In my previous post we looked at how Rowling was able to build her complex plot by, ironically, breaking it down into individual series that collide and interact in significant ways.
The different series Rowling outlined include: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; the creation of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s relationship with Snape, and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.
For a quick recap on the definition of a series, here’s Stuart Horwitz in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller:
[A series is] the repetition of a narrative element (such as a person, an object, a phrase, or a place) in such a way that it undergoes a clear evolution.
How did Rowling know that each of the six subjects she included in her outline was substantial enough to be its own series? As most writers wrestling with book-length manuscripts know, there’s a fine line between an idea that can add depth to a story and one that will just drag it down. How is a writer to know the difference? Here’s Horwitz again:
A series worth keeping track of needs to enter the action at some point.
For a story element to have the potential to become a full-fledged series, it must fulfill two criteria: One, the series needs to repeat and vary throughout the story. Horwitz calls each repetition in a series an iteration. He chose not to use other possible synonyms such as occurrence or example (which, in my opinion, would be less wordy and confusing) because of the relationship between the word iterate and the word reiterate.
To reiterate something is to repeat it, any number of times, for emphasis. Nothing is ever the same the second time, however; even if the iteration is repeated exactly, the context has changed. Instead, repetition gives birth to variation – and the interplay between repetition and variation forms the core of the concept of series.
Check out how Rowling handled it in her outline:
Each series Rowling lists has numerous repetitions and variations. For example, in the “Hagrid + Grawp” series, she has Hagrid sporting injuries numerous times (for reasons unknown to both Harry and the reader), and then she varies that series by revealing the reason for his injuries and tops it off by throwing in the possibility of Hagrid losing his job. Rowling was only developing these ideas in her outline, but she obviously understood the premise that a series needs to both repeat and vary in order to “create a rich experience for the reader, one that is satisfying yet unexpected.”
These repetitions and variations create an undulating effect in the overall story, moving up in improvement or down in deterioration – and that is what forms the narrative arc.
Before we move on to the second criteria for a series, a quick warning from Horwitz on using repetition and variation:
Repetition can get dangerously close to boring. You have to be careful when you have the same event or adjective or discussion happening over and over again. [On the other hand], you can’t have all variation, either. . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.
You need to have repetition, but not too much or you’ll lose your reader – and you need to have variation but not too much or you’ll confuse your reader. Kind of frustrating, right? It’s definitely a balancing act. Writing will always be more of an art than a science.
Now on to the second criteria for a series: A series also needs to intersect and interact with the other series in the story in such a way that the series sends the story spinning in new directions. This intentional collision of series is what reviewers are typically describing when they say a book is “riveting” or its plot is “airtight.”
These occasions, when series come together in a proximate, physical, literal sense, give a reader the feeling that “it is all coming together.”
And that feeling of “it’s all coming together” is what keeps readers reading. How did Rowling get to that level in her books? Stay tuned for that in the next post along with a discussion on how to pick out your main series from the rest and how to identify your key scenes.
For more posts on The Book Architecture Method: