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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Stu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart’s Bio

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

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

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

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

This is it! The last post on Rowling’s outlining process and how she used series to develop her complex plots.

Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve talked about so far based on Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Besteller:

  1. A series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Some examples of series from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix include: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape; and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.
  2. For a series to be worth keeping in a story it needs to a) repeat but vary, forming the undulating effect of a narrative arc, and b) intersect and interact with the other series in the story in such a way that it sends the story spinning in new directions.
  3. The strength of a novel is determined by the strength of its key scenes. A key scene is when multiple series come together and play off one another. Key scenes tie together all the loose story threads to create a tight-knit novel. An example of a key scene in Rowling’s outline is the scene following Harry’s dream about Mr. Weasley being attacked by Voldemort’s snake, Nagini. The scene deals with four of the six series listed above: The Hall of Prophecy; Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; and the Order of the Phoenix.

How to Create Suspense, Surprise, and Shock

When Rowling outlined Order of the Phoenix, she was able to keep track of her complicated plot by dividing it into columns on paper based on which series a storyline belonged to and jotting down the development of each series in each chapter. And it’s because Rowling took the time to break down her plot into individual series that she was able to precisely place throughout her story the important elements of suspense, surprise, and shock.

Readers love books that have suspense, surprise, and shock. In fact, a book that doesn’t have those three S’s probably won’t get far off the shelf (or out of the desk drawer).

Unfortunately, a book that’s lacking suspense, surprise, or shock is not easily fixed. You cannot just toss a random bar brawl into a story and expect it to surprise or shock a reader. The hardest part about including the three S’s is figuring out how to organically grow them from the roots of your story, and that’s what Rowling is so good at in her Potter books.

Everything in Rowling’s intricately developed seven-book-long plot has meaning and purpose—from the very beginning in Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid uses Sirius’ motorcycle to drop off Harry at the Dursley’s front door all the way to the end in Deathly Hallows when Snape reveals the significance of his patronus. Rowling had to keep track of every one of those details throughout the 4,195 pages of her story.

But before she could even get that far, she had to first figure out how to get her readers to want to read 4,195 pages.

How to Track Your Plot’s Development

By dividing her story into series and then noting the development of each series in its own column, Rowling was able to pinpoint when, where, and how she would surprise or shock her readers, or continue leaving them in suspense.

Look at this bit of outline she wrote for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Creating Suspense

Let’s start with suspense. In Blueprint Your Bestseller Horwitz explains how to create suspense in a series:

The effect of suspense is achieved when we are continually told what we don’t know . . . The iterations [of a series] are closer together and they are well managed to produce the effect that something is imminently going to be communicated to us.

An example of suspense would be the “Hagrid + Grawp” series. Rowling obviously changes things between this outline and the final draft, but still, she plans from the beginning to continually remind us of Hagrid’s injuries without telling us where he’s getting the injuries from. She continues to build the suspense by mentioning his injuries getting bloodier and more frequent, until nearly the end of the book when she relieves the suspense by revealing the secret behind his injuries in Chapter 30, aptly titled “Grawp.”

That’s suspense. Now for surprise.

Creating Surprise

Here’s Horwitz on how to surprise readers:

When the gaps between iterations are longer, surprise occurs . . . When an individual series suddenly returns to our conscious mind after such a pause and we experience the next iteration as unique yet familiar, this is surprise.

For example, at the end of Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore reveals to Harry that the person who prophesied that Harry would be Voldemort’s equal is the highly unlikely Professor Trelawney. Trelawney is an extremely un-gifted Seer and has only given a real prophecy once before, back in book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Rowling hadn’t mentioned Trelawney’s sporadic prophesying for quite some time, so the effect is surprise.

Creating Shock

And lastly, how to shock readers:

Shock occurs when there is barely one iteration before a disclosure takes place. With shock there needs to be something that would have admitted this possibility—the iteration that delivers a shock seems to come out of nowhere while not being totally unexpected in hindsight.

Rowling uses shock quite a bit in her Potter series—a difficult thing to pull off because readers don’t like to be tricked (they liked to be shocked but not tricked).

For shock to work, a writer has to give her readers all the hints they’d need to figure it out themselves, and then the writer has to somehow unexpectedly twist things around at the end.

An example of shock in Order of the Phoenix is the death of Sirius Black. It seems to come out of nowhere, but Rowling slyly set things up so that, in hindsight, it’s not completely unexpected.

For instance, Rowling clearly establishes that Sirius is hot-headed, impulsive, and very unhappy staying hidden at home instead of working alongside the rest of the Order. On top of that, Sirius is extremely loyal to Harry and would stop at nothing to protect him, which is ultimately what leads him to his death. All these things, however, are relatively minor character details that are easy to skim over in Rowling’s 870-page book, so when Sirius dies, the effect is shock. But the reader does not feel cheated because Rowling includes enough of those minor details so that it all adds up in the end.

And there you have it! It’s ultimately because Rowling understood how to organically integrate suspense, surprise, and shock into her plot that she was able to create a new and exciting story for each of her seven books. 

And that brings us to the end of this series of posts (get it, series?). I’m excited for my next few, especially my post on the best writing books I read this year.

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Looking for more posts on the Book Architecture Method? Check out these:

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

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

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

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

Remember that a series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Here are some of the series Rowling outlined for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; organizing Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape, and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp. Notice in Rowling’s outline that each series has its own column, and for each chapter she jots down how each series is developing. She also has a column that’s simply labeled “plot” where she keeps track of which series is stepping into the spotlight when.

Transcribed Rowling Outline

I ended my last post on series with a question: How did Rowling know that each of the six series she listed was worth keeping?

A series worth keeping not only evolves in its own right but also has the power to change the direction of the entire story. In Rowling’s outline, all of her series intersect and interact with each other in such a way that if one were taken out, the story would be off-kilter. The individual scenes in her “plot” column illustrate especially well how her different series come together and play off one another. And that is the definition of a key scene: When several series collide and send the story spinning in new directions.

Not having these very important interactions between series in a key scene is what readers are describing when they say a book is “slow” or “nothing happens.” Here’s what Stuart Horwitz has to say about it in Blueprint your Bestseller:

When series interact, anything can happen. They can conflict and send one another spinning. One series can slow another down or stop it all together . . . [But] if you don’t have key scenes, if your series don’t intersect that often, you may have found the root of the problem with your manuscript. This often comes about in the middle of the narrative, where the length of time a reader has invested in your work is not being repaid – the payoff lies in being able to make the connections that key scenes produce when series intersect.

All scenes should be good scenes, but not all good scenes are key scenes. So how to differentiate between a good scene and a key scene? Here’s Horwitz again:

A good scene may be an important scene, a memorable scene, but it is not necessarily a key scene unless it contains the maximum interaction of series.

Where is a good scene and where is a key scene in Rowling’s outline?

The “Hagrid + Grawp” column is full of examples of good scenes. Rowling obviously changed a number of things between the time when she wrote this outline and when she finished writing the book, but you can still see that many of her good scenes for the “Hagrid +Grawp” series made it into the final cut. For example, Chapter 30 is titled “Grawp” and that’s what the majority of the chapter is about: It focuses on the “Hagrid + Grawp” series with pretty much no interaction with any of the other series. That’s a good scene, but it’s not a key scene.

Now take a look at the scene that deals with the aftermath of Harry dreaming about Mr. Weasley being bitten by a snake. It starts in Chapter 22, “St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.” In this scene, we’re dealing with multiple series interacting with each other: the Hall of Prophecy (because that’s where Mr. Weasley was attacked); Ginny (because Harry watches her reaction when she’s told about her father’s injuries); Dumbledore’s Army (because the Weasley kids make up a sizable chunk of the D.A.), and the Order of the Phoenix (because Mr. Weasley was injured while standing guard for the Order). That’s already four of the six series on Rowling’s outline. It’s a key scene.

(I’d also like to point out that this scene is the midpoint of the story. This is when everything changes. Until then, Harry’s dreams appear to be just dreams, but this dream is real. Mr. Weasley’s attack is the catalyst that forces Harry to become a warrior and start taking action. Plot points, such as the midpoint, usually involve the collision of multiple series because that’s when everything starts coming together. For more on story structure, click here.)

One of Rowling’s biggest strengths as a writer is that she is so adept at tightly intertwining her series so that everything in the story feels like it has a purpose (even if we don’t know why at first).

Stay tuned for the next post where we’ll discuss how to determine your main series and how you can use series to create suspense, surprise and shock.

More posts on The Book Architecture Method: 

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

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

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

*Photo by Gabrielle Courchesne Delisle @ 500px / CC BY-ND

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

In my previous post we looked at how Rowling was able to build her complex plot by, ironically, breaking it down into individual series that collide and interact in significant ways.

The different series Rowling outlined include: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; the creation of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s relationship with Snape, and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.

For a quick recap on the definition of a series, here’s Stuart Horwitz in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller:

[A series is] the repetition of a narrative element (such as a person, an object, a phrase, or a place) in such a way that it undergoes a clear evolution.

How did Rowling know that each of the six subjects she included in her outline was substantial enough to be its own series? As most writers wrestling with book-length manuscripts know, there’s a fine line between an idea that can add depth to a story and one that will just drag it down. How is a writer to know the difference? Here’s Horwitz again:

A series worth keeping track of needs to enter the action at some point.

For a story element to have the potential to become a full-fledged series, it must fulfill two criteria: One, the series needs to repeat and vary throughout the story. Horwitz calls each repetition in a series an iteration. He chose not to use other possible synonyms such as occurrence or example (which, in my opinion, would be less wordy and confusing) because of the relationship between the word iterate and the word reiterate.

To reiterate something is to repeat it, any number of times, for emphasis. Nothing is ever the same the second time, however; even if the iteration is repeated exactly, the context has changed. Instead, repetition gives birth to variation – and the interplay between repetition and variation forms the core of the concept of series.

Check out how Rowling handled it in her outline:

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Each series Rowling lists has numerous repetitions and variations. For example, in the “Hagrid + Grawp” series, she has Hagrid sporting injuries numerous times (for reasons unknown to both Harry and the reader), and then she varies that series by revealing the reason for his injuries and tops it off by throwing in the possibility of Hagrid losing his job. Rowling was only developing these ideas in her outline, but she obviously understood the premise that a series needs to both repeat and vary in order to “create a rich experience for the reader, one that is satisfying yet unexpected.”

These repetitions and variations create an undulating effect in the overall story, moving up in improvement or down in deterioration – and that is what forms the narrative arc.

Before we move on to the second criteria for a series, a quick warning from Horwitz on using 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. [On the other hand], you can’t have all variation, either. . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.

You need to have repetition, but not too much or you’ll lose your reader – and you need to have variation but not too much or you’ll confuse your reader. Kind of frustrating, right? It’s definitely a balancing act. Writing will always be more of an art than a science.

Now on to the second criteria for a series: A series also needs to intersect and interact with the other series in the story in such a way that the series sends the story spinning in new directions. This intentional collision of series is what reviewers are typically describing when they say a book is “riveting” or its plot is “airtight.”

These occasions, when series come together in a proximate, physical, literal sense, give a reader the feeling that “it is all coming together.”

And that feeling of “it’s all coming together” is what keeps readers reading. How did Rowling get to that level in her books? Stay tuned for that in the next post along with a discussion on how to pick out your main series from the rest and how to identify your key scenes.

For more posts on The Book Architecture Method:

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

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)

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)