The Dos and Don’ts of Imitating Famous Writers: My Interview with MuggleNet Academia

This week you’ll find me at MuggleNet Academia—one of the most popular educational podcasts on iTunes and nominated for four People’s Choice awards. I had a blast chatting it up with host Keith Hawk, Hogwarts Professor John Granger, and my writing buddy Christine Frazier of Better Novel Project.

In our podcast we talk about the Harry Potter series as a literary artifact and how we can use it to help aspiring writers become better at their craft.

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS WE TACKLE

  • What are Rowling’s three big story signatures? Should other writers try to imitate them?
  • Which best-selling authors have clearly borrowed from Rowling’s writing toolbox?
  • How much of Rowling’s success is due to her use of alchemical imagery and Christian symbolism? Do aspiring writers have to use them if they want to be successful?
  • Can pantsers write as well as outliners?
  • What specific story structure did Rowling use for scaffolding her story? How does understanding it improve an author’s chances of publishing success?

If you’re wondering what I sound like, here’s your chance to hear me talk! You can listen to the podcast at MuggleNet Academiacheck it out on iTunes, or download the mp3.

Sign up for more tips from a professional editor.

Foreshadowing: The Secret Sauce of Best-Sellers

Humans read stories to make sense of life—to make sense of chaos. Stories revolve around “plots” and the simplest definition of plot is cause and effect: “Because this happened, that happened; and because that happened, another thing happened.”

Real life, however, is chaotic and often times doesn’t make sense: “You ate a piece of toast for breakfast and then you got kidnapped at lunch.” Wait, what? And that’s why humans love stories. Because stories make sense.

But having a story make sense fulfills only the most basic requirement of storytelling. Readers expect more, especially from fiction. They want stories that are engaging, suspenseful and, ironically, unpredictable. How can a story both make sense and be unpredictable?

Here’s where foreshadowing comes in. You could say that foreshadowing is the more genteel cousin of cause and effect. Foreshadowing prepares readers for unexpected events in a story by dropping hints about them earlier on. That way the story makes sense, but it’s still unpredictable.

Foreshadowing, however, requires slight of hand. It’s a literary magic trick, and just like any magic trick, the more you study and practice it, the better you’ll get at it.

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing . . .

—J. K. Rowling

Why Beginning Writers Struggle with Foreshadowing

The most difficult part about properly executing foreshadowing is learning to trust your reader. New writers tend to be heavy-handed with their foreshadowing because they don’t trust their readers to put the pieces together.

(On the other end of the spectrum are new writers who don’t connect their story events at all—but that goes back to understanding the first storytelling requirement of cause and effect.)

An experienced writer knows that the human brain is highly sensitive to the smallest story details. Even if readers aren’t consciously putting the pieces together, they are subconsciously. This understanding of the human brain is what allows writers to pull off a story twist that feels both unexpected and inevitable.

Going to School for Free

The great thing about being a writer is that you can study the masters for free. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to learn their tricks; you just have to pick up a book.

One of the most celebrated and well-known examples of foreshadowing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (If your Gatsby is rusty, here’s a quick SparkNotes summary.)

Let’s look at how Fitzgerald uses foreshadowing to prepare us for Daisy Buchanan killing Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run. This is an extremely important event in the story that needs to feel inevitable yet unexpected.

[Another example of a foreshadowed story twist is Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.]

Foreshadowing in Dialogue Banter

Fitzgerald connects cars with death right away in Gatsby on page nine (2004 Scribner paperback edition). He cleverly puts a twist on this first connection by having it be a joke—and aiming that joke at Daisy, the character who will eventually commit the hit-and-run. Daisy used to live in Chicago but had recently moved to East Egg, New York. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is visiting her at her new East Egg house:

I told [Daisy] how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.

“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.

“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have left the rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”

“How gorgeous! . . . .”

Not only does this foreshadowing link Daisy with cars and death (“a mourning wreath”), but it also shows her need for attention and admiration. This need makes her decision to flee after hitting Myrtle seem inevitable because, with her character, she couldn’t very well stop—otherwise she’d risk losing the good opinion and love of others.

The best foreshadowing is based on character development, since it’s the characters who act out the plot. The more a character believably embodies the action required to foreshadow an upcoming event, the more believable the entire story is. And a story twist will feel inevitable even if it’s a surprise because it’s based on the personality of a character. As Fitzgerald himself said:

Character is plot, plot is character.

Foreshadowing in Minor Details

Daisy’s bruised knuckle is another instance of Fitzgerald using character development to foreshadow the hit-and-run. Only three pages after he connects cars with death through a joke, Fitzgerald then links Daisy, the future hit-and-run assailant, to pain.

. . . [Daisy’s] eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen . . .”

Daisy’s outburst shows that her immediate response to something unwanted, like pain, is to blame someone else. This early development in her character builds to the later event that she won’t stand up and take responsibility for killing Myrtle.

Foreshadowing in Setting

On page twenty-five Fitzgerald introduces us to the doomed Myrtle. We meet Myrtle in her husband’s car repair garage, which is the same location where she’ll later be hit by Daisy. Fitzgerald’s first description of the garage is:

The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.

After describing this “wreck,” Fitzgerald brings Myrtle, the future hit-and-run victim, into the scene. We might not consciously register this connection, but our subconscious takes note. (Fitzgerald later has Myrtle’s lifeless body lying in this same garage after the hit-and-run.)

Fitzgerald brings us to this garage by way of Daisy’s husband, Tom, who insists on introducing Nick, the narrator, to Myrtle, Tom’s secret lover, while Myrtle’s oblivious husband is standing right next to them.

The impropriety of the whole situation is glaringly obvious, and it’s through this scene that Fitzgerald shows both Myrtle’s and Tom’s impulsive, selfish characters. This character development, in turn, creates a feeling of inevitability when Myrtle gets hit as she impetuously runs at Gatsby’s car because she thinks Tom is driving it.

Foreshadowing in Actions

After Myrtle’s introduction, Fitzgerald sends her, Nick, and Tom to an apartment in New York where Fitzgerald gives us another example of Tom’s and Myrtle’s selfish, impulsive natures.

While partying at the apartment, Tom gets angry at Myrtle and breaks her nose. The fight starts because Myrtle is shouting Daisy’s name. Then Tom, in a moment of grotesque chivalry, says that his mistress doesn’t have the right to say his wife’s name, and he breaks Myrtle’s nose for it.

Notice that Myrtle gets hurt because of Daisy, foreshadowing that Myrtle will get hurt again because of Daisy (except next time it will be fatal). And notice that Tom hits Myrtle to defend Daisy, which foreshadows the scene where Tom is protecting Daisy after she’s killed Myrtle:

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own . . . There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

Foreshadowing in Minor Characters

The most recognized example of Fitzgerald foreshadowing the hit-and-run is the scene during one of Gatsby’s many extravagant house parties when a car slams into a ditch and rips off its wheel. Standing by the disheveled car is a character named Owl Eyes. Nick, the narrator, asks Owl Eyes about the accident:

“But how did it happen? Did you run into the wall?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. “I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know.”

“Well, if you’re a poor driver you oughtn’t to try driving at night.”

“But I wasn’t even trying,” he explained indignantly, “I wasn’t even trying.”

An awed hush fell upon the bystanders.

“Do you want to commit suicide?”

“You’re lucky it was just a wheel! A bad driver and not even trying!”

“You don’t understand,” explained the criminal. “I wasn’t even driving. There’s another man in the car.”

The shock that followed this declaration found voice in a sustained “Ah-h-h!” . . .

This mimics what will happen later when Gatsby is wrongly accused of hitting Myrtle. And just like the wheel of this car is “violently shorn,” so is Myrtle hit so hard that her left breast is ripped and “swinging loose like a flap.” This incident also serves to connect Gatsby with cars and chaos.

Foreshadowing in Summary

In another small detail foreshadowing the hit-and-run, Fitzgerald includes a long list of names of all the people who come to Gatsby’s wild parties. Among the names is a man named Snell, who was at one of the parties “three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand.”

Again chaos follows Gatsby, and again it involves a car.

Foreshadowing in a Story within a Story

Fitzgerald even connects car accidents to the past of Tom—Daisy’s husband and lover of the doomed Myrtle.

Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, tells Nick about Daisy and Tom’s courtship and relates a story about Tom’s first known extramarital affair, which he had only a few months after marrying Daisy:

Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night, and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers, too, because her arm was broken—she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel [where Tom and Daisy were staying].

Here another tire is ripped off in a car accident, and just like Myrtle’s foreshadowed hit-and-run, the victim is a mistress of Tom’s. This information only adds to the escalating trend that girls who get involved with Tom get hurt: Daisy’s knuckle is bruised; Myrtle’s nose is broken; another lover had her arm broken; and soon Myrtle is going to pay the ultimate price. Tom is both a bad guy and bad luck.

These are only a handful of examples which illustrate the many ways that Fitzgerald used subtle details and character development to deftly foreshadow story events that needed to feel unexpected yet inevitable. This practiced sleight of hand is what can turn a good story into a great story.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sign up now for more tips from a professional editor delivered right to your Inbox.

Plot Is a Four-letter Word: An Interview with Stuart Horwitz

One of my latest writing adventures was helping out Stuart Horwitz with his latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. I coauthored a chapter with Stuart called “The Expanded Series Grid in J. K. Rowling’s Novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” I’m so proud to have contributed to this book because it’s unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read.

Most writing books analyze contained aspects of novels—the dialogue in one book, the characters in another, the plot twist in yet another . . . you get little tidbits but never a bird’s-eye view of why one whole book was successful. With Book Architecture, we finally get that all-encompassing look.

Each of the book’s chapters digs deep into a different work: the movies Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network, the classic children’s book Corduroy as well as The Great GatsbyHarry PotterCatch-22, and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”

Obviously I’m biased, but I can’t recommend Book Architecture enough!

An Interview with Stu

Q. You’ve said before, “Writing a book is a pain in the ass that takes years. Make sure your idea thrills you!” What was it about this book that so thrilled you that you were willing to spend years on it?

Stuart: Asking the hard questions first! On the one hand, I feel that a book has to pull at you, nag at you, and not let you go. . . . And on the other hand, I’m one of those people who just does what’s next, next.

After publishing Blueprint Your Bestseller, the concept of “series” was the thing that everyone wanted to know more about (I see that we’re getting to that concept a little bit later). I got comments that BYB had helped people take their books apart, but by the time we got to Chapter Nine of that book, “Bringing It All Together”—well, that was laughably short.

I protested that we would need lots of full-length examples to show in depth how books are reconstructed, and they should come from popular fiction but also literary classics and Academy-Award winning films, and then I thought: Hey! That’s not a bad idea . . .

Q. You say that “plot” is a four-letter word. Why? And what word or words should die-hard plotters replace it with?

Stuart: I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for suggesting that “plot” is a useless word. But it is, for two reasons. The first is that it is a singular word, and seems to stand in for everything that happens in your book that, you know, is important. One word can do all that?

The second reason “plot” is relatively useless is that a focus on plot tends to privilege events above all of the other elements of a work: characterizations, symbolism, relationships, settings, etc. Even in the most relentlessly genre-driven fiction, you still can’t consider the events apart from the personalities and the texture that inspire and surround them.

I think it’s easier to just call everything a series, which as I’ll explain in a minute, is a different use of that word than a set of volumes in a particular genre with a lot of the same characters.

Q. In your first writing book and now in this latest one you’ve introduced the breakthrough writing concept of “series.” Since it is a new concept, it can be difficult to grasp at first: What exactly is series and how can a writer’s understanding of it improve her writing? 

Stuart: Series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element so that the repetition and variation creates meaning. You have likely heard repetition and variation applied to art in general: the use of melody in music, the architectural pattern. But repetition and variation of a narrative element—what is that?

A narrative element is anything that can be identified in a reader’s mind as something discrete, for example, a person, a place, a thing, a relationship or a phrase. In fact, the repetitions and variations of series are how a person becomes a character, how a place becomes a setting, how a thing or object becomes a symbol, how a relationship becomes a dynamic, and how a repeated phrase becomes a key to the philosophy of the work.

The repetitions and variations of each series form individual narrative arcs. When I help writers with their work at Book Architecture, we gain practice graphing these series arcs, including the skills to have these arcs interact, intersect, and collide. We braid these threads of series into a whole tapestry—through the use of series grids, like Rowling’s. And we use the third tool of the series target to make sure that all of these series are about the same thing, because your book can only be about one thing.

Q. On the other end of the spectrum from plotters are pantsers. A big theme in your book is, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” You have an outlining technique that you say is non-formulaic, but to many pantsers, an outline in itself is formulaic. How does the Book Architecture Method approach outlining differently?

Stuart: The outline I’m talking about comes from the work itself. It doesn’t supersede the work or dictate how it should go. It is more like a map of where you are and a way to give yourself a sense of the possible directions your work can go.

The type of outline we work with in Book Architecture is spatial in nature and helps visualize the interaction between elements better than the linear list we learned in high school (you know, the one that starts 1., 2., 3. and then under 1. we get 1.a… 1.a.i…).

I love that J.K. Rowling released a snippet of her use of this kind of outline for the fifth volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think sometimes people think famous writers don’t use the same tools as us . . . because they’re just geniuses and stuff. But Rowling’s grid—and the grid Joseph Heller put together for Catch-22 featured in Chapter Six of my new book—show that they do!

Q. You’ve been an editor for fifteen years. What are the most common struggles you’ve seen among writers and how can we avoid those pitfalls? 

Stuart: Well, I think every writer could practice being a little bit more realistic. I don’t mean about potential publishing success, I mean about the writing process. We swing wildly from expecting it to be easy to trying to make everything perfect. Neither one of these approaches is particularly fun, and you have to have fun—that is the cardinal rule.

I don’t mean stupid fun, I mean intellectual aliveness, being fully engaged in what you are doing, believing in your work or changing it so that you do. That’s what we have to keep asking ourselves: Am I still having fun? If you feel that window closing, you can change tack or you can hurry up and bring things to a conclusion before you stop caring about the work altogether.

Nothing is ever going to be perfect. What we write represents a time and a place and we have to leave that “fresh feeling of not having been too well-worked,” as my friend Jim Freeman describes it. And then we go on to the next work, which is what I’m going to do after the promotional phase of Book Architecture. It’s what we all have to do.

Stuart’s Bio

Horwitz.Author PhotoStuart Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, New York and Boston.

Stuart’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.

Stuart’s first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, was named one of 2013’s Best Books on Writing by The Writer magazine. His latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, is already garnering five-star reviews on Amazon.

Sign up for more of the best tips from a professional editor.

Using Plot Points and Pinch Points in a Story with a Twist Ending

Recently I’ve had a few readers ask the same question:

What exactly is a pinch point and how do you differentiate it from everything else in a story?

Okay, first, here’s the most important thing you need to know about plot points and pinch points:

They always need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

[For the definition of plot points and pinch points, see my earlier post.]

What a Pinch Point Is, and Is Not

One of my blog followers (politely) argued that he thought the second pinch point in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shouldn’t be the successive scenes of Snape showing Filch his Fluffy-bitten leg and trying to curse Harry off his broom but should instead be the scene in the Forbidden Forest when something creepy (i.e., Voldemort) slithers out of the darkness and drinks the blood of a dead unicorn—because, in the end, Voldemort is the real antagonist, not Snape.

I agree that the slithering something is definitely a what-the-freaky-heck-is-that moment, but let me explain why it cannot count be the second pinch point.

A pinch point, as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, is

an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

Essentially, a pinch point is meant to show your readers the powerful forces pushing against your hero. Which means that your readers have to identify the bad guy as the bad guy for your pinch points to have any meaning.

This is especially important to understand if you’re writing a mystery, or any story with a twist ending (which Rowling has a particular penchant for in the Harry Potter series: Quirrell in book one; Ginny in book two; Sirius in book three, etc).

Plot points and pinch points act like a metronome for you as the writer, giving your story beats and keeping it on tempo, but if you have a twist ending or a hidden antagonist whom your readers aren’t meant to recognize until later, then those “secret beats” won’t mean anything to anyone but you. Instead, your readers will be confused and bored with a story that looks like it isn’t going anywhere (even though you know it is).

That’s why plot points and pinch points need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

An Example: Snape as Antagonist

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling presents Snape as the supposed antagonist. Quirrell (which includes Voldemort) is the hidden antagonist. This means that the pinch points in Sorcerer’s Stone need to be directed at Snape, not Quirrell, in order for readers to feel like the story is progressing.

(But remember, it’s still absolutely vital to drop hints about the twist ending so readers don’t also feel gypped at the big reveal; the fastest way to lose readers’ respect is to trick them.)

Notice, then, that Rowling sneakily interjects Quirrell into Snape’s pinch points—for example, when Harry’s scar sears in pain while looking past Quirrell’s turban at Snape. It’s such an innocent detail that we breeze right past it, not realizing that it’s actually critical. However, since that turban clue doesn’t mean anything at the time, Rowling needs to keep us interested until it does.

How?

By focusing on the red-herring antagonist, Snape, so we feel like the story’s going somewhere—just not where we think.

Same goes for the second pinch point. We think that Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at the Quidditch match, but Snape is actually trying to protect Harry from Quirrell’s incantation. Rowling ties everything together below the story’s surface.

The What versus the Who

All of this goes for plot points as well. Whatever is presented to the readers as “the story” (even if it’s a farce) is what needs to follow the story structure of first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point. Between all of that, you still need to squeeze in the clues that reveal “the real story.”

But that’s actually not very difficult, because a story’s red-herring antagonist (as depicted in the pinch points) typically determines the direction of the real story anyway.

For example, the two big plot questions in Sorcerer’s Stone are:

What is hidden in the third-floor corridor, and who is trying to steal it?

Like most of Rowling’s Potter books, we eventually figure out the what (the sorcerer’s stone), but we’re as confused as Harry about the who. We think the antagonist is Snape, but then we realize that it’s actually Quirrell, who is, ultimately, Voldemort.

So, the plot stays the same; it’s only our view of the characters that changes.

In short, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone could arguably be viewed as a pinch point for the whole Potter series, since it’s where we first come face-to-face with the evil power of Voldemort, but that individual scene with Voldemort drinking the blood of the unicorn cannot be a pinch point for Sorcerer’s Stone because a pinch point depends on the reader’s understanding of who the antagonist is.

Sign up now for more valuable writing tips from a professional editor.

Story Structure in ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Since writing my series of posts on story structure for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I’ve been asked numerous times to analyze another Potter book, particularly one of the longer, more complex ones. So I’ve picked the longest, beastliest book of the bunch: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(Of course my analysis will only be as helpful to you as your recollection of Phoenix, so feel free to skim through a summary of the plot for a refresher.)

This post will be a quick look at the specific plot points and pinch points in Phoenix—I won’t be repeating all the lengthy definitions and explanations of story structure from my first set of posts.

(If it’s been a while, you can reread my post, or you can simply buy Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which landed on my 2012 list of best writing books and is the bedrock of everything in this post.)

What Story Structure Looks Like

All right, let’s get down to it. Below is a graph of story structure in its most basic form:

Story Structure

Now here is a graph of the pinch points and plot points in Order of the Phoenix:

Story Structure Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

How to Identify the Main Storyline

Rowling has several subplots in Phoenix. To name only a few:

  • Harry’s romance with Cho;
  • Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape;
  • and Harry’s ongoing feud with Dolores Umbridge.

These subplots, however, still tie in to and enhance the main plot, which is:

Voldemort’s attempts to acquire a secret weapon and Harry’s attempts to stop him.

[Note: It’s important to know as the writer exactly what your main plot is, because your main plot determines what your story’s pinch points will be.]

What You Need for the First Plot Point

Remember that the first plot point has to fulfill two criteria:

1) The hero needs to get his marching orders.

2) He needs to set out on a journey (otherwise known as “the point of no return”).

No one wants to read about a hero who has a mission but nowhere to go, or vice versa, a hero who’s going somewhere but has no mission.

Harry gets his “marching orders” in Phoenix when Sirius tells him that Voldemort is trying to acquire a weapon; soon after Harry sets out on his journey to Hogwarts.

Understanding Anomalies in Story Structure

In both Phoenix and Sorcerer’s Stone, the placement of Part Four of story structure—The Resolution—falls short of the expected 20-percent mark.

This variance is typical in books that rely heavily on uncovering a mystery (in these two cases, a stone and a weapon). Once that mystery is revealed it’s a mad rush to the finish, thus the shorter ending.