The Make-or-Break Element in Writing

Leo Buscaglia once said:

Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey into the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?”

We often hear the advice “write what you know,” but we rarely hear “write what you feel.”

J. K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series because she said it was a story she would’ve liked to read herself. The writer C.S. Forester also said:

I formed a resolution to never write a word I did not want to write; to think only of my own tastes and ideals, without a thought of those of editors or publishers.

After Rowling finished writing her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it spent a year drifting from one rejection to another (about twelve in total). It was finally accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing for an advance of £1500. Rowling, however, was warned to get a day job. Her story wasn’t commercial enough to bring in any substantial amount of money (and at the time she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain”).

Ironically, some of the supposed “noncommercial” aspects of Harry Potter were pulled directly from Rowling’s own life—not from things that she knew, but from things that she had felt.

In an interview with Oprah, Rowling talked about her sadness and grief:

. . . if [my mother] hadn’t died I don’t think it’s too strong to say there wouldn’t be Harry Potter. . . the books are what they are because she died, because I loved her and she died.

Rowling also struggled with depression, and to express that depression she created dementors:

I think I had tendencies toward depression from quite young . . . It’s that absence of feeling—and it’s even the absence of hope that you can feel better. And it’s so difficult to describe to someone who’s never been there because it’s not sadness . . . Sadness is not a bad thing, you know? To cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling, that really hollowed out feeling. That’s what the dementors are.

Rowling started writing Sorcerer’s Stone because she knew it was a story she wanted to read, but she finished writing it because of how it made her feel.

Her feelings of depression, despair, grief, and most importantly, her feeling of failure drove her to finish what she had started. In her famous Harvard graduation speech, Rowling said:

I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me . . . I was set free, because my greatest fear [of failure] had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Rowling is one of the most successful writers in history, but for quite a while she felt like she was the world’s biggest failure:

The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew . . . You might never fail on the scale as I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

Ask yourself:

Did you bring joy?

Did you find joy?

Perhaps writers get a freebie here because one answer can cover both questions: write what brings you joy and your words will then bring joy to others.

The only catch is, writing what you feel—inspiring others—requires you to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest about what what makes you tick and then you have to have the courage to share it with others. Anything less and you’ll be cheating yourself and all your readers.

Let your mantra be: Dig deep. Be brave. Bring joy. Find joy.

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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.

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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.

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)

How Rowling Used Suspense to Build a Seamless Plot (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt III)

In my previous post on pacing, we discussed how an author hooks her readers by giving them intriguing narrative questions that slowly get answered throughout the story. But now we need to dig a little deeper and look at the two components that can take a good book and turn it into a great book. Those two components are:

  1. Where the author gets her narrative questions from
  2. And how she guides her readers through those questions

First, the where.

The Definition of a Seamless Plot

After Rowling finally lets us read Harry’s mysterious letter, she immediately starts tackling the next big question on our minds: What will Hogwarts be like and will Harry fit in? Notice that Rowling’s newest narrative question stems directly from the answer to her previous big question (i.e., “What’s in Harry’s letter?”). That is the definition of a seamless plot – smoothly transitioning from one story thread to the next.

Here’s what’s not smooth (and not suspenseful): Pulling some new narrative question out of thin air and plopping it down on the page. Imagine a bar brawl breaking out in the middle of a story about a nun living in a convent. Unless you’ve clearly and believably moved your story in that direction, your reader won’t be on the edge of her seat trying to figure out how a bar fight got into a nun convent. Suspense – true organic suspense (the only kind a book should have) – builds from what has already happened.

If Rowling’s new big question hadn’t somehow stem from Harry’s letter, if she had swung her narrative in another direction entirely, she would’ve jolted us out of the story. Instead, Rowling sustains the suspense by smoothly transitioning from one major story question to the next: 1) Harry trying to get his hands on that letter 2) Harry reading the letter 3) Harry acting on the contents of the letter (i.e., going with Hagrid to Diagon Alley to prep for Hogwarts).

Now for the how: How does Rowling guide us through the minefield of new questions that pop up with Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts?

Questions + Perspective = Suspense

Whenever a writer dishes out new questions in her story, she needs to help her reader prioritize them. Because Rowling always has a lot of questions hanging in the air (as all great writers do), she needs to make sure that her readers know which one to focus on at that moment in the story.

Not giving your reader a narrative direction is like asking her to drive an obstacle course without depth perception: Everything looks like it’s the same distance away and she can’t determine which obstacle requires her immediate attention. That’s confusing and frustrating, and a fast way to lose your reader. Luckily, the solution is simple: The more focus you put on a particular question, the sooner your reader will expect that question to either be answered or at least play a major part in the plot until it is answered.

Once Rowling has her story’s big question switch from “What’s in the letter?” to “What will Hogwarts be like and will Harry fit in?” she doesn’t send Harry back to Privet Drive to get into a random fistfight with Dudley. She’s pointed us in the direction of Hogwarts and she’d better head that way or she’ll risk losing our interest; hence, the next chapter takes Harry to Diagon Alley.

But what about all of the other questions that inevitably formed with Hagrid’s appearance and Harry’s letter, like: Who is Voldemort? Why has Harry been kept in the dark for eleven years? And why was Hagrid expelled from Hogwarts? Let’s look at that last question to illustrate how Rowling tells us exactly what she wants us to focus on at that point in the story.

Even though Hagrid’s expulsion adds more detail to his character and another layer of suspense to the overall story, Rowling informs us immediately that this question isn’t going to be pursued at the moment. Here’s the conversation she writes between Harry and Hagrid:

[Harry:] “Why were you expelled?”

“It’s gettin’ late and we’ve got lots ter do tomorrow,” said Hagrid loudly. “Gotta get up ter town, get all yer books an’ that.”

By having Hagrid ignore Harry’s question, Rowling signals to us that we should do the same. (And notice that Rowling manages to not only have Hagrid say what’s not going to be pursued at the moment, but also what is: Harry preparing for Hogwarts.)

Transitioning Little Questions to Big Questions

Even though you’ll only be pursuing one big narrative question at a time, it’s important that you still have many other little questions hanging in the air. This not only makes for a richer, more intricate story, but it also prepares the way for when those little questions move into the big question spotlight (which they have to at some point or how else will you answer them). Think of it like dropping bread crumbs for your reader: When one of the little questions eventually becomes the big question, it will seem much more believable because it was mentioned earlier in the story.

Looking back at our example above, Hagrid’s expulsion eventually becomes the big question in Rowling’s second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; and because his expulsion was mentioned earlier, it feels much more believable and organic to the story.

More posts on pacing:

How Rowling Became a Master of Creating Suspense (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt I)

How Rowling Sustained the Suspense All the Way to the End (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt II)

 *Photo by  Public Domain Archive / CC0

How Rowling Sustained the Suspense (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt II)

In our last post we discussed how Rowling hooks her readers with a short, fast-paced Chapter Three in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Now the question is how she sustains that suspense for 250 more pages. Ironically, in order to sustain suspense, you need to vary it. Having too much suspense for too long is just as bad as not having enough.

Look at how Rowling varies the intensity (i.e., the pace) after Harry finally gets to read his letter: The two chapters after Chapter Three are long and have relatively little action but a lot of dialogue. They’re basically the exact opposite of Chapter Three.

  • In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys,” Rowling has Hagrid fill Harry in on a lot of wizarding stuff he’s missed out on in the past eleven years. It’s most definitely not action-packed (except for Dudley acquiring a pig’s tail, but even then Rowling only spends three paragraphs on it).
  • In Chapter Five, “Diagon Alley,” Rowling introduces us to Harry’s new world, which involves a lot of description and dialogue. She has him get a wand, visit Gringotts, meet Malfoy . . . again, not much whizbang action here.

It seems like Rowling is slowing things down in order to introduce new characters and set up her fantasy world – and that’s true to a certain extent – but if that were all she was doing, her story would’ve sunk there. It might not look like it, but Rowling still has suspense on every page. Just like the definition of “pace” is often misunderstood, so is the definition of “suspense.”

Suspense: What it is and what it is not

When you hear “suspense,” it’s easy to fall back on examples from Stephen King or John Grisham; but if “action-packed” was the sole predictor of suspense, then quieter books like Pride and PrejudiceThe Help and Charlotte’s Web wouldn’t be blockbuster bestsellers. The real definition of suspense can be boiled down to two simple things:

  1. Questions
  2. Answers

Creating suspense in a story is all about asking questions and making readers care about the answers to those questions (and making them care is almost entirely based on effective character development – but that’s another topic for another time). Having no questions means there’s nothing new to learn and that’s where readers will shut the book.

When Rowling relieves the suspense by finally letting us read Harry’s letter, she immediately piles on another truckload of questions. Here are just a few of them:

  • What’s in the secret package that Dumbledore has Hagrid retrieve from Gringotts?
  • What house will Harry be placed in?
  • Will Harry fit in at Hogwarts?
  • Why was Hagrid expelled from Hogwarts?
  • Who exactly is Voldemort? Why is he so bad? And why couldn’t he kill Harry?

Rowling snuck in all of that suspense while introducing characters and describing her new fantasy world in those two “slower” chapters.

Creating and sustaining suspense sounds pretty easy now, doesn’t it? Just make sure the reader always has unanswered questions, right? But what separates the good books from the great ones are these two vital components:

  1. Where the questions come from
  2. How the writer presents them

Check back for that explanation in part three of “Pacing in Harry Potter”: How Rowling Used the Components of Suspense to Write a Seamless Plot.

More posts on pacing:

How Rowling Became a Master of Creating Suspense (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt I)

*Photo by Jesus Ignacio Bravo Soler @ 500px / CC BY

How Rowling Delivered Suspense from the Very Beginning (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt I)

The surest way to write a commercially successful book is to write a suspenseful book. Suspense isn’t just for thrillers or horror stories; suspense actually has nothing to do with a book’s genre. Here are some of the most suspenseful books I’ve read lately:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The first book is historical fiction, the second a 200-year-old classic, the third nonfiction and the fourth children’s fantasy. Each one is incredibly different from the other, but all of them were successful because their authors understood and built on the important relationship between suspense and pace. To put it another way, these authors are masters of suspense because they know how to pace.

The Definition of Pace

To properly pace a book means you’ve unfolded your story in such a way that the reader’s interest never drags. You’ve dropped the perfect amount of narrative bread crumbs to convince your reader to turn one page and then the next page and the page after that until she’s finished the book. It’s impossible to have a suspenseful story that isn’t paced correctly; on the other hand, if you’ve properly paced your story, suspense will automatically follow.

For an example of Rowling’s pacing prowess check out Chapter Three of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Letters from No One.” In this chapter, Rowling has Harry get his first piece of mail ever, but his Uncle Vernon is determined to keep it from him. How does Rowling build the suspense around this letter?

  1. First things first: Rowling spends the previous two chapters making sure we get attached to the main character. The more attached we are to a character, the more we’ll want to know what happens to him. Poor Harry gets his first letter ever and his toad of an uncle won’t let him open it. We care about Harry – we want him to succeed – so we read on to find out if he does.
  2. Rowling makes a big deal out of this letter. The suspense a reader feels toward something is directly proportionate to the level of importance the author gives it. If a reader isn’t aware that something is important, she’s not going to be biting her nails wondering how it turns out. How does Rowling let us know that this letter is important?
    1. This is Harry’s first letter ever. Remember how excited you were as a kid to get your first real piece of mail? Harry, orphaned and unloved, finally has a real letter of his own, and we want to know what’s in it.
    2. The letter is strangely unique. It’s made of thick yellow parchment; the address is written with emerald-green ink; it has a purple wax seal bearing an unknown coat of arms, and the addresser knows exactly where Harry lives: “Mr. H. Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs.” Who would send such a strange letter? We read on!
    3. But the real clincher is Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia’s reaction. Rowling ingeniously prevents Harry from reading the letter but has him watch the faces of his uncle and aunt as they do: “[Uncle Vernon’s] face went from red to green faster than a set of traffic lights. And it didn’t stop there. Within seconds it was the grayish white of old porridge.” Even better is when Rowling has Harry listen at the kitchen door while the Dursleys discuss the letter’s contents: “I’m not having one in the house, Petunia! Didn’t we swear when we took him in we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense?” Rowling has conveyed the extreme importance (and strangeness) of the letter by way of the Dursleys’ reaction to it.

Now that Rowling has us in suspense about this mysterious letter, how does she keep us invested until we discover its contents? Again, it’s all about pacing. She doesn’t let us read the letter in the very next scene – that would be a buzz kill – but she doesn’t make us wait too long either.

  1. Rowling writes eight short, consecutive scenes – totaling only ten pages – that are solely focused on Harry trying to get his hands on that letter. These quick bursts of action coupled with their narrow focus keep us interested and curious – “I’ll read just one more page.”
  2. Now that Rowling has us hooked, she slowly reels us in by having each scene become progressively longer and more elaborate until we finally get to the letter. But notice that she doesn’t toy with our patience too much; the longest scene is still only three pages.
  3. And with each of these scenes, Rowling has Uncle Vernon go to more and more desperate measures to stop Harry from getting the letter. Eventually the family ends up in a dilapidated shack . . . on a deserted island . . . in the middle of the sea . . . during a terrible storm. By creating a setting this extreme, Rowling conveys to us how incredibly important this letter is – and also how incredibly hopeless it seems that Harry will ever get to read it. (Rowling knows the more unlikely it seems that something will happen, the more we want to read on to see if it does – and the more rewarding it will be when it does.)

The Most Important Part: The Big Reveal

If you build up something this much, as Rowling has, you had better be ready to deliver. It’s true that you can lose your reader by not having enough suspense, but it’s just as risky to pile on truckloads of it only to give a ho-hum ending. Notice that when Rowling finally allows us to read the letter, she doesn’t just paste it on the page. She has it delivered by a literal giant who crashes through the door and puts a pig’s tail on Dudley’s rear end. Rowling rewards us big time for sticking with the story.

But what now?

It’s one thing to perfectly pace a scene and get your readers to turn a few pages. It’s a whole other beast to grab their attention from the very beginning of a story and carry it all the way to the end. How does Rowling manage to keep us in suspense for the entire 309 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Check out part two of “Pacing in Harry Potter”: How Rowling Sustained the Suspense All the Way to the End.

More posts on pacing:

How Rowling Used the Components of Suspense to Write a Seamless Plot (Pacing in Harry Potter, Pt III)

*Photo by Daniel Nanescu @ Splitshire / CC0