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

Remember that a series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Here are some of the series Rowling outlined for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; organizing Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape, and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp. Notice in Rowling’s outline that each series has its own column, and for each chapter she jots down how each series is developing. She also has a column that’s simply labeled “plot” where she keeps track of which series is stepping into the spotlight when.

Transcribed Rowling Outline

I ended my last post on series with a question: How did Rowling know that each of the six series she listed was worth keeping?

A series worth keeping not only evolves in its own right but also has the power to change the direction of the entire story. In Rowling’s outline, all of her series intersect and interact with each other in such a way that if one were taken out, the story would be off-kilter. The individual scenes in her “plot” column illustrate especially well how her different series come together and play off one another. And that is the definition of a key scene: When several series collide and send the story spinning in new directions.

Not having these very important interactions between series in a key scene is what readers are describing when they say a book is “slow” or “nothing happens.” Here’s what Stuart Horwitz has to say about it in Blueprint your Bestseller:

When series interact, anything can happen. They can conflict and send one another spinning. One series can slow another down or stop it all together . . . [But] if you don’t have key scenes, if your series don’t intersect that often, you may have found the root of the problem with your manuscript. This often comes about in the middle of the narrative, where the length of time a reader has invested in your work is not being repaid – the payoff lies in being able to make the connections that key scenes produce when series intersect.

All scenes should be good scenes, but not all good scenes are key scenes. So how to differentiate between a good scene and a key scene? Here’s Horwitz again:

A good scene may be an important scene, a memorable scene, but it is not necessarily a key scene unless it contains the maximum interaction of series.

Where is a good scene and where is a key scene in Rowling’s outline?

The “Hagrid + Grawp” column is full of examples of good scenes. Rowling obviously changed a number of things between the time when she wrote this outline and when she finished writing the book, but you can still see that many of her good scenes for the “Hagrid +Grawp” series made it into the final cut. For example, Chapter 30 is titled “Grawp” and that’s what the majority of the chapter is about: It focuses on the “Hagrid + Grawp” series with pretty much no interaction with any of the other series. That’s a good scene, but it’s not a key scene.

Now take a look at the scene that deals with the aftermath of Harry dreaming about Mr. Weasley being bitten by a snake. It starts in Chapter 22, “St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.” In this scene, we’re dealing with multiple series interacting with each other: the Hall of Prophecy (because that’s where Mr. Weasley was attacked); Ginny (because Harry watches her reaction when she’s told about her father’s injuries); Dumbledore’s Army (because the Weasley kids make up a sizable chunk of the D.A.), and the Order of the Phoenix (because Mr. Weasley was injured while standing guard for the Order). That’s already four of the six series on Rowling’s outline. It’s a key scene.

(I’d also like to point out that this scene is the midpoint of the story. This is when everything changes. Until then, Harry’s dreams appear to be just dreams, but this dream is real. Mr. Weasley’s attack is the catalyst that forces Harry to become a warrior and start taking action. Plot points, such as the midpoint, usually involve the collision of multiple series because that’s when everything starts coming together. For more on story structure, click here.)

One of Rowling’s biggest strengths as a writer is that she is so adept at tightly intertwining her series so that everything in the story feels like it has a purpose (even if we don’t know why at first).

Stay tuned for the next post where we’ll discuss how to determine your main series and how you can use series to create suspense, surprise and shock.

More posts on The Book Architecture Method: 

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

*Photo by Gabrielle Courchesne Delisle @ 500px / CC BY-ND

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

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:

Transcribed Rowling 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:

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

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

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

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

If there’s nothing us writers like more than reading a great book, it’s seeing how that book came to be. Lucky for us, we got exactly that when Rowling released a snippet of her outline for the fifth Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Problems with Order of the Phoenix

First, let me say that Book Five is my least favorite of the bunch. It’s an 870-page beast with a number of redundant scenes (like when Harry is either dreaming or arguing). Even Rowling wishes it had been better edited.

Still, the book deserves praise, especially considering its intricate plot and the abundance of characters (and all written on a tight deadline). Stephen King said he liked the fifth book “quite a bit better” than the previous four, and added,”Harry will take his place with Alice, Huck, Frodo, and Dorothy, and this is one series not just for the decade, but for the ages.”

In recent posts, we saw how Rowling’s plot for the Sorcerer’s Stone hit all of the structural milestones necessary for a tight-knit novel. But now the question is, how exactly did Rowling develop her story idea into seven weighty books?

For this post, I’ll be drawing solely from Stuart Horwitz’s groundbreaking book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method.

Don’t Say “Plot”

Ironically, I frequently used the word plot in my last post, but now plot is a four-letter word. Horwitz explains why he dislikes the word so much, and I have to say, I agree with him.

For one thing, [plot] is a term with nearly unlimited associations. It’s hard to get anybody to focus on what is actually going on in their book while they are worried about whether their plot is good. For another thing, plot is singular, as if it somehow references everything. As such, you can’t work with a plot.

Rowling obviously agrees with Horwitz, because look at how she structures her outline for Order of the Phoenix. (You can enlarge my transcription below by clicking on it. I cleaned up the outline by writing out abbreviations and completing sentences.)

Rowling Outline

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Series: The Real Plot

Series is what Horwitz says should replace plot (and sorry, the plural of series is series). Although Rowling uses the word plot, notice her outline isn’t simply one chaotic column that’s trying to track everything. Instead, she divides the action into six columns of individual series:

1. The Hall of Prophecy
2. Harry’s feelings for Cho versus Ginny
3. The creation of Dumbledore’s Army
4. The creation of Order of the Phoenix
5. Harry’s relationship with Snape
6. And the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp

The end result is an engagingly complex novel—not because Rowling has one twisty-turny plot, but because, as Horwitz says, she breaks down her story into “clear, meaningful series that intersect and interact in unusual and consequential ways.”

It’s actually quite simple what’s going on in Order of the Phoenix: A teenage boy is trying to juggle his school work, his friends, his enemies, and his first romantic relationship. But Rowling has these series collide with each other in surprising ways to create a feeling of complexity. As Horwitz says:

How you handle your series will determine your readers’ forward progress and their level of commitment to your work. Series is how people become characters, how objects become symbols, and how a message repeated becomes the moral of your story.

In my next post, we’ll look at exactly how Rowling brings these series to life.

For more posts on Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method:

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)

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

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

For those writers still fighting their 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.

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.

How Rowling Created Obstacles for Harry’s Character Development (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt III)

The middle of a novel comprises 50% of a book’s pages. It doesn’t have the fresh taste of a beginning and it doesn’t have the twists and turns of an ending. It’s just the middle.    Just    the    middle.    Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Writing the middle of a novel has sunk many an aspiring writer; so how exactly did Rowling do it?

Part II: The Response

Reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks immensely helped my understanding of the mechanics behind “the dreaded middle.” In my previous post I discussed the first 25% of a novel, The Setup, which ends after the first plot point. This post will focus on the second part: The Response.

The Response spans another 25-30% of a novel and its purpose is to zero in on the protagonist’s reaction to his new situation after getting rocked by the first plot point (and if Part 1 was correctly and successfully written, the reader will care about how the protagonist fares). In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Part 2 is about Harry figuring out where he fits in at Hogwarts and in the world of magic in general.

One of the most critical criteria of Part 2 is that the protagonist should not be succeeding yet. He is a “wanderer” at this point, not a “warrior.” He needs time to find his feet and make some mistakes. Brooks says:

In Part 2 the hero is running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting, or anything else required before moving forward. If you have your hero being too heroic here, being brilliant, already knocking heads with the bad guys (or some other dark force), it’s too early.

Now see how Rowling does just that and keeps Harry from succeeding:

  1. In Chapter Six, “The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters,” Harry feels like a fish floundering out of water in his new magical world – he doesn’t know the lingo, doesn’t know any spells and doesn’t have any friends. He also meets his nemesis, Malfoy, who is clearly much better off than him.
  2. In Chapter Seven, “The Sorting Hat,” Harry comes very close to being put into Slytherin, the house that has turned out the most bad wizards and witches of the four houses. He also gets his first look at Professor Snape, which leaves Harry with the sneaking suspicion that Snape doesn’t like him at all.
  3. In Chapter Eight, “The Potions Master,” Harry discovers that Snape doesn’t dislike him – he hates him! Snape goes to great lengths to embarrass Harry and generally make his life miserable.
  4. In Chapter Nine, “The Midnight Duel,” Harry’s other current nemesis, Malfoy, steps back into the limelight. Here Harry pulls off his first small heroic action. He defends Neville from a taunting Malfoy by jumping on a broom to retrieve Neville’s Remembrall, which was chucked into the air by Malfoy. Harry gets caught by the strict Professor McGonagall, but, instead of getting expelled, McGonagall actually offers him a position on the Gryffindor quidditch team. It seems Harry’s luck is changing . . . which brings us to the midpoint.

And we’re already halfway through the book!

The midpoint is a major crossroad in a novel. Understanding what it is and is not can mean the difference between a dead manuscript and one that has a fighting chance. To be continued in part four, The Attack . . .

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

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.

How Rowling Cornered Harry at the Point of No Return (Story Structure in Harry Potter, Pt II)

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

Harry Potter Story Structure

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:

  1. In Chapter One, “The Boy Who Lived,” we get an idea of how awful Harry’s life is. We start to empathize with him.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. In Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley,” we get a peek into this new world of wizardy and meet some key characters.
  6. 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:

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

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)

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.

Famous Authors on How They Discovered Their Best-Selling Story Idea

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I love hearing about how authors came across their book ideas. I especially love the ones like J.K. Rowling’s where it’s a flash of creativity and suddenly you know what you need to write:

It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester together. After a weekend’s flat-hunting, I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write “Philosopher’s Stone” that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.

J.K. Rowling

In fact, the authors of quite a few books I love have similar stories:

J.R.R. TOLKIEN and The Hobbit

Tolkien was grading college exam papers, and midway through the stack he came across a gloriously blank sheet. Tolkien wrote down the first thing that randomly popped into his mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was or why it lived underground, and so he set out to solve the mystery.

C.S. LEWIS and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

On an otherwise ordinary day, 16-year-old Lewis was seized by a peculiar daydream. A frazzled creature, half-man and half-goat, hurried through snowy woods carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels. Lewis had no idea where the faun was heading, but the image was still with him when, at age 40, he finally put pen to paper to find out.

LEO TOLSTOY and Anna Karenina

As he lay on a sofa after dinner, Tolstoy had a vision of an elbow. The image expanded into a melancholy woman in a ball gown. The mysterious lady haunted Tolstoy and he eventually decided to write her story.

– Writer’s Digest Jul/Aug 2012

Stories like these give me hope that maybe some day I’ll be hit by a bolt of creativity . . . or maybe I won’t. Then what? I can’t just sit around waiting, hoping, to get my big break. What was it that Dumbledore said? “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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

The Harry Potter series was groundbreaking in many ways—its length for YA, its depth of character, its intricate plot and fantastic settings—but the foundation of Rowling’s success is her reliance on basic story structure.

Below I mapped out the first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, using story structure as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering.

Story Structure of Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

NOTE: I subtracted chapter one from my analysis because it is a prologue and does not advance the plot.

First Plot Point

The first plot point, as defined by Brooks, is when the hero receives his marching orders and sets out on his journey. This should happen about 25 percent of the way through the novel.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, 25 percent is page ninety (again, not including chapter one). And what happens on page ninety? Harry arrives for the first time at King’s Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express.

It is the point of no return, the moment when everything changes for Harry.

First Pinch Point

Next is the first pinch point. Here we get a glimpse of the antagonist, or in other words, who our hero is up against. This happens around three-eighths of the way through the story, which in Sorcerer’s Stone is page 126.

Here Harry:

  1. gets his first glimpse of Snape,
  2. he feels the scar on his forehead ache,
  3. he notices the new turban on Professor Quirrell’s head,
  4. and Dumbledore warns that the third floor corridor is off-limits.

We now have our eye on both the mystery (what’s in that corridor?) and the bad guy (or so we think!).

Midpoint

Next up is the midpoint, which as the name implies, is placed halfway through the novel. Brooks defines the midpoint as “a big fat unexpected twist.”

In Sorcerer’s Stone, the midpoint is at the end of chapter nine when Harry realizes that the grubby package Hagrid had taken out of vault seven hundred and thirteen is hidden in the forbidden third floor corridor.

Second Pinch Point

Now we’re at the second pinch point, five-eighths of the way through the novel, where we’re reminded of the antagonistic forces at hand.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry catches Snape showing Filch his bitten, bloody leg. This discovery is quickly followed by a scene where it seems Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at a Quidditch match (but of course no one notices Quirrell muttering under his breath as well).

We believe that Snape will stop at nothing to get rid of Harry and steal whatever is in that grubby package.

Second Plot Point

Last in Brooks’ story structure is the second plot point, where he has some very specific qualifications:

[It is] the final injection of new information into the story, after which no new expository information may enter the story other than the hero’s actions and which puts a final piece of narrative information in play that gives the hero everything she needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, the second plot point starts with Harry realizing that Voldemort is actually the one that wants the stone stolen, although Harry still believes Snape is Voldemort’s henchman. Then Harry discovers that Hagrid, in a moment of drunken gambling, had accidentally told a disguised stranger how to get by Fluffy.

Now Harry has to take action—it’s his life at stake (and everyone else’s) if Voldemort succeeds.

The Caveat

The second plot point is typically 75 percent of the way through the novel, but Rowling’s is twenty-five pages late. Why?

Because Rowling had six more books rolling out after Sorcerer’s Stone. She had to squeeze in much more information than if she was simply wrapping up a stand-alone novel. In those twenty-five pages we’re introduced to:

  • the concept of dragons (which plays an important part in both Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows);
  • we walk into the Forbidden Forest for the first time (which plays a large role in pretty much every book thereafter);
  • and we meet Firenze (who becomes an important character in Order of the Phoenix).

The Result

Out of the 259 pages in Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling nails four out of the five story structure points, with only the second plot point deviating by twenty-five pages. 

Rowling had an incredibly unique story to tell, but ironically, her success stemmed from knowing “the rules.”

What’s Next?

Once you’ve written your plot points and pinch points, you need to figure out how to fill in the gaps between them. That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next few posts.

(For part two, I’ve created a handy graph for everything we’ve talked about thus far.)

More on Pinch Points

I’ve been asked since publishing this post why Snape is the pinch point and not Quirrell (or even Voldemort). Because this explanation is very important for understanding story structure, I’ve devoted another post to it.

If you’re writing your own novel, especially one with a twist ending, I highly recommend reading it.

Want more story structure? Check out my analysis of Order of the Phoenix.

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)

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

You Only Need 1,000 Readers to Make a Living

Everyone wants to sell millions of books, but the days of reaching consumers efficiently through mass media are over. Technology has fragmented the market. Remember when there used to be three major TV networks? Now there are hundreds of channels – and exponentially more if you count Internet, video on demand, satellite, and crowdsourced outlets such as Youtube and Vimeo.

People no longer have to default to any one channel. They can find exactly what they’re interested in and ignore the rest. What’s exciting is that you don’t need to sell millions of books to make a living by writing. Small is the new big.

Consider the theory known as Dunbar’s number, named after the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He suggested that there’s a limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain a meaningful relationship, and that number is probably somewhere around 150.

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, wrote an article based on a similar idea a few years ago. In “1,000 True Fans,” he theorized that an artist who would like to make a living creating art needs only 1,000 true, passionate fans to make that a reality.

You don’t have to speak to everybody. In fact, you shouldn’t. Think as narrowly as you can and find a pocket of readers who are passionate about the same things you are.

– Kevin Kaiser, “Rewriting the Rules of Marketing” in Writer’s Digest Jul/Aug 2012

*Photo by Shayna HobbsPublic Domain Archive / CC0