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)