all of the clues leading up to it have to be staring your readers in the face – like Rowling did with her plot and the seemingly innocent character Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Of course it would be too easy if the only thing you had to worry about was one little old rule, right? So on top of that there’s a few “guidelines” for The Resolution that Brooks also highly recommends (e.g., ignore them at your own peril). They are:

  1. The Hero as Catalyst: “The hero of the story should emerge and engage as the primary catalyst in the Part 4 resolution. He needs to step up and take the lead. He can’t merely sit around and observe or just narrate, he can’t settle for a supporting role, and most of all he can’t be rescued.”
  2. The Hero and Personal Growth: “The hero should demonstrate that he has conquered the inner demons that have stood in his way in the past.”
  3. A New and Better Hero: “The hero should demonstrate courage, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, even brilliance in setting the cogs in motion that will resolve the story.”

How did Rowling implement these three guidelines in her ending of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

First off, Rowling leads her readers into Part 4’s resolution with several last bits of information that come tumbling in one after another. It starts with Harry realizing that Voldemort is actually the one that wants the stone stolen with Snape as his henchman (at least that’s what Harry and we the readers believe). Then Harry discovers that Hagrid, in a drunken moment of gambling, accidentally told a disguised stranger how to get by Fluffy. It appears that Snape has everything he now needs to steal the stone for Voldemort – there’s no time to waste. But of course when Harry tries to pass off this newfound knowledge, Dumbledore has been suspiciously called away on last-minute business and no other adult is willing to believe Harry. Now Harry is on his own; Rowling has forced him to become the primary catalyst.

Harry’s personal growth in this story is more subtle simply because this novel is part of a series and not a stand-alone (Rowling has six more books in which to flesh out Harry’s character). That being said, Rowling still wisely chooses to have Harry conquer an important inner demon in this book, which Dumbledore aptly summarizes in Chapter Twelve, “The Mirror of Erised”:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

Simply put, Harry cannot keep wishing he has the life he’s always wanted (two loving parents and no scar on his forehead). He has to learn to deal with the hand he’s been dealt. In fact, Rowling brilliantly takes it a step further and intertwines Harry’s inner growth with his ability to solve the external conflict (stopping Voldemort from stealing the stone). If Harry hadn’t learned how to accept his present life, he wouldn’t have been able to save the stone by looking in the mirror and seeing it appear in his pocket – instead he would have simply seen his deceased family again like in Chapter Twelve.

And to fulfill the last of the three guidelines, Rowling obviously has Harry (and Ron and Hermione) demonstrate a great deal of courage, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking by sneaking past Fluffy, fighting their way out of the Devil’s Snare, catching the flying key, winning a life-sized (and life-threatening!) game of chess and choosing the correct potion. But notice that Rowling has Harry alone continue on to the last room to face Quirrell and Voldemort. His friends cannot save him. Ultimately, he and no one else can be the hero.

And if I could tack on an additional guideline to those three, I’d add that a successful and satisfying ending also gives its readers enough pages to unwind after the tension of the climax (in hoity-toity terms, I’m referring to falling action and the denouement).

This post-climax part of the plot is an extremely cathartic moment for the reader, like enjoying a runner’s high after a marathon. To ignore that or cut it short would risk leaving the reader feeling sour. Rowling obviously understood the importance of this because she dedicates fourteen pages to her falling action and denouement. She no doubt put a great deal of work into these pages because there’s a lot of humor (“What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows.”), some thought-provoking wisdom (“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”), and some classic feel-good moments (“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”).

The Resolution of a story is the writer’s last opportunity to win over her readers and convince them to give her another chance with her next book. It’s no time to tip-toe around or exit quietly.

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

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

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

  1. Interesting. I was obviously left with the impression that Harry had grown and overcome his demons, but I have never analysed exactly what led me to that conclusion. You’re so right, there has to be proof. After highlighting the personality problem, a situation then has to be contrived, in which a hero behaves differently and “demonstrates” that he has learned and can apply the new-found wisdom.

    I also never knew that the wrap up could be called denouement. And yes, thinking about it, this can be the difference between a good read and a brilliant work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the hunger games trilogy, but was a bit disappointed with the short summary at the end of the trilogy and the 2 or so page epilogue. It felt like I had put a lot of work in and received not much in return. On the flip side, the denouement of the Lord Of The Rings series dragged on forever and could have been a book in itself.

    I haven’t decided if I like the end of the Harry Potter series or not. On the one hand it seems quite short in relation to the series as a whole. I suppose many of the other characters already had their endings (Neville’s triumph, Dudley’s goodbye etc), so the main characters had been accounted for in a way. On the other hand, the mild disappointment could have been a sadness to see the end of an epic series. Either way, certainly a work of genius.

    Like

  2. I just googled Story Structure for Harry Potter because I didn´t have the link to this page. Anyway, your blog comes up in sixth place! ( Top ten, way to go!) Out of curiosity, I went on to the first 5 pages and what I discovered was that they just don´t cut it. None are as explicit and well explained/written as yours. Thank you ofr taking the time to write this five piece article and sharing it with us. It´s going a big difference in my plotting. MAJOR DIFFERENCE. I had been using Dramatica Pro but sometimes that can be too overwhelming. What you have done her is really easy to follow. Have you ever considered being an agent?

    Like

  3. Wow, Claudia, thank you! Once again you’ve made my day! It’s funny that you mention being an agent because yesterday I was reading an article in “The Writer’s Digest” about agents and it sounded like something right up my alley. But right now it’s only an idea on the horizon because I love being a stay-at-home mom and I wouldn’t be able to be there for my clients the way that they deserve. (Plus, I would have A LOT of work to do to build up the right know-how and connections to make it happen.)

    And Isobella, I laughed when I read how you felt about the long denouement at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Just this past week I picked up the trilogy and I’m trying to read it for the first time but it’s just SO SLOW. I’m around page 100 and I feel like the characters still haven’t gotten anywhere, ha. But I know that a lot of people love the story so I wanted to give it a shot. (I’ve already read “The Hobbit” and really liked it but LoR is a whole different beast than that smaller and rather more simple children’s book.)

    Anyway, thanks you two for checking out my blog. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated your comments along the way. I know this is a little out of left field but I was wondering if you two would be interested in starting a writer’s support group. Nothing big – the three of us could just create a Google group to motivate each other to keep working on whatever writing projects we have on our plates. I know one of my biggest obstacles personally is simply making the time to write. It could be something simple like at the beginning of the week we share our writing goals with each other and at the end of the week we report on how we did. I think that would go a long way in encouraging me to take my writing more seriously. Thoughts?

    Like

  4. To be a brain surgeon you need to first dissect the beasts – and thank you for doing the dirty work for the rest of us. I’ve noted that not only is Rowling’s story structure brilliantly sculpted, but the pace, the cadence, of her words, sentences and paragraphs denote some special attention, admiration and study. Thanks again for your articles.

    Like

  5. Thanks for your encouragement, Rodrigo. I’m glad others have found this as helpful as I have. And I agree with you that Rowling is not only a master plotter but she’s also so good at the finer details of story writing – I highlighted some of those in past articles like “How Rowling Hooked Her Readers on Page One” (here http://tinyurl.com/lfqh5pb) and my four-part series about her pacing in Harry Potter (starting here http://tinyurl.com/kr66mzl). Best of luck in your writing endeavors!

    Like

    1. I´ve often wondered if it came natural to Rowling or if she had help from writing books/mentors. I don´t remember her ever emntioning her writing process.

      Like

  6. Great work on this series on HP and structure. We Larry Brooks fans believe in structure, but this is helpful too, to see the first novel’s story broken down and equated with the plot points, etc. In oother words, It’s one thing to know structure and another to be able to do it well.

    And, yes, our household members are all Potter/Rowling fans, and some of us have read the Potter books twice.

    Like

    1. Bill, thanks so much for reading through all of my posts on this series – that makes my day (really)! I’m working on a few more posts and I’d love to hear more of your feedback when I get them up. In the meantime, happy writing!

      Like

  7. Thanks for all your hard work. I’ve only just found your blog and tried to subscribe but the follow button doesn’t seem to register. Any suggestions?

    Like

    1. Hm, Petrina, I’m not much of a technological wizard (ah-ha, get it – wizard? Harry Potter blog, wizard? . . . anyway . . . . .). Have you tried using a different Internet source? I’ve noticed that sometimes Google’s Chrome will be messing something up but if I use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer it will work (or vice versa) . . . . I think the button itself is working because other people have since followed the blog. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful because of course I’d love for you to follow my blog!

      Like

  8. Thank you for this accurate vivisection! Brooks brought me here, and I was glad to read and learn a little more about structure. I couldn’t help but realize one might say the pattern works at two levels: One structure for each book, one structure for the whole saga. Let me illustrate it:

    Spoiler Alert!

    If you consider the whole HP’s story, you can find good candidates to each plot point, although the position in pages does not fit Brooks’ numbers. Maybe I’m considering wrong points? I think book one’s ending is the FPP, where Harry finally meets his nemesis, and the real story (the battle against the death) kicks off. We have a pinch point when they meet again in the Chamber of Secrets, with major foreshadowing in play with Riddle’s diary. At the midpoint, Voldemort comes back to life and so the journey switches from ‘just responding’ to ‘attacking’. From that point, Harry tries to join the Order of the Phoenix, and in failing he creates Dumbledore’s Army, while Snape and then Dumbledore prepare him for the final showdown. The battle at the Department of Mysteries brings the second pinch point, reminding us that death is closer than we thought, and more painful. After that, the SPP happens when the last bit of information is revealed: Voldemort is protected by the Horcruxes. It is not really the last bit, because the last book needs also a SPP, but it is better positioned to be a SPP.

    What do you think about it?

    Like

    1. I think you’re very much on the right track, Nebrios. With the immediate success Rowling had with the first Harry Potter book, I can only imagine how much pressure she felt writing each successive book but she managed to pull it off every time – and I think a big part of that was keeping a good grasp on the overarching structure of her seven books. Rowling minutely developed not only the individual book plots but also the overall story structure of the seven books. She made the readers feel like every book was something completely new but at the same time another step on a bigger journey. Thanks for checking out my blog and I hope you’ll join more of our discussions down the road.

      Like

    1. Thank you, Erika! I’m currently working on co-authoring a chapter for Stuart Horwitz’s second book on writing fiction. I’ve dug up some stellar stuff for that – so whatever doesn’t make it into the chapter, I’ll definitely be sharing that here with all of you! I always have something up my sleeve so I hope you stop by again soon!

      Like

  9. This is an exceptionally helpful series of articles. I am planning my own series of books at present and this is certainly one of the most useful resources I have found. Thank you very much for all your hard work!

    Like

  10. Love these articles, I’ve learned so much, and being able to relate it back to Harry Potter makes it so much easier to understand.

    I’m wondering how this sort of structure – especially what this article says about the resolution – would apply when you have a short series/trilogy with one single plot across the entire series, and each book ends on a sort of “to be continued” going into the next one.

    I thought initially you’d just stretch the structure across the entire series, but that would feel like one gigantic book that had been chopped up into little pieces. Bad. Plus, each individual book would drag on and feel like it was going nowhere fast.

    What’s your opinion? I’m trying to plan out a trilogy, but figuring out the structure when it’s one overarching plot (with side plots and other events, of course) is proving difficult.

    Like

    1. Thanks for dropping in, Lauren—it’s always nice to hear that my posts have resonated with another writer. If you scroll down a few comments, Renee had a nice explanation for your question. Best of luck on your trilogy, and I hope you stop by again!

      Like

  11. Hi! I just stumbled on this blog today and I have to say that I totally love it. Keep up the great work! I also found this structuring system to be very helful (At this point I would even say enlightening, but I’m afraid this feeling comes mostly from my initial excitement and won’t last too long). However, there’s one thing I don’t really understand: How does the structure work when you write a book series? Do you have to apply the structure again and again on every sequel, or do you use the structure once throughout the whole story (would collide with your explanation)? (Or both? This would make things hard on a whole new level) 25% of every sequel being ‘marching orders’ somehow doesn’t feel right for me (although it could actually be like this and I never noticed).
    (I’m not a native speaker, so have mercy with my grammatical and spelling errors)

    Note: I just read the last comment and noticed it pretty sums up my question… I’ll still additionally post my comment, if only to not let the time of writing it being wasted (and maybe it adds a different dimension to Lauren’s question).

    Like

    1. You should pick up Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering. It’s packed with information, but he definitely recommends that each story ‘stand alone’ with it’s own plot line and structure, even while playing out your larger story premise. No one wants to read a whole book to have that books’ main plot/series stop open ended. You have to give the reader some closure on that books’ main problem, and leave some open endings for the entire series’ over-arching problem(s). Like with HP, the sorcerer’s stone mystery is resolved, but Harry is only marginally closer to the big mystery of finding Voldemort and uncovering the details about the past, to shed light on how to eventually defeat Voldemort in the future. Hope that makes some sense! Definitely go buy Brooks’ Story Engineering! It’s the best of his structure guides and phenomenally helpful. I reread it almost once a year, while I work on my first novel.

      Like

  12. In paragraph four, it should be “i.e., ignore at your own peril” not “e.g.,” since “i.e.” essentially means “that is,” while “e.g.” means “for example.”

    Anyway, I’m glad to have found this series of posts! I’m a fellow editor looking to find resources for my clients, and this shall now be one of them. Thanks, Cary!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s