How Rowling Developed Suspense, Surprise, and Shock (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt IV)

This is it! The last post on Rowling’s outlining process and how she used series to develop her complex plots.

Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve talked about so far based on Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Besteller:

  1. A series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Some examples of series from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix include: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape; and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.
  2. For a series to be worth keeping in a story it needs to a) repeat but vary, forming the undulating effect of a narrative arc, and b) intersect and interact with the other series in the story in such a way that it sends the story spinning in new directions.
  3. The strength of a novel is determined by the strength of its key scenes. A key scene is when multiple series come together and play off one another. Key scenes tie together all the loose story threads to create a tight-knit novel. An example of a key scene in Rowling’s outline is the scene following Harry’s dream about Mr. Weasley being attacked by Voldemort’s snake, Nagini. The scene deals with four of the six series listed above: The Hall of Prophecy; Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; and the Order of the Phoenix.

How to Create Suspense, Surprise, and Shock

When Rowling outlined Order of the Phoenix, she was able to keep track of her complicated plot by dividing it into columns on paper based on which series a storyline belonged to and jotting down the development of each series in each chapter. And it’s because Rowling took the time to break down her plot into individual series that she was able to precisely place throughout her story the important elements of suspense, surprise, and shock.

Readers love books that have suspense, surprise, and shock. In fact, a book that doesn’t have those three S’s probably won’t get far off the shelf (or out of the desk drawer).

Unfortunately, a book that’s lacking suspense, surprise, or shock is not easily fixed. You cannot just toss a random bar brawl into a story and expect it to surprise or shock a reader. The hardest part about including the three S’s is figuring out how to organically grow them from the roots of your story, and that’s what Rowling is so good at in her Potter books.

Everything in Rowling’s intricately developed seven-book-long plot has meaning and purpose—from the very beginning in Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid uses Sirius’ motorcycle to drop off Harry at the Dursley’s front door all the way to the end in Deathly Hallows when Snape reveals the significance of his patronus. Rowling had to keep track of every one of those details throughout the 4,195 pages of her story.

But before she could even get that far, she had to first figure out how to get her readers to want to read 4,195 pages.

How to Track Your Plot’s Development

By dividing her story into series and then noting the development of each series in its own column, Rowling was able to pinpoint when, where, and how she would surprise or shock her readers, or continue leaving them in suspense.

Look at this bit of outline she wrote for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Creating Suspense

Let’s start with suspense. In Blueprint Your Bestseller Horwitz explains how to create suspense in a series:

The effect of suspense is achieved when we are continually told what we don’t know . . . The iterations [of a series] are closer together and they are well managed to produce the effect that something is imminently going to be communicated to us.

An example of suspense would be the “Hagrid + Grawp” series. Rowling obviously changes things between this outline and the final draft, but still, she plans from the beginning to continually remind us of Hagrid’s injuries without telling us where he’s getting the injuries from. She continues to build the suspense by mentioning his injuries getting bloodier and more frequent, until nearly the end of the book when she relieves the suspense by revealing the secret behind his injuries in Chapter 30, aptly titled “Grawp.”

That’s suspense. Now for surprise.

Creating Surprise

Here’s Horwitz on how to surprise readers:

When the gaps between iterations are longer, surprise occurs . . . When an individual series suddenly returns to our conscious mind after such a pause and we experience the next iteration as unique yet familiar, this is surprise.

For example, at the end of Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore reveals to Harry that the person who prophesied that Harry would be Voldemort’s equal is the highly unlikely Professor Trelawney. Trelawney is an extremely un-gifted Seer and has only given a real prophecy once before, back in book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Rowling hadn’t mentioned Trelawney’s sporadic prophesying for quite some time, so the effect is surprise.

Creating Shock

And lastly, how to shock readers:

Shock occurs when there is barely one iteration before a disclosure takes place. With shock there needs to be something that would have admitted this possibility—the iteration that delivers a shock seems to come out of nowhere while not being totally unexpected in hindsight.

Rowling uses shock quite a bit in her Potter series—a difficult thing to pull off because readers don’t like to be tricked (they liked to be shocked but not tricked).

For shock to work, a writer has to give her readers all the hints they’d need to figure it out themselves, and then the writer has to somehow unexpectedly twist things around at the end.

An example of shock in Order of the Phoenix is the death of Sirius Black. It seems to come out of nowhere, but Rowling slyly set things up so that, in hindsight, it’s not completely unexpected.

For instance, Rowling clearly establishes that Sirius is hot-headed, impulsive, and very unhappy staying hidden at home instead of working alongside the rest of the Order. On top of that, Sirius is extremely loyal to Harry and would stop at nothing to protect him, which is ultimately what leads him to his death. All these things, however, are relatively minor character details that are easy to skim over in Rowling’s 870-page book, so when Sirius dies, the effect is shock. But the reader does not feel cheated because Rowling includes enough of those minor details so that it all adds up in the end.

And there you have it! It’s ultimately because Rowling understood how to organically integrate suspense, surprise, and shock into her plot that she was able to create a new and exciting story for each of her seven books. 

And that brings us to the end of this series of posts (get it, series?). I’m excited for my next few, especially my post on the best writing books I read this year.

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Looking for more posts on the Book Architecture Method? Check out these:

How Rowling Turned a Story Idea into a Best-Selling Series (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt I)

How Rowling Formed Her Narrative Arc (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt II)

How Rowling Created Key Scenes (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt III)

8 thoughts on “How Rowling Developed Suspense, Surprise, and Shock (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt IV)

    1. What a wonderful compliment, Amy. It’s taken me a long time to work my way out of the academic, snobby, big-confusing-words-make-things-sound-better type of writing that’s pushed in college. So thanks for noticing. You made my day! Happy writing and I hope to hear from you again soon.

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  1. Thanks for the analysis. I’m currently teaching myself how to write fiction by writing a story based on future events at Hogwarts, whilte trying to stay as close to Rowling’s style as possible in the process. I’ve subscribed to your blog and look forward to future posts.

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    1. Thanks for checking in, Ken. I love the castle picture on your blog. Hope your writing is going well! (Who decided to put NaNoWriMo in Nov anyway? Right smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Why not in February or March when nothing’s happening and we’re all sick of winter? That’s my writing rant for the day.)

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  2. Amazing posts, thank you! I loved this condensed vital knowledge. You just taught me valuable stuff, though now I think I might have way too few series or plot strands in my story… You were right, change might be hard! It has to grow organically, or the change becomes vertical (spanning through all the story).

    However, after all this time after finishing the books, I’m still thinking Grawp’s series are more like a “how not to” on series. They might be one of the few things I don’t like about HP (behind the thousands I love). They feel to me completely accessory, their dissapearance wouldn’t make crumble anything, and they don’t seem to appear on many key scenes (though my memory could be betraying me here). Even looking at the whole seven-book story, Grawp looks like nothing but a Hagrid’s problematic protuberance. Ok, he fought at the end, but for the plot purposes, Hagrid’s scars would have had way larger payoff if they were because of training Hogwarts’ Thestrals to fight.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, wolvesheir. I agree with you 100%. Rowling’s meanderings in the Hagrid series, like his issues with Grawp and his crush on Olympe, are decidedly some of my least favorite in all of the Harry Potter books. On the other hand, I understand why Rowling got away with including these strands that don’t necessarily hold anything else together. When you’re writing fantasy you get a good amount of space and time to develop your story world, which includes developing real-life, three-dimensional characters that have their own struggles – deciding how much space and time can often be determined by personal preference. (I also think it helps that by the time the Grawp series came around, Rowling was arguably the most successful writer of all-time and was well on her way to becoming a billionaire – that gave her a tad more leeway, too, I think.) Hope to hear from you again soon!

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      1. Yes, I agree completely. There must be some room for other plot series, or else it would be too “egocentric”.
        Sure you will hear from me, you got me hooked on this blog. Damn. 😉

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  3. Hey, is it OK if you mention the three S’s in Prionser of Azakabn and the Philosopher’s Stone, please? You can just reply to me rather than just writing a blog about it 🙂

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