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]


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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 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