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