Rowling’s Life as an Author: What It Was Really Like to Write Harry Potter

Rowling has said that Harry Potter “simply fell into [her] head” and “all of the details bubbled up in [her] brain.” She “[had] never felt such a huge rush of excitement and [she] knew immediately that it was going to be such fun to write.”

Sounds like a fairy tale beginning to a fairy tale ending, right? And perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but writers need to know more.

Writers need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter. We need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her little idea into seven hefty books. We have to know that she wasn’t lazily sipping mochas for two decades while jotting down a continuous stream of words like a literary Fountain of Youth.

All too often writers convince themselves that they would write more if only they were more well known, or had more money, or had more time. But in the end, none of that is what defines a writer. A writer is simply someone who writes.

Below I’ve compiled the non-fairy-tale version of the story behind the Harry Potter series.

Book One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Even though Harry Potter strolled into Rowling’s head fully formed, she still spent several years outlining the seven books, and then she spent another year writing the first one, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone.

Rowling rewrote chapter one of Sorcerer’s Stone so many times (upwards of fifteen discarded drafts) that her first attempts “bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.” This was especially frustrating for Rowling because she was a single parent and her writing time was both limited and sporadic—entirely contingent on her infant daughter, Jessica.

Whenever Jessica fell asleep in her [stroller], I would dash to the nearest café and write like mad. I wrote nearly every evening. Then I had to type the whole thing out myself. Sometimes I actually hated the book, even while I loved it.

Rowling had to deal with many other time-wasting nuisances, like re-typing an entire chapter because she had changed one paragraph, and then re-typing the entire manuscript because she hadn’t double-spaced it.

Rowling also struggled with personal problems while writing the first book:

  • the death of her mother,
  • estrangement from her father,
  • a volatile and short-lived marriage,
  • a newborn child,
  • life on welfare,
  • and a battle with clinical depression.

To top it off, Rowling’s support system was pretty much nonexistent. She struggled with suicidal thoughts and eventually turned to therapy for help. Rowling once told a friend about her book idea and her friend’s response was cynical. Rowling said:

I think she thought I was deluding myself, that I was in a nasty situation and had sat down one day and thought, I know, I’ll write a novel. She probably thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme.

Once the manuscript was finally finished, Rowling went on to collect a dozen rejection letters over the span of a year before Bloomsbury Publishing agreed to pick it up.

Even with publication now on the horizon, though, Rowling was warned by her literary agent to find a job because her story wasn’t commercial enough to be successful (“You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?”). In fact, Bloomsbury’s expectations of the first Potter book were so low that its initial print was only five hundred copies—three hundred of which were donated to public libraries. Rowling’s first royalty check was six hundred pounds.

A year later, she was a millionaire.

Book Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Both Rowling’s agent and Bloomsbury Publishing had to (happily) eat their words—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was so popular in the UK that Scholastica paid an unprecedented $105,000 for the American rights to the series.

Rowling, however, still faced major frustrations.

For one, she did not believe her writing success was permanent, so while writing Chamber of Secrets, she worked as a full-time French teacher (and cared for her now-toddler daughter). It was during this time that she suffered from her first and only debilitating bout of writer’s block:

I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralysed me. I was scared the second book wouldn’t measure up . . .

Despite Rowling’s personal skepticism, other lucrative contracts rolled in after Scholastica. The resulting money pulled her out of poverty, but it also put incredible pressure on her “to fulfill expectations,” and furthermore, her sudden financial success resulted in a “tsunami of requests.” Everyone was asking Rowling for a leg up:

I was completely overwhelmed. I suddenly felt responsible in many different ways. . . . I was downright paranoid that I would do something stupid . . .

Book Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The second Potter book was even more successful than the first, and Rowling finally dove into writing full time with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Prisoner of Azkaban was one of Rowling’s most enjoyable Potter books to write, but she still had to work very hard. Rowling said in a letter to her editor:

I’ve read [Prisoner of Azkaban] so much I’m sick of it. I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time.

Rowling added in a later letter:

The hard work, the significant rewrites I wanted to do, are over, so if it needs more cuts after this, I’m ready to make them, speedily . . .

But if Rowling thought these rewrites for book three were difficult, she had no idea what she was heading into with book four.

Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Again Rowling churned out a book in a year, and again it was a massive best seller, but Rowling celebrated her success in a rather unexpected way:

The first thing that I did when I finished Prisoner of Azkaban was discuss repaying the advance for the [fourth] book. Yes, you can imagine. People were a little bit shaken . . . I said: I want to give the money back and then I will be free to finish in my own time rather than have to produce it for next year.

Rowling has been open about her struggle to write book four, which nearly caused her to have “a nervous breakdown”:

That was the period where I was chewing Nicorette. And then I started smoking again, but I didn’t stop the Nicorette. And I swear on my children’s lives, I was going to bed at night and having palpitations and having to get up and drink some wine to put myself into a sufficient stupor.

Rowling attributed her stress to the staggering pressure she felt to produce another Harry Potter book worthy of global adoration:

I’m sure that I’ll never have another success like Harry Potter for the rest of my life, no matter how many books I write, and no matter whether they’re good or bad. I remember very clearly that I was thinking the same thing when the excitement over the fourth Harry Potter volume literally exploded. The thought was unsettling to me at the time, and I still feel that way today.

Rowling also struggled with her plot for the first time since starting the series:

The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put [this] plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and “Ack!”—huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.

Rowling faced “some of [her] blackest moments” with book four:

At Christmas I sank to the depths: “Can I do this?” I asked myself. In the end it was just persistence, sheer bloody mindedness. It took months. I had to unpick lots of what I’d written and take a different route to the ending.

The worst rewrite for Rowling was one particular chapter in Goblet:

I hated that chapter so much; at one point, I thought of missing it out altogether and just putting in a page saying, “Chapter Nine was too difficult,” and going straight to Chapter Ten.

Not surprisingly, Rowling also struggled with burnout:

Goblet of Fire was an absolute nightmare. I literally lost the plot halfway through. My own deadline was totally unrealistic. That was my fault because I didn’t tell anyone. I just ploughed on, as I tend to do in life, and then I realised I had really got myself into hot water. I had to write like fury to make the deadline and it half killed me and I really was, oh, burnt out at the end of it. Really burnt out. And the idea of going straight into another Harry Potter book filled me with dread and horror. And that was the first time I had ever felt like that. I had been writing Harry for 10 years come 2000 and that was the first time I ever thought, Oh God, I don’t want to keep going.

Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Rowling stayed true to her word and went on vacation—kind of. She stepped away from the Harry Potter series to work on a completely unrelated book (which hasn’t been published). After a yearlong sabbatical, Rowling started on the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Rowling had written the first four books in a blisteringly fast five years, but she told her publishers she didn’t want a deadline with book five, especially after dealing with the plot problems in Goblet of Fire. Her publishers had no other choice but to agree.

Even then, though, Rowling still struggled to keep up.

She has said numerous times that she wished she had better edited Order of the Phoenix:

I think [it] could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end.

And it’s no wonder. During the two years Rowling wrote the 870-page Phoenix, she also:

  • got married,
  • had another baby,
  • fought a bogus plagiarism lawsuit,
  • started several charity organizations,
  • consulted for the new Potter films,
  • and ran around fulfilling her endless PR obligations.

Worst of all, Rowling was drowning in a never-ending deluge of paparazzi.

Rowling’s fame had grown to such bewildering heights that the attention had become relentless. This was quite a shock for her, especially since she had thought that her Harry Potter story would only appeal to “a handful of people”:

Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who’d ever been in the public eye. I didn’t know anyone—anyone—to whom I could turn and say, “What do you do?” So it was incredibly disorientating.

The paparazzi were digging through her garbage, hiding in her hedges, and camping out in front of her house. One reporter even slipped a note into her daughter’s backpack at school.

It’s very difficult to say . . . how angry I felt that my 5-year-old daughter’s school was no longer a place of . . . complete security from journalists.

Rowling was “racing to catch up with the situation” and “couldn’t cope” with the loss of her private life:

I couldn’t grasp what had happened. And I don’t think many people could have done.

Among the uproar, Rowling was expected to pull off yet another Harry Potter home run.

Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Again Rowling exceeded all expectations, smashing publishing records left and right, but no time to celebrate—it was on to book six.

Rowling was pregnant with her third child while writing Half-Blood Prince, but she wasn’t nearly as stressed as she had been with book five. In fact, she was so laissez-faire about it, she probably put some fans in a panic:

I’m in a very lovely position. Contractually, I don’t even have to write any more books at all. So no one can possibly write that I have missed a deadline, because I actually don’t have a contractual deadline for Six and Seven.

Of course Rowling did write book six, which was “an enjoyable experience from start to finish.” Rowling’s critics, however, were now growing as vocal as her fans:

I found death threats to myself on the net . . . I found, well, people being advised to shoot me, basically.

The paparazzi problem was also spinning out of control. After the birth of two more children, Rowling couldn’t even step out of her house without being stalked by photographers—she was “completely trapped” and felt like she was “under siege or like a hostage.”

Rowling went so far as to sell her house and move her family, and again she had to turn to therapy, as she had years ago when her Harry Potter idea was in its infancy:

Sometimes I think I’m temperamentally suited to being a moderately successful writer, with the focus of attention on the books rather than on me.

Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Even with enormously high expectations, book six was a success, and Rowling immediately began working on the seventh.

Deathly Hallows was the series finale, but Rowling had many other responsibilities to fulfill besides writing: being a mother to three children, giving interviews, overseeing the Harry Potter movies, and running her charities, to name only a few.

Ironically, Rowling’s notoriety and wealth had cut her writing time in half—from five days a week to two and a half:

There are times—and I don’t want to sound ungrateful—when I would gladly give back some of the money in exchange for time and peace to write.

The media marathon hadn’t slowed down either, which was exceptionally draining for her:

Fame is a very odd and very isolating experience. And I know some people crave it. A lot of people crave it. I find that very hard to understand. Really. It is incredibly isolating and it puts a great strain on your relationships.

One of the media’s particular criticisms of Rowling was her appearance:

I found it very difficult, when I first became well known, to read criticism about how I look, how messy my hair was, and how generally unkempt I look.

Rowling worried about how such criticisms might affect her children:

Is “fat” really the worst thing a human being can be? Is “fat” worse than “vindictive,” “jealous,” “shallow,” “vain,” “boring” or “cruel'”? Not to me.

I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny—a thousand things, before “thin.”

Somehow, in the middle of all this cacophony, Rowling finished her seven-book Harry Potter series. After nearly two decades, it was over. Rowling said:

I cried as I’ve only ever cried once before in my life, and that was when my mother died. It was uncontrollable . . .

Embracing the Journey

You just have to accept that it takes a phenomenal amount of perseverance.

—J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

This post is not about glorifying Rowling or pitying her. This post is about learning to appreciate wherever you are in your writing journey.

It’s only human to think that the grass is greener on the other side, to think that if only you had a certain amount of money or a certain kind of life, you’d finally get down to writing. But books aren’t written in a vacuum. Life doesn’t stop moving even for the most famous and successful. The best time to write is now—because that’s the only time you’ve truly got.

My feeling is, if you really want to [write], you will do it. You will find the time. And it might not be much time, but you’ll make it.

—J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

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How Rowling Revised ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Rowling’s goal as a writer is surprisingly simple: “[Write] better than yesterday.” When Rowling sent her editor an email about the third Potter book, she wrote:

I am so sick of re-reading [Prisoner of Azkaban] that I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it. But perhaps the feeling will have worn off by next summer. . .

Rowling has also said:

You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with. [Tweet This]

‘You Have to Plan’

Even when Rowling was nearly finished with the Potter series, she still extensively outlined her work. While writing the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, Rowling said:

I have a large and complicated chart propped on the desk in front of me to remind me what happens where, how, to whom and which bits of crucial information need to be slipped into which innocent-looking chapters.

Rowling later added in an interview:

I plan; I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say (and people’s faces often fall when I say),­­ “You have to plan,” and they say, “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me.” Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas, but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought, Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good—a good start?

Rowling’s Outline for Order of the Phoenix

Rowling not only plans, she’s also not afraid to revise her plan—and revise it and revise it and revise it. Back in 2006 Rowling posted on her website a snippet of her series grid for the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix.

Below is my transcription of the outline, which I created for Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. (I also cleaned up the outline by writing out abbreviations and completing sentences.)

Transcribed Rowling Outline

When Rowling shared her outline, she said that it was an “umpteenth revision” of Order of the Phoenix—but she still went on to revise the outline even more.

In the grid below I’ve tracked all of Rowling’s changes between her outline and the final Order of the Phoenix. Red is what Rowling deletes from the story; yellow is what she swaps around; and green is everything she adds after the outline. Very little is left untouched.

As William Zinsser said:

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. [Tweet This]

Transcribed Rowling Outline with Revisions

Rowling’s Revisions

I won’t discuss every change, but the majority of Rowling’s revisions fit into two broad categories:

1. Eliminating Needless Repetition

2. Increasing Suspense

At times these two categories overlap: If you eliminate needless repetition (the parts that “readers tend to skip,” as Elmore Leonard said), you typically ratchet up the suspense automatically. (My two examples below show this overlap.)

On the other hand, these two categories still need to stand on their own. Increasing suspense doesn’t always eliminate needless repetition, and eliminating repetition doesn’t always result in suspense.

Eliminating Repetition

In Blueprint Your Bestseller Stuart Horwitz talks about the importance of striking a narrative balance between repetition and variation:

Repetition can get dangerously close to boring. You have to be careful when you have the same event or adjective or discussion happening over and over again. [But], you can’t have all variation, either . . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.

Example of Repetition: Hagrid’s Return

Hagrid is sporting injuries quite early in the outline—before even chapter thirteen, because Rowling writes that he’s “still” getting injured, which means he’s injured before chapter thirteen as well.

But other than the unexplained injuries, Hagrid’s storyline has no significant development until we meet Grawp in (then) chapter thirteen. I believe that Rowling realized she had too much repetition without enough variation, so in the final Order of the Phoenix, she doesn’t introduce Hagrid’s injuries until chapter twenty and she waits to introduce Grawp until chapter thirty.

Example of Repetition: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is already getting Occlumency lessons from Snape in (then) chapter thirteen (the same chapter where Hagrid still has injuries). But the final book postpones Harry’s lessons until after he attacks Mr. Weasley in a dream. Why is this change important?

First, the Occlumency storyline is vital to the believability of the whole plot. As Lupin says, “Harry, there is nothing so important as you learning Occlumency!” If we the readers don’t buy into Occlumency—if Rowling can’t convince us of its importance—then the entire story is weak.

With the Occlumency storyline, Rowling is dealing with the same issue as Hagrid’s injuries: the repetition of the lessons is becoming boring; there isn’t enough variation. Rowling also needs to convince us that Harry’s situation is indeed dangerous.

If Rowling had Harry starting lessons simply because Dumbledore (or whoever else) said so, that wouldn’t be nearly as believable as Harry needing to start lessons because he’s already proven himself a threat—by attacking Mr. Weasley. Actions speak louder than words.

Increasing Suspense

Example of Suspense: Hagrid’s Return

By delaying Hagrid’s return, Rowling not only eliminates needless repetition, she also increases the suspense. Hagrid’s unexplained disappearance adds mystery to the plot, and therefore, more suspense as well.

Rowling creates another offshoot of suspense by having Hagrid return right when Umbridge is desperate to fire teachers. In fact, right before Hagrid strolls into the story, Rowling has Umbridge put Professor Trelawney on probation. Naturally, we start worrying about Hagrid.

Rowling then uses Hagrid’s tenuous work situation as the reason to introduce Grawp. Notice in the outline Hagrid is refusing to leave Hogwarts, and we only happen to meet Grawp when Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to warn Hagrid about Umbridge. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, we don’t meet Grawp until the situation is clearly out of control (Hagrid is now on probation); and instead of refusing, Hagrid is okay with being fired, which gives him good reason to bring Harry to Grawp—someone needs to take care of Grawp in Hagrid’s absence.

Hagrid’s delayed return to Hogwarts also increases the suspense in the Quidditch storyline. Hagrid shows up right after Umbridge bans Harry from Quidditch. Although Hagrid’s unexpected arrival directs us away from Harry’s ban, it also increases the suspense because we’re not focusing on it—we’ve moved on to Hagrid’s story, yet we’re still wondering how the Quidditch problem will pan out. (Additionally, Harry’s ban from Quidditch serves as his excuse for sneaking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Grawp.)

Example of Suspense: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is skipping his Occlumency lessons simply because he wants to skip them. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, Harry looks into the pensieve and sees something unsettling from Snape’s past. Snape is so furious that he throws Harry out and refuses to give him any more lessons. Talk about ratcheting up the suspense! Harry’s peek into the pensieve both increases the tension around the Occlumency lessons (as Hermione continually nags Harry that he needs to resume them) and increases the mystery around Snape’s past.

A Few More Examples of Rowling Increasing the Suspense

  1. Rowling originally has Grawp as Hagrid’s cousin, but he later becomes his half-brother. Even though Hagrid has always been soft-hearted, it’s more believable that he’d so desperately cling to Grawp if Grawp was his last lifeline to an immediate family member.
  2. In the outline Rowling has Harry running into MacNair visiting Bode in the hospital; she later deletes this scene—probably thinking that it would decrease the suspense by giving away too much.
  3. At first Rowling only has Harry suspended from Quidditch, but she decides to increase the stakes by giving him a lifetime ban.
  4. In the outline, Rowling has Umbridge not suspect the existence of Dumbledore’s Army until much later in the story, but in the final book, Umbridge not only knows about the D.A. as soon as it forms, she also immediately threatens expulsion with Educational Decree Number 24. This significantly increases the suspense, because now we’re not wondering if Harry is going to get caught but when.
  5. Originally, Rowling has Harry attack Mr. Weasley and then stay at Hogwarts until Christmas break—she even has him shop for Christmas presents in Hogsmeade. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, she has Harry and the rest of the Weasleys leave immediately for Sirius’ house. The snake attack is an important turning point in the story (the midpoint, to be exact) and Rowling doesn’t want to downplay the consequences.

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. [Tweet This]

—Colette

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

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

Problems with Order of the Phoenix

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

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

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

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

Don’t Say “Plot”

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

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

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

Rowling Outline

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Series: The Real Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)